Friday, December 8, 2017

Let’s talk about ‘Zwarte Piet’ (Black Pete)

The holiday of ‘Sinterklaas’ (Dutch popularly term that is derived from ‘Saint Nicholas’) is one that is cherished by many Dutch citizens for many generations. No wonder that it has not been received well now that one aspect of the Sinterklaas-tradition is under attack. However, when it comes to ‘Zwarte Piet’ – literally ‘Black Pete’ – we should not avoid the conversation. It surely is a difficult one, but so have many been before, and we can only tackle the problem by means of the dialogue.

The ‘Sinterklaas’-tradition

For those of you unfamiliar with the annual holiday of Sinterklaas, here is a brief explanation on how it is celebrated in the Netherlands. The traditions around the holiday have altered many times over the years, but it has always been about one man: Saint Nicholas, a holy saint who may or may not have actually walked this planet. He is known for being very generous, altruistically helping the ones in need. There are many myths about his life and the good deeds that he did, unfortunately not relevant to discuss here any further. They say he died at December 6, 342 in Myra, Turkey, where he had been bishop. Hence, the 6th of December became Saint Nicholas’ name day, which ever since has been celebrated at the evening before, December 5.
Although Saint Nicholas is the patron of many groups, like sailors, children, prostitutes, ‘Sinterklaas’ today is celebrated as a holiday primarily for children. Beginning in the thirteenth century, Saint Nicholas was portrayed as someone who rewards kids for being good and punishes the ones who had been bad. Throughout the years he got a friendlier image and the Sinterklaas-holiday became associated with receiving presents and candy. Today Sinterklaas comes with many traditions, some of which it is hard to track down how they have ever come into place. Each year in November, children are told that Sinterklaas will arrive on his steamship from Madrid, Spain. For children, his arrival is a spectacular event in itself. Even before that, children get excited by watching the ‘Sinterklaas News’, where they receive ‘updates’ on his journey to the Netherlands – usually scaring them that he might not be able to come this year due to some sort of obstacle. From the moment he arrives, children put one of their shoes out near the chimney or window, filled with their wish list and a snack for his white horse Amerigo, and sing Sinterklaas-songs before bedtime, so that when they wake up they might find the list and the snack replaced by a small present or some Sinterklaas-candy, like a letter made of chocolate or ‘pepernoten’. Then, when at December 5 the sun finally goes down, a large bag of presents is delivered to the house. Older kids who no longer ‘believe’ in the story of Sinterklaas may celebrate the holiday by making a poem and a self-made craftwork with a present hidden inside for someone chosen by means of a draw.

Who is ‘Black Pete’?

            So where does ‘Black Pete’ come in? Well, many would say, in the year 1850. But even before that Sinterklaas had been associated with a ‘black’, scary, evil or devilish creature, associated with punishing the bad kids – in many cases it was Sinterklaas himself who was portrayed as a black and devilish! In the light of the Reformation, when worshipping saints was a no-go, the portrayal of a saint as a bad creature seems quite likely. Black Pete as we know him today may not have much in common with this early creature, but this is where we might find his origin. Ever since, Sinterklaas’ little helper has gone through many developments.
In 1850 Jan Schenkman published a book in which Sinterklaas shows up with a black servant. Yet it is most unlikely that Schenkman actually invented Black Pete – he probably drew upon traditions that existed long before 1850. More importantly: he simply called the servant ‘black’ – it was the drawer who gave the servant the clothing of a 16th-century Moorish ‘page’ (North-African servants of Spanish nobility), but not until the third edition. Others may argue that the clothing best resembles that of a harlequin, which would have accompanied Sinterklaas as early as the year 1700. Perhaps this was done to make Sinterklaas look more prosperous, as a Moorish page was a sign of wealth in that time. Although a page may not have been voluntarily employed, yet he was not a slave like we know from the plantations in the Americas, who pretty much did such physically tough work that they often died from it, as he worked in the house and did light chores – which would explain his nice clothing, as it would only fit such type of (involuntary) work. The story that is told in defence here is that Saint Nicholas bought the slaves and employed them properly, as you may expect from a good holy man (but this has probably no historical foundation. Many other elements associated with the contemporary Black Pete did not appear in the book – he did not even get that name until later. Black Pete may have been a name long before used to refer to the devil and other bad creatures, which may indicate a link with the early black creature mentioned before. Schenkman also introduced the steamship on which Sinterklaas would sail from Spain to the Netherlands. The purpose of the book was probably to change the image of Sinterklaas: no longer was he an invisible, scary, devilish creature hunting for bad kids, but more human and generous instead. Why? Perhaps he did because Sinterklaas as a mysterious inhuman bogeyman did no longer match the increasingly self-conscious and rational society. Perhaps he did because people desired a holiday that would more positively encourage, instead of scaring, their kids into good behaviour.
Anyhow, Sinterklaas was once again a traditional bishop – but now he had a servant who resembled a Moorish page. After 1890 this servant got the job of punishing bad kids (again, we can distinguish a quality from the early black creature, which makes it the more likely that Black Pete was loosely based upon it), while Sinterklaas could completely focus on being the good guy. In the course of time Black Pete’s appearance began to consist out of frizzy hair, red lips and golden earrings – the elements most associated with racial caricature. After a while, Sinterklaas got accompanied by multiple Black Petes – today some having a specific function, for example a Black Pete who is responsible for wrapping presents (while Sinterklaas is more often portrayed as an old, senile man who depends on the help of the more vital Petes, which gives them more agency than before). Since the 1970s Black Pete is not so much associated with threat and punishment anymore. Today the Black Petes are a cheerful bunch, making jokes, performing acrobatic acts and most importantly: handing out candy and delivering presents through the chimney. He is often described as a kids’ favourite, even more than the old holy saint himself!

How people tend to react on the ‘Black Pete’-debate and why that is completely understandable

Growing up in the Netherlands, I felt rather surprised when the Black Pete-debate first came up. Suddenly there were people claiming that Black Pete is an expression of racism and should therefore be eliminated. Perhaps ignorant, but I had never thought of Black Pete as possibly being related to racism. In the beginning I may have believed that the accusations came from a group foreigners who had come to our country, had been confronted with the traditions around Sinterklaas, and interpreted the jolly, silly Black Pete as a way of making fun of black people (and possibly felt, unjustly, offended) – concluding it was a form of racism and restraining from looking further into it and educating themselves about the to them unfamiliar holiday celebrations. Later I learned that some of the opponents considered Black Pete as disturbing because he was similar to and based on historical black slaves.
My first reaction was similar to nearly everyone else’s at that time – shocked, annoyed, and defensive. Today I know that it was not an ignorant group attacking the Black Pete-tradition – it was I who was ignorant in defending it! I will first set out my original thoughts and beliefs before explaining why I now consider them as wholly wrong.

Thoughts that popped up into my mind in defend of Black Pete:
“Whether Black Pete is based upon historical black slaves or not, today he is a fictional creature, a character much like Mickey Mouse and Spongebob Squarepants: something that was inspired upon something in the real world, whether a black slave in the 16th century, a mouse or a sponge, but that is now completely separated from its origin and has developed into a whole new thing. He is humanlike, but is he also human? Black Pete is much like Sinterklaas himself – there are not many children who think of the Roman Catholic Church when they watch Sinterklaas arrive on his steamship.
Black Pete has made the colour black his own and today it has not much to do with his skin colour – we say he is black because of the soot from the chimneys that he encounters while doing his job. In the world of fantasy and animation, someone going through a chimney does not come out with only a few sweeps of soot. Black Pete has become part of a fictional story, and just like many fairy tales, elements coming with such story do not have to reflect elements in the real world. As the story goes, Sinterklaas rides his horse on the rooftops – have you ever seen a horse on a rooftop, let alone a man riding it on a rooftop? How come Sinterklaas is still not dead? Not to mention Santa Claus who arrives in a flying sleigh that is pulled by flying reindeers. In just the same way, Black Pete fits through chimneys, even if you don’t have any, and his clothes remain clean, perhaps by some sort of spell – ask Santa Claus for details on that sort of magic. I have difficulties thinking of any children’s fairy tale that is entirely reflective of the real world.
Black Pete and Sinterklaas are both characters in a fictional story and should be treated that way. And even if Black Pete once was a slave, today he carries out the honourable job of making children all over the country happy around the holiday of Sinterklaas. As a kid for sure that seemed like a super fun job to me: you can have fun with your Black Pete-colleagues all day, have unlimited candy and run on rooftops at night.”

It is not just I who reacted to the Black Pete-debate in this manner – the majority of the Dutch population felt attacked by the debate itself and soon positioned themselves as proponents of Black Pete, noble defenders of a long held tradition. And to be honest: that is completely understandable.
“Tradition” is typical for the way the collective memory works, but it is actually a very disruptive fallacy. Collective memory is the popular knowledge of a group about its past, that not infrequently proves to be historically incorrect (but the more useful to justify and explain current events). Yet this collective memory for an important part shapes our collective identity – for example, that of what it means to be Dutch. To many Dutch citizens, the Sinterklaas-tradition is part of our feeling of being Dutch. Our collective identity is important to us: if we can no longer feel part of a social group, we may feel quite lost in this world. The fallacy of “tradition” simply means that we allow our convictions and behaviour to be controlled by the belief that the way something was done in the past or has ‘always’ been done is the correct way to do it in the present. Certainly this is a very useful way of thinking if you are an inhabitant of a very primitive type of society where the dynamics of social and cultural change of modern society do not occur; otherwise it is no more than counter-productive. We must recognize that times change and that traditions may no longer work under current circumstances. Trying to stick to traditions that prove to be no longer functional within contemporary society only hinder further modernization.
However, as traditions are important in maintaining and reinforcing our (collective) identity, we like to stick to them as much as possible. Therefore, it is no more than logical that we feel like our identity is being threatened when one of our traditions is being attacked – and that we react in a defensive manner. Especially when we have the perception that this tradition is attacked by people who do not share the identity of which it is a part.
Besides, many anti-Black Pete activists like to use “Black Pete is racism” for a slogan – people who do not have any trouble with Black Pete may feel attacked by this phrase alone. Not only do people dislike to be called a racist, they most likely do not have the intention to be racist, therefore they may feel it is an unjust accusation. I believe that this slogan only adds heat to the fire and makes Black Pete-proponents react even more defensive than they might have done from a collective identity perspective alone.

Why ‘Black Pete’ is a problem
It was in my bachelor in History that I learned about the faults of collective memory – and how a historian must differentiate from this type of thinking. I began asking myself: why would it be so bad when Black Pete would disappear from the Sinterklaas-tradition? Traditions change all the time – the history of the Black Pete-tradition is the perfect example. Changes are quite necessary for our civilization to develop into a more advanced one. I realized that Black Pete might be a tradition that can no longer be preserved. Our times have changed; our society is different from the one a few decades ago. Our present-day society has become much more multicultural, each culture carrying its own collective identity. Our colonial history and with that the practice of slavery centuries ago takes up another place in our collective memory than it does in the collective memory of for example black people. Anything even slightly related may be a sensitive topic in their collective memory in the same way as for example the Holocaust is in ours.

It must be clear that the origins of Black Pete are possibly even more complicated than those of the ‘Sinterklaas-holiday itself. Much we just don’t know. For sure there have been many factors that have had an influence on the creation of present-day Black Pete, but it is nearly impossible to distinguish between the most important and the less important ones. This is even more complicated by the fact that for a long time the implementation of the holiday differed from region to region. So we cannot simply say that there is a link between Black Pete and slavery. There might be one, but even with all the similarities, it is just as likely that the origins of Black Pete can be found somewhere else. Take the example of Black Pete’s golden earrings: some believe there is a link between the golden earrings and 16th century black slaves, others believe the link is more likely to be found between the appearance of Moorish traders (as visible in Dutch “gapers”, the stone or wooden heads on the front of pharmacy buildings, that often depicted a Moorish man, to refer to the exotic origin of medicines) and that slaves would rarely wear golden earrings. Nevertheless, it must be said that at the time that Black Pete appeared in Jan Schenkman’s book, slavery was still a practice that was being carried out worldwide. Not to mention the role of the steamship, which was introduced by Schenkman as Sinterklaas’ main mode of transport, in overseas slave trade. However, Black Pete may just as well have been a Moorish page that got paid for his labour.

Also, it is too easy to conclude that “Black Pete is racism”. Some have a problem with the fact that white people paint their faces black. This might be because of their association between the ‘blackface’ tradition in the history of the United States, where white people would paint their faces black and make fun of Afro-Americans in a performance. However, there is plenty evidence that painting one’s face black is a phenomenon that long existed before it became part of the Sinterklaas-tradition and was done for all kinds of traditional rituals in a variety of cultures. Schenkman may have intended to keep some older traditions of black masquerade intact. At least there is some consensus that he did not intent to refer to slavery or racism. He might as well have written about a ‘black servant’ as a literary expression, referring to the early black creature upon which it is most likely based. I don’t believe that Black Pete and his black skin colour in itself is a racist expression. It is the complete image of the Black Petes in relation to Sinterklaas that really matters.

The thing is: what we got in the end is the very stereotypical image of a white man having a bunch of black servants, whether they have ever been enslaved or not – the white male here is obviously superior to hundreds of black people. The contrast between the civilized, decent wise old man and the child-ish, frolicsome Petes is especially striking. I agree to much that I thought before and I still believe that Black Pete is a fictional character and should be treated that way; yet, when learning more about colonialism, white supremacy, et cetera, I realized one important thing: Black Pete as a fictional character would not be a problem if it would not reflect power inequality between black and white people and (unconscious) prejudices against black people that still persists today.
This explains why Black Pete is such a sensitive topic and why many people feel offended or hurt by it. While the Holocaust is something that today exclusively exists in our memories, inequality between ‘races’, that has its origin in our colonial history, is an everyday experience to many people on earth. What hurt the most are the things that are true or that we perceive to be so. Let alone our colonial history, would we associate Sinterklaas with racism when he was a black male and his subordinates were white? No, because in the real world, that is a balance of power we do not recognize. Moreover, if you recall any insult that has ever been made to you, it is most likely something that you feel might be true about you or something that you are already insecure about. For example, when you are a rather skinny person and perceiving yourself to be so, you will probably feel quite untouched when someone calls you fat – it might only leave you in wonder how the person concerned came up with such an irrelevant insult. But when you, for example, perceive your nose to be particularly large in comparison to the rest of your face, you may feel quite hurt when someone makes you out for ‘big nose!’ – a confirmation that someone else shares the perception that you have of your nose and therefore it may make that perception seem even truer. As it is a characteristic you do not prefer, the insult is especially hurtful. Less explicitly but comparable is when a black person encounters the Sinterklaas-tradition and perceives the subordinate position of black males here – something that he feels is equally the case in the real world but is here stressed even more obvious. As it is a position he most certainly does not prefer, it is no wonder that he may feel quite uncomfortable at seeing the spectacle.

Even more poignant is the fact that the fictional character of Black Pete, whether in itself racist or not, is often used for racist expressions – not least by Black Pete proponents when entering the Black Pete-debate. Even if Black Pete is not a racist phenomenon, many Black Pete proponents become racist in trying to out-argue opponents and claiming they do not have any racist intentions with Black Pete. Also, there are many black persons in this country who have been called ‘Black Pete’ by means of an insult. This all only adds to the problems of the Black Petes.

            Honestly, I am not concerned with who is hurt by what and whatsoever – there are many things in this world that may hurt someone somewhere. What I think is really disturbing (and where the focus should be), is the fact that Black Pete is something that obviously contributes to maintaining the undesirable (power) inequality between perceived ‘races’ that originated in our colonial past but has no grounded legitimacy. The stereotype, the image of black people serving a white man, is a reflection of that undesirable power inequality. Nevertheless, it is that very image that we put down right in front of our youngest kids and that is unconsciously implemented in their worldview and may contribute to the development of prejudices against non-white people they will have at a later age. Such prejudices against people with a different skin colour are exclusively culturally created and we should eliminate anything that might contribute to that or to the reinforcement of the unconscious idea of white supremacy – so that one day we may bear children who will live their lives free from such prejudices.

How we should continue

             If we should get rid of Black Pete, how should we do that? Some Black Pete-opponents have tried to replace Black Pete by Colour Pete or Rainbow Pete – here I think the opponents focus too much on Black Pete’s skin colour, as if this whole debate is about the fact that he’s black and as if having a black skin colour is in some way undesirable. That sounds even more racist to me! Possibly even worse are the picture books and retail chains that simplistically change Black Pete’s black skin to a white one.
Someone came up with “Stroopwafel” (Dutch syrup waffle) Petes – no one really knows why, but I would very much like to forget about this incident. The city of Amsterdam gets the credits for coming up with a more appropriate solution: Spanish noblemen accompanied Sinterklaas at his arrival. The Spanish element here pleases me. It fits in the existing story of Sinterklaas spending summer in Madrid. Moreover, their clothing strongly resembles Black Pete’s costume, therefore the change seems less abrupt. However, frizzy hair wigs and face paint, except for some sweeps of soot, are left out. For the tradition-loving Black Pete proponents, I would like to inform you that traditions are respected here: I discovered that during the first event around the arrival of Sinterklaas in 1936, when the old man only had one Black Pete to accompany him, he brought with him plenty of Spanish noblemen. And those noblemen continued to be present at the arrival each year until the 1970s. While over the years Black Pete multiplied, there were many years in which he was a minority at the arrival spectacle. Amsterdam presented its solution as a completely new idea, but it is in fact a reinvented tradition.

Not everyone seems to be happy with this solution: they claim that Spanish noblemen are the very ones that were often involved in slave trade in the 16th century. A claim that I would label as an overgeneralization. I think that these opponents are concerned with anything that may be linked to historical slavery, but this particular link seems to have been long forgotten in present-day society, while the link between black people and slavery has not. Again, what I believe matters most is the reflection of inequality that is visible in the Sinterklaas-tradition between Black Petes and Sinterklaas – an inequality that is not present in the relation between (white) Spanish noblemen and Sinterklaas. But if these opponents like to think that way, I will give them this: while no one links Spanish noblemen to slave trade, many link clergy, like bishops, the position that the historical Saint Nicholas held, and paedophilia is much more obvious. And is that not the exact thing that we should avoid around a holiday for children, even more than slavery?

I just very much hope that one day the Petes are allowed to have any skin colour a human being can possibly have according to the science of genetics. The story will be like this: once Sinterklaas had one helper called Pete, later he employed even more, but they are no replicas of the original Pete, they are their own beings, with their own unique personalities and their own particular skin colour. I plea for no Colour Pete or Rainbow Pete – we have made the fictional being of Pete into a humanlike creature, and therefore it is no more than logical that he should continue to be humanlike, for the story to make sense. I can’t make anything from a Pete with a green skin colour, except when we decide to turn Pete into a nonhuman fictional character, coming from a planet where that type of skin colour exists.
Let the Petes be a mixture of all kinds of skin colours from all over the world – or at least present in the Dutch population. For those worried that kids might recognize “Pete” as their neighbour or nephew – you will think of something. I see possibilities for the creation of new jobs! Employ strangers to do the job. Or give your nephew a nice beard, because who says Pete can’t grow one?


If opponents want to win this debate, they should avoid arguments like “Black Pete is racism” (because people will defend Black Pete even more) or “Black Pete offends black people” (because a lot of people do not own the empathy to care for other people’s feelings).
Some people say that black opponents have no success in convincing white people of their point of view because they are black and because white people refuse to take anything from black people, while white opponents like Arjen Lubach seem more successful in doing so – but perhaps this can be explained more properly by the difference in the way that they propose their arguments. Lubach uses humour, while others use serious accusations (If you are pro-Black Pete, you are a racist! Black Pete proponents are hurting black people!) – and when you feel like that accusation is unfairly ascribed to you, you are most likely unwilling to change your own point of view about Black Pete.
But maybe skin colour does play a role here. Maybe not because of white superiority, but rather because in the Black Pete-debate a lot of white people may perceive black people as the “victims” and white people as the “culprits” – thus, when someone black accuses them, they will defend themselves, while when some other white person accuses white people (and therefore himself as well), they might not perceive the accusation as an accusation to them, but rather as a confession of the white person in particular. If a white person admits he is guilty, other white persons might not feel attacked but rather begin to see some truth in the accusation: if someone in the accused group believes that group is “guilty”, then the group including you might as well be so. It is more difficult to see truth in an accusation you feel is made against you by someone you don’t identify with than it is for an accusation someone makes against himself and only indirectly against you. Even in daily life a lot of people find it hard to admit their mistakes to the ones they have done wrong. A lot of people find it hard to recognize someone else’s hurt when they are the ones who have caused that hurt. Therefore I don’t think there is a point in trying to convince Black Pete proponents by using the argument that Black Pete is “hurtful” to others while implicitly saying they are the ones causing that hurt by supporting Black Pete.

At the same time, Black Pete proponents should educate themselves about colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, socialdarwinism, et cetera, and refrain from using racist insults in the Black Pete debate. They should also try and look more critically into their own efforts to hold on to a tradition, realize that is not always helpful and that traditions change all the time. And let's hope that the conversation will eventually lead to a solution so that 'Sinterklaas' will remain a holiday that leaves many children with memories they will cherish for a lifetime. 

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