The controversial caricature has been a historical part of Holland’s Saint Nicholas festivities – celebrated on December 5 – but has recently attracted protests across the country with critics arguing it’s a throwback to colonial times.
As a child growing up in Holland, Wijnaldum initially associated the character with getting presents but the tradition soon took on a more sinister meaning.
“When you get older, and people are calling you ‘Black Pete’ and you were like, hey, wait, why are you calling me ‘Black Pete?’ What’s the point of calling me ‘Black Pete?’” he told CNN Sport. “Then you will understand. But when I was young, I didn’t understand because we get presents and it was nice.”
Wijnaldum spoke to CNN after a soccer match in Holland’s second division was temporarily halted after Excelsior winger Ahmad Mendes Moreira was subjected to alleged racist chanting by the home fans, including songs about ‘Black Pete.’
‘I don’t stand behind that culture’
‘Black Pete’ or ‘Zwarte Piet,’ as it’s known in Holland, was popularized in a 19th century children’s book and has been seen on both television and in streets carnivals around the country ever since.
The character is the helper of Sinterklaas, the figure based on St. Nicholas who served as inspiration for Santa Claus.
However, Dutch international Wijnaldum says the tradition only serves to embolden racism in the country.
“They always say it is a party for the children. The children only think about the presents they get,” he added.
“They don’t really think about Black Pete. If it’s a rainbow Pete or another Pete, if they get the presents, they will be happy because that’s how children are.”
Despite its critics, many in Holland continue to defend the character and want to maintain the tradition, saying the blackface only represents the soot from the chimneys ‘Black Pete’ climbs down to deliver presents.
But Wijnaldum says the character’s supporters do not understand the affect it has on the country’s black population and urged more people to take the protests seriously.
“They don’t feel what we feel as a black person. They don’t get abused like that. I don’t stand behind that culture,” he said.
Recent protests have instigated efforts to make the character less controversial and this year’s parade in Amsterdam opted for ‘Chimney Pete’ – with actors wearing soot marks on their cheeks instead.
A poll of 76,000 people by Dutch current affairs program EenVandaag showed 71% were still in favor of maintaining the traditional appearance of ‘Black Pete.’ That’s down from 89% in 2013.
However, according to EenVandaag, while the number of people supporting ‘Black Pete” had been steadily reducing over the years, it had recently started to stagnate.
CNN contacted the anti-‘Black Pete’ campaign group – ‘The Zwarte Piet is Racisme’ – but has yet to receive a response.
As well as enjoying a successful season with Liverpool on the pitch, Wijnaldum has also been using his elevated platform to fight racism in the game.
After a spate of racist incidents in European football, including the one Holland, the 29-year-old celebrated a goal for the national team in November by pointing to his skin in protest to racism.
He also said he was prepared to walk off the pitch during any game if he heard racist abuse from the stands.
“I think everyone should do it [walk off]. I think that’s the way you support another person, because why should you go on? If you play on, it will never stop,” he told CNN Sport.