Black Pete: Racism or innocence?

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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.

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3 responses to “Black Pete: Racism or innocence?”

  1. bloggerswithoutborder says :

    It isn’t only a white sociologist that assumes it is offensive. Today it appeared in the news that Surinamese parliament wants to ban SInterklaas because of the racist character of this Dutch festivity. Read more here:

    http://nos.nl/audio/324756-suriname-wil-af-van-sinterklaas.html

  2. Bob Skocpol says :

    As an American who married a Dutch woman, I have a strange perspective on “Black Peter” / “Zwarte Piet”.

    When we lived in California and got gifts from Holland with drawings of Black Pete on them, I would burn the wrapping paper rather than put it into my trash. Why? Because the image of Black Pete is very similar to “Black Sambo” an image which is extremely offensive to American blacks, for uniquely American historical reasons. I lived in a integrated neighborhood: half the neighbors were black and everyone lived peacefully together, but if my neighbors saw this wrapping paper, they might think, “He seemed so nice but he is really a complete racist.” Every year the local “Holland America Society” had a Sinterklaas party in Berkeley, complete with boat, white horse, and Petes. I dreaded that the press might discover the Petes and start inventing Dutch racism, apartheid being a Dutch word, etc. I was always thankful for the Surinamese people who attended the party with their kids, because if the press came, they might be able to explain that we were not a group of Ku Klux Klanners.

    But now that we have lived in Holland for 20 years and raised kids here, I love the Dutch Sinterklaas traditions and songs, I love the marching bands made up of black-faced Petes. Everybody loves Pete. We should not allow our Dutch traditions to be swallowed up by Santa Claus, nor should we water them down for political correctness.

    I would be willing to reconsider if a significant number of Dutch black people, from Surinam or the Antilles, really consider the tradition offensive. But not because a white sociologist assumes it must be offensive.

    • Marinus says :

      I’m Dutch and I think the biggest crime of the Dutch regarding Sinterklaas is ignorance. Perfectly illustrated by the people that like you enough to send you and your loved ones gifts, but wrap those gifts in material that could make you very unpopular in your neighbourhood. Many people simply don’t know how offensive it is to hundreds of millions of people.

      I can imagine what it’s like for a black American to be confronted with black Pete. A bit like an unsuspecting Jew that travels to East Asia, to discover that over there Swastikas are everywhere. Of course it’s positive and happy swastikas in that region, but it should create a culture shock of a large magnitude anyway. The metaphor is flawed, btw, but good enough I think.

      I was raised with the tradition, and I don’t consider the current version (nor the one I was raised with in the early eighties) to be racist because it simply isn’t used to convey racist messages to the public. It’s origin also isn’t racist. Did racist influences get on board during the time from origin of the myth/custom (Probably in medieval times, but possibly even in pre-Christian Germanic/Nordic times) to it’s current version? Definitely. But the racism has disappeared as far as I know.

      As mentioned, Black Pete is almost universally seen as a very positive figure. It also isn’t a generalized representation of black people, it’s a representation of (a) specific black character(s) a.k.a. Black Petes. And that’s probably why the Dutch get so pissed when the next person tells them it’s racist. Because the message nor the intention behind it is racist in this day and age.

      Should it change? Probably. Will it change? Most probably. I don’t celebrate the holiday because I’m 34 and I’ve no kids. But I saw a number of black Petes that were not in black-face, but looked like chimney sweeps, with black smears across there face. The tradition is awkward, anachronistic and it probably will adapt over time. In the mean time no one will suffer over it but the people that are uninformed and the people that are informed but like to be offended. Give it time.

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