Daro Nakshbande (UWCAC, Netherlands '13-’15)
“But then.. why would this tradition, mainly aimed at children, be considered racist? You might have already guessed why: Black Pete.”
December is often associated with Santa Claus, Christmas trees, family, friends, gifts, fancy dinners, snow and New Years Eve. Of course, not everyone thinks about the same things and every country has its own specific traditions and variations on Christmas. Most of those traditions do have one thing in common: they bring a feeling of gratitude and happiness. It is hard to imagine an evil Santa Claus that steals toys from children and robs them from their sweets, for example. But in this particular case, there is one interesting exception which can be found in the Netherlands. They are the proud owners of a ‘racist’ equivalent of Santa called Sinterklaas. In other words, they would have a racist Santa. Let’s find out how this tradition has become controversial all over the world and how even the United Nations got involved.
Sinterklaas is a traditional celebration in the Netherlands, Belgium and the former Dutch colonies. This Dutch tradition is based on a true story: Saint Nicholas was born in Turkey in 280 A.D. and was bishop of Myra. People used to see him as the patron of children and there are several legends that would confirm this. The annual festival starts mid-November when ‘Sinterklaas’, or Saint Nicholas arrives in the Netherlands by steamboat from Spain, where he would live. Thousands of children accompanied by their parents come to see his arrival, sing songs and receive traditional Dutch candy. There are a lot of similarities between Sinterklaas and Santa Claus. They are both old and friendly, they give children presents and wear red clothes.
Of course, differences can be found as well. Sinterklaas rides a white horse instead of a sleigh with reindeers. At night, children don’t put their stockings under the chimney but use their shoes instead (filled with sugar cubes and carrots for Sinterklaas’ horse), that will be filled with presents by the time they wake up. But the most remarkable thing is the existence of Sinterklaas’ helpers, called Zwarte Piet (translated Black Pete). Those servants either reward children with sweets if they have been nice or slap them with a bunch of twigs if they have been naughty. In extreme cases a naughty child would be put in a bag and sent to Spain (that’s what parents tell their children though). But then.. why would this tradition, mainly aimed at children, be considered racist? You might have already guessed why: Black Pete. There is a growing critique on the role of Black Pete during Sinterklaas in the Netherlands and now there is a clear separation between people in favour and against Zwarte Piet. This debate is nothing new but this year, it is just more intense than it ever was. Activists both for and against have been threatened with death both on social media as in real life.
Is Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, racist? This question is not as easy as it may seem. Racism is not just differentiating between people and race, but also involves the idea that some are superior or inferior to others. Consequently, the real question is: what do we think of Zwarte Piet? Looking at the way they behave and dress, the controversy is not just about the fact they are black. It is the combination of their curly hair, rings and bracelets, red lipstick, traditional clothes and bad behaviour, typical for ‘Zwarte Piet’ that we should question. Do people project Black Pete as inferior to Sinterklaas or other white people?
Some say so and believe that the characteristics of Black Pete make us think of them as inferior and see that as a reference to black people. In the end, Zwarte Piet is black and creates a stereotype of laziness and ignorance, while the white Sinterklaas is old, friendly and wise. That would mean that Sinterklaas has a substantial racist aspect. But even if Zwarte Piet isn’t considered racist, how can we pursue this tradition if people simply feel insulted by their existence? Some people really feel uncomfortable or angry when they see Zwarte Piet. In the end, the Netherlands are a multicultural society and have a long tradition of tolerance and freedom. Therefore, a logic step would be to find a way to make people comfortable with the traditions. And of course, this whole case is very sensitive as colonialism and exploitation of black people form the black page in Dutch history.
Others argue that there is no link between black people and Zwarte Piet at all. The characteristics of Zwarte Piet wouldn’t be stereotyping black people at all, and are merely part of the tradition. Most children actually think they are cool as they give gifts and fool around all the time. They believe Sinterklaas is an innocent tradition for children to be happy, Zwarte Piet being part of that tradition rather than a symbol of slavery or a stereotype. Nobody would actually compare black people to Zwarte Piet as Zwarte Piet is fictive and absolutely not a representation of black people. Also they refer to history: Saint Nicholas lived centuries before the time of colonialism but actually used to have black employers in the past. However, he employed them and paid them in order to not end up as slaves, which would mean that Zwarte Piet is a rather positive symbol. What those people believe is that changing this tradition would do more harm than good to children and society as a whole.
What we see here are two completely different views. On the one side, the fact people feel insulted and angry about Zwarte Piet is not acceptable and somehow implies we should find a way to adjust our tradition to include everyone and avoid racist ideas. But on the other side, is it necessary to change one of the most important parts of the Dutch culture because there might be a vague sign of anger and misunderstanding? The UN has noticed the dispute in the Netherlands and has started an official investigation on Sinterklaas. The leader of the committee that is assigned this research has already stated that the Netherlands should be ashamed of this tradition. Quick note: she has ignored an invitation to come and enjoy Sinterklaas but has already formed a strong case against. People in the Netherlands are eagerly awaiting the results of the investigation.
Are the UN going to demand them to change one of their most important traditions?
Only time will tell.
-The United Words Team-
- Blacking up for Christmas in the Netherlands (newstatesman.com)
- The Sinterklaas controvery (annesophieverbeeck.wordpress.com)
- UN investigators threatened after calling for an end to black-faced Dutch Christmas character Zwarte Piet (news.nationalpost.com)
- Sinterklaas, Zwarte Piet and the Ethics of Public Debate (religionfactor.net)