(MENAFN - AFP) A passionate debate around Black Pete in the Netherlands has highlighted the prickly subject of racism, often denied in a country proud of its open-minded values.
Emotions have hit fever-pitch in the Netherlands over whether there's a future for the 150-year-old fantasy figure who accompanies Saint Nicholas around Christmas, even sparking a UN probe.
But while much of the rest of the world sees a clearly racist symbol, commentators here say that far from being divisive, the controversy around Black Pete, or "Zwarte Piet" as he is called in Dutch, actually highlights a positive debate about racism.
The invention of a Dutch school teacher, Black Pete has since 1850 been loyally at the side of Saint Nicholas, the Dutch version of Santa Claus or Father Christmas.
Saint Nicholas and his helpers traditionally "arrive" with a gift-filled boat from Spain on the third Saturday of November.
Three weeks later, on December 5, the Dutch give each other gifts allegedly distributed by Saint Nicholas -- a Turkish bishop wearing a long red gown and mitre -- and Black Pete.
Dressed in a gaudy medieval costume, with a blackened face, red lips and an afro wig, Pete is seen by many ordinary Dutch as a harmless prankster cheering up a children's festival.
But his detractors say he is a racist throwback to an era when black people were enslaved by the sea-faring Dutch in their far-flung colonies, particularly Suriname and Curacao.
The "is Black Pete racist?" debate -- which has raged annually since the late 1960s -- has reached a new intensity, ironically in a year that celebrates the 150th anniversary of the abolition of Dutch slavery.
'Why do you have to have two Santa Clauses'?
Even a UN Human Rights Commission researcher has weighed in on the issue.
"What is wrong with one Santa Claus, why do you have to have two Santa Clauses?" an exasperated Verene Shepherd, who chairs a UN Human Rights Commission group, asked on national television, adding fuel to the already growing Dutch fury.
Shepherd's comments have been met with derision in the Netherlands, where according to a survey by the popular daily broadsheet De Telegraaf, some 66 percent of almost 10,000 people polled said there could be no Saint Nicholas festival without Black Pete.
More tellingly, 96 percent of those polled said the debate about Black Pete should not even be happening.
By Wednesday afternoon, a page set up on social media website Facebook in favour of Zwarte Piet registered more than one million likes.
Observers agree that the controversy around Black Pete is raising the broader issue about racism in The Netherlands -- a subject that's often ignored.
"It's good that our eyes are being opened," Ineke Strouken, director of the Dutch Centre for People's Culture and Heritage, told AFP.
Nevertheless, she added: "Black Pete is a fantasy figure. It doesn't mean that those who play him are racist."
"Protest against Black Pete is seen as an 'attack on Dutch culture and Dutch tradition'," added John Helsloot, a researcher at the Amsterdam-based Meertens Institute of the Dutch language and culture.
"In the past, those voices protesting against Black Pete have rarely been heard," he said.
But "in a globalised world it is of course unavoidable that outsiders get involved."
Helsloot said there should be an understanding why Black Pete is so beloved of ordinary Dutch citizens -- including many who come from Suriname or Curacao "who don't have a single problem with it."
"I totally understand why Dutch people can't see the problem with Black Pete: 'He is a nice guy, and of course I'm not racist,' people would say."
But, he added: "People will have to be taught with empathy that he's part of a certain part of our history," in order to change their perceptions.