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Sinterklaas celebration called racist

Organizers say they will meet to discuss concerns over the appearance of 'Black Peter'

A Dutch Christmas celebration planned for the Westminster Quay next Saturday is being criticized as having racist elements by members of the black community.

Sinterklaas, the Dutch Christmas celebration traditionally held on Dec. 5, features Sint Nicolaas and one or more helpers or valets called Zwarta Piet or "Black Peter," a character played by a young person in blackface makeup.

Bernard Piprah, a Surrey graduate student and organizer of the annual Black History Month symposium at Douglas College, said the Black Peter character comes loaded with offensive, racist stereotypes.

"(The character) is degrading, and it's racist, and it's incredibly outdated," Piprah said. "You can't erase that. You can go to your local library and read that this Black Peter was a slave. He beat children. He was dumb, and he spoke buffoonish Dutch. There are just so many insulting aspects to that character, and I can't believe they're celebrating it in New Westminster."

Piprah said blackface makeup carries a lot of hurtful baggage, and it, too, is unacceptable.

"I realize there is a fine line between being too sensitive and something being offensive, but when I look at this character and this celebration, and I look at photographs of people dressed up

? continued from page 1 in blackface, it's just unbelievably offensive," he said.

The Sinterklaas event planned for the boardwalk on Westminster Quay on Dec. 3 is expected to feature Sint Nicolaas and Black Peter arriving by a paddle wheeler boat, as per Dutch tradition, giving gifts, singing songs and playing games with local children, according to the organizers' website,

Piprah learned about the event through a networking group of black professionals in the Lower Mainland, who are also offended by Black Peter.

Piprah said the Black Peter character bothers him personally, but he is more worried about the message it sends to the larger community, especially impressionable young people.

"There are a lot of things that are going to offend me based on my morals, but this should be offensive to the entire society," he said. "I think this is quite damaging towards that maturity and understanding of who you are in this country, when you have blatantly open racist aspects of a celebration taking place in your city."

Piprah said continuing the celebration without the offensive Black Peter character would be the right thing to do.

"I think that would be a reasonable compromise. I wouldn't want to destroy an entire celebration because there seems to be a lot of positive aspects to it, but that particular character needs to go. It's 100 per cent destructive to our community. It's destructive towards progress and respecting multiculturalism. That's one of the biggest aspects of living in this country," he said.

Tako Slump, the Sinterklaas organizer, said some members of the black community have contacted him, and he plans to meet with fellow organizers this week to discuss the issue.

"We told them that we are taking them seriously, and we are looking at our options as to how we can still have the event also not be offensive to anybody else and offend others in our community," Slump said.

Slump said he was not ready to commit to any decisions or solutions until the organizers had met.

Slump said his personal style would be to just avoid things that offend him, though he understand the concerns of racism, noting the character brings protest in Holland as well.

He said the Dutch community is not racist, but every group has a right to its traditional events and points of view. He said he also has the concerns of his own community to consider as well.

"We have to address it. We don't want to offend anybody," he said. "We're open to listening to them. We're not going to just shove it off to the side, but we also have a commitment to our Dutch community. If we did not organize the event, the Dutch community would be really upset with us," he said.

Slump said the event draws between 400 and 500 Dutch Canadians every year.

"For the Dutch community, it's pretty much the only event organized in B.C. or Western Canada," he said.

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