It’s that time of the year again

Are cultural traditions more important than dismantling harmful racist practices and symbols?

Black Piet is another representation of a well known way to portrait prejudices against black people, such as inferiority. He is both a servant and a child. A familiar image of the coloniser and the colonised.

I was already familiar with the concept of Black Face, but it caught me off guard that there was a place in the world, today, in which Black Face was actually something to celebrate and used to bring people together. I couldn’t believe what I saw, so I asked my Dutch friends to explain a bit more about how this Black character ended up here. Their reaction was what you may read anywhere, anytime someone wants to challenge the character: 1. it is a traditional kid’s festivity, 2. he’s not actually black, and 3. everybody loves him.

“It’s a traditional kids festivity”

In the Netherlands Christmas and Sinterklaas are two different celebrations. Both characters have similarities and its roots in the same person: St. Nicholas, a bishop of Myra, (today Turkey) in the 4th century A.D. He is said to have performed acts of kindness which led to the catholic church declaring him a Saint. However, most of the legends around him were created after his death and cannot be proven.

Sint Nicolaas en zijn Knecht (Saint Nicholas and his servant) by Jan Schenkman, 1850

“He’s not actually Black”

A recent narrative regarding Black Pete’s colour is that he is not actually Black, but that his face got black when he was crawling into the chimney bringing presents. Although well-intentioned (as soft aggressions usually are), there are many disturbing facts about this way of justifying Black Pete’s skin colour. To start with, if Black Pete got his colour from the chimney, then why are his clothes so clean? And why does he have a Black afro hair? Nice try, but the conversation is deeper (and more uncomfortable) than that.

Black Pete’s costume explained by zwartepietisracisme.org

“Everybody loves him”

The argument of love is probably the most difficult to challenge, because this is a fictitious character who cannot corroborate or deny whether he feels loved. But you can deduct how much he is loved with two questions: if he is so loved, how comes that being called a ‘Black Pete’ is not a compliment? And, why do people leave cookies and milk for Sinterklaas, a carrot for his horse, but nothing for Pete?

It starts with the disappointment that the magic was not real, and that the character they cherished may not have been as happy as they thought.

Just as other tropes, like the Jezebel, the Mammy, and the Magical Negroes, Black Pete is another stereotype promoting Black inferiority. It is true that Sinterklaas is a festivity for children, and that’s what makes it even more relevant to examine up closer. We are propagating traditions that are older than Sinterklaas itself: the tradition that the white race is superior to the black; the belief that blackness can be occupied; and the stereotype that Black people’s job is to entertain the white audience.

I write about my learnings and experience regarding race, female empowerment, representation and leadership.

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