Black Pete: Racism or innocence?
Sanne van Oosten
Each culture has its peculiarities. So does the Dutch culture. We don’t seem like a terribly racist nation, but once a year a tradition pops up that might lead you to think otherwise. The celebration of Saint Nicolas, the cultural predecessor of Santa Claus, comes with a blatant reference to times of slavery. Saint Nicolas, also known as Sinterklaas, needs helpers to bring all the children in his land gifts. To finish this difficult task, he has help from black slaves.
Of course these former black slaves are not presented as such anymore. Since the fifties, the story-line has changed considerably: the helpers of Sinterklaas are black because they have to climb through the chimney to get all the presents to all the good children of the Netherlands. But the fact remains that these figures are a reference to times in which Africans were treated as cattle and traded all over the world. A black Antillian acquaintance of mine told me this: “It used to hurt me a lot. Children would point at me and say ‘Black Pete’ and get scared. Now I’ve gotten used to it.” People concerned with the racist dimension of Black Pete have suggested presenting Pete as “Rainbow Petes”, in all the colors of the rainbow. This never really caught on. To top it all off, the tradtion is accompanied by cute children’s songs. One of which includes the phrase: “Even though I’m black as soot, I mean well.” (Ook al ben ik zwart als roet, ik meen het toch goed).
Most Dutch people are not bothered by it. Nevertheless, each year a public discussion on the political correctness of this figure fires up. I am a part of the “ban Black Pete”-camp; I am incredibly embarrassed that this reference to slavery is still such a large part of our culture. However, I also recognize some of the arguments of the “let’s leave Black Pete as it is”-camp. The most salient argument for keeping this figure a part of the tradition is that it does not taint children’s view of black people. In fact, Black Pete is a loved and popular figure, children look up to him and wish they could be more like him. The thought of Black Pete sneaking into the house at night fills their hearts with joy. This could be quite different, to use David Sedaris’ insightful words: “if you told the average white American that six to eight nameless black men would be sneaking into his house in the middle of the night, he would barricade the doors and arm himself with whatever he could get his hands on”.
This year the discussion about Black Pete was as fierce as ever, and once again, I got pretty worked up about it as well. Inspired by a commercial of a large department store in the Netherlands, I decided on my personal solution. If we go into the story-line and believe that Black Pete is black because he climbs through chimneys on a regular basis, why do we believe that this makes him evenly black over his entire face? Also, how does the climbing through the chimney result in him having thick curly hair? Moreover, where did he get his big red lips from? Not the chimney, I hope. Therefore, I suggest that Black Pete should be presented without the red lips, without the curly hair, but with black smudges in the face. Consequently, the only way Black Pete would have these features is if the person playing Black Pete is this way him- or herself.