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Mayor rolls out makeover for Dutch Santa’s blackface-wearing sidekicks

The Dutch version of Santa Claus, Sinterklaas, is shown with his sidekicks, known as Black Pete, in Hoorn on Nov. 16, 2013.

PETER DEJONG/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Amsterdam's mayor and organizers of a large children's winter festival have unveiled plans to reform the image of "Black Pete" – the sidekick to the Dutch Santa Claus – to remove perceived racist elements.

Mayor Eberhard van der Laan said Thursday the "negroid character" of Pete's appearance will be eliminated over a period of years.

The long-term goal will be making Pete look like he has been merely tarnished from soot from going down chimneys to deliver presents – a common storyline.

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Black Pete has become the subject of protests in the Netherlands. Opponents say he is a caricature of an African slave carried over from colonial times: Pete is usually portrayed by white people wearing blackface makeup, bold red lipstick and frizzy Afro wigs.

But a large majority of the Netherlands' mostly white population says that Pete is a positive figure, and denies any racial insult.

Last month an Amsterdam court agreed with findings by a Dutch discrimination vetting board and a UN advisory panel that Pete's look is offensive.

Pam Evenhuis, spokesman for the Amsterdam committee that organizes the arrival of Santa Claus, or Sinterklaas as he is known in Dutch, says change is necessary to make sure the children's festival is fun, not controversial. Details are still being debated.

"The Pete photo shoot for 2014 isn't ready yet," he said.

In the Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas arrives on a steamboat laden with gifts, accompanied by numerous "Petes." More than 250,000 people attend in Amsterdam alone.

Evenhuis said it's not possible to change Pete's appearance drastically from one year to the next, as his current look is engrained in the minds of both adults and children.

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Though Amsterdam is influential, other towns, businesses and individuals across the country may not want to change his look, the mayor said.

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