Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter, is said to be the blackfaced helper of Saint Nicholas. The role is played by white people who use black paint or heavy black make-up to blacken their skin. They also wear curly wigs, accented red lips and large earrings.
The explanation is that his skin turns black from the soot from chimneys he climbs through to deliver gifts for children.
Opponents have pointed out the memory of this character is tied to the colonial history of The Netherlands, as the nature of the relationship between Black Pete and St. Nicholas is one of servitude and inferiority of blacks to whites.
Speaking as a former member of the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent (WGEPAD) at a Human Rights Day event organized by UN Jamaica last month, Shepherd said at a certain moment there was so much mail coming in for her that it crashed the university’s servers.
She explained that at the end of a visit to The Netherlands in 2013 she said Zwarte Piet is a racist stereotype of black people.
“He is not just a nice, jolly man. Maybe in the onset of the Sinterklaas tradition people did not realize that people of African descent would have problems with it, but this is the 21st century and people have indicated that they have a problem with it. Then it is time to talk about a change,” she said then.
The response was immediate, harsh and laced with racism and contempt - from white Dutch people - for the outspoken black U.N. envoy.
Dutch people who revere Zwarte Piet as a treasured tradition voiced their disagreement with Shepherd in vile ways. She was told to mind her own business and stay out of theirs.
At the Human Rights Day event, Shepard explained her stance on the age-old tradition has not changed.
“The Zwarte Piet / black Pete Christmas celebration that is supposed to be a children’s festival, teaches children racism from an early age,” she said.
She told her audience that she continues to be abused via the Internet by people in The Netherlands and showed a series of slides of the types of letters in which she was assaulted with racial slurs and images in which she was ridiculed, some as recent as Oct. 2017.
“This image in which I have been “blackpietized” speaks volumes,” explained Shepard as she showed images that portrayed Barack and Michele Obama and French Guiana-born Christiane Taubira, the former France minister of justice, as monkeys.
“But I guess I am in good company, based on these images in European media.”
Shepherd said there was a time, shortly after she spoke out in 2013, that she would get as many as 80 letters a day from people in The Netherlands.
“My e-mail account at the university had to be closed down for about two years because it crashed the system,” she said with a grin.
Shepherd also addressed other examples of what she called “the global environment in which we live today and the racist practices that shill endure.” She mentioned cases that she worked on in Canada, Portugal, Sweden and Australia.
“Australia and Canada are two countries that have been lauded for their multi-cultural and open arms policies and strategies,” she said.
She also spoke of the persecution of the Rohinhya people of Mianmar, the ongoing modern slavery practices that have been discovered in Libya and even broached the subject of discrimination in her native Jamaica.