AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Elementary schools in the Dutch city of The Hague will stop
using Santa helpers with painted black faces, a holiday tradition that has drawn U.N. criticism as racially offensive, the school board said on Thursday.
Similar changes have been made by individual schools in recent years but the move in The Hague, affecting over 160 schools with tens of thousands of students in the Dutch seat of government, is the broadest such measure to date.
"Black Pete", typically played by white people in blackface, has become the focus of heated debate in the Netherlands. A majority of the Dutch reject any suggestion that the tradition is racist, but opponents say it is offensive.
Starting this year, schools in The Hague will begin phasing out the use of blackface, curly hair wigs and red painted lips, with the changes to be completed within three years. They will be replaced with visually neutral Santa servants.
Elementary schools "shall not discriminate on grounds including race," the city's school board said in a statement. "Saint Nicholas is a celebration for all children. The goal is a celebration in which everyone feels included."
Many European winter gift-giving celebrations include a dark-faced sidekick accompanying St. Nicolas (Santa Claus). The appearance of Black Pete is usually attributed to a popular book published in the mid 1800s.
About 6 percent of the Dutch population is of African or Afro-Caribbean descent, a legacy in part of the European Union country's colonial history.
The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called last month for the elimination of aspects of Black Pete reflecting negative stereotypes.
Last year, an Amsterdam court found that Black Pete was offensive, but the decision was overturned by the country’s highest administrative court.
(Reporting by Yoruk Bahceli; Editing by Mark Heinrich)