The month of November is a very special time in the Netherlands. It’s the moment of the year in which Sinterklaas, Saint Nicholas in English, arrives in the country and brings presents and sweets to kids. It is a magical moment for Dutch families and children because throughout generations they have believed in this magical character bringing joy into their lives. It’s comparable, and just as important, to Christmas celebrations in other countries.
I arrived in the Netherlands seven years ago and I wasn’t familiar with the celebration. I was a bit confused about how the Dutch celebrated “Christmas” earlier than other countries, but I was mainly shocked about one specific character joining the party: Sinter Klaas’ servant, Black Pete, or Zwarte Piet in Dutch.
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.
I was ok with the explanation for a little while, but I knew too much to just let it go. It was just too uncomfortable to see how my ancestry was being ridiculed and mocked with stereotypes white people have of Blackness. I recently attended a conference of researcher Renee Landell who investigates the cause and effect of popular anti-Blackness stereotypes. After her insightful presentation, I was finally able to better understand why I find the Black Pete character so uncomfortable. In sum, there are standard stereotypes against black people, which are also used by the Black Pete character. Here I’ll share what I learned.
“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.
Unlike Santa Clause who comes from the North Pole in a carriage pulled by his reindeers; Sinterklaas comes from Spain on a boat with a group of black servants, the Black Petes (“Zwarte Pieten”). The first time Black Piet was presented was in the children’s book “Saint Nicholas and His Servant” by Jan Schenkman in 1850. The ‘servant’ does not have a name in Shenkman’s story. There are multiple theories around the origin of this servant, for example that he is a descendent of the Moors, hence his dark skin. Others mentioned that Peter was an Ethiopian slave who was bought and set free by Saint Nicholas. Other theories say that he is a descendant from the devil, from a time in which Sinterklaas was accompanied by a devil in chains. “The chains symbolized a victory of good over evil, light over darkness.” mentions researcher Izalina Tavares. This demonic association to Black Pete also explains why he is considered a source of punishment against the children who misbehave. Even though it is difficult to pinpoint the exact past of all the symbols Black Piet brings together, there are some evident ones which are worth mentioning.
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. The father/child imagery is a known narrative to justify european colonisation in Africa. By creating the narrative of black people being childlike, stupid and therefore harmless, the European rule could justify its colonisation. They could appeal to the need for the blacks to be ‘taken care of’, and create a ‘white savior’ character to protect them.
Sinterklaas is portrayed as old, wise, mature, calm, and in control, while the Petes are young and rascals. Sinterklaas is in charge, he is the boss. He sits in a chair or on his horse, while the Petes always stand or walk. Pete’s clownish behaviour and the usage of black face are meant to entertain white people, to make them feel safe near this strange figure. This came at the expense of degrading the black person and occupying blackness without ever having to suffer for being Black.
“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.
Not admitting someone’s skin colour and treating dark skin as a deviation is how discrimination and colourism start.
It is not only in the skin colour where Black Pete’s Black traits lay. It’s the whole character, the skin colour is only the surface of it. The afro wig, the red lipstick and the clothes are all references to Trans-Atlantic slave trade traditions and stereotypes that the Dutch conveyed into one character in an innocent festivity.
The Dutch culture is very proud of how tolerant and open they are. That is partially true. The Netherlands was the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage back in 2001. But when talking about race in the Netherlands, you may be sailing dangerous waters and touching some sensitive nerves.
Most white people, regardless of what country they are from, only recognise “racism” when it is explicit, intentional, and blatant. Those who understand how racism works, however, know that “racism” is not just explicit, and today it is mostly implicit. It’s about the hidden clues and practices that hide what everybody is thinking but nobody wants to say out loud.
Racism is not just about intention: it is about impact. The problem however is that stigmatising racism is easier than attacking its causes and consequences. As mentioned by Izalina Tavarez “The protection of our own egos and comfort, at the expense of the dismissal of an oppressed people’s reality, becomes a judgement of their condition that is completely out of context. We create a new form of racism as we tell ourselves that their oppression is not as bad as they say.”
“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?
I’m pretty sure white people really loved having slaves, but that is not the same as real love. That is a sick parasitic relationship in which the love is only as good as what you produce. Slave owners didn’t love their enslaved people, because if they did, they would have either freed them or joined them in the field. You cannot love someone who you don’t see as a human being. They love African descendant art forms, they even may ‘love’ how exotic Black people look, but they don’t know how to handle them, how to go around them, let alone how to respect them.
In his book “White on Black”, Jan Nederveen Pieterse mentioned “the mentality of the ‘Other’ is not merely to be exploited but also to be enjoyed, enjoyment being a finer form of exploitation”. This feel-good effect that Black characters have in white performers and audiences is part of why it is so important for Dutch people to hold on to the tradition.
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.
Exposing kids to this tradition has direct effects on the image they develop about race. The soft-aggression, implicit racism, and stereotypes that it reinforces is probably the most dangerous part of it. It acts as a silent indoctrination, which makes it even more important to refer to it by its name and not hide its danger behind kids’ needs, national culture, or just stubbornness.
Just like in the US, you know that taking the knee during the national anthem is not about disrespecting the flag; in the Netherlands using Black Face is not about the children party. Children will be happy as long as there are magic, presents, and sweets. It’s about defending white fragility, guilt, and identity.
But why is it so hard for people to come to grips with the reality of their beliefs? It has to do with a vicious circle which leaves people in an inescapable triangle. 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. Because the feeling of disappointment is a feeling that we all want to avoid, at all costs, then we fall into denial. Denying that our beliefs may not reflect reality. Instead, we go on and create our own reality in which we transform beliefs and memories into facts. The next step is reinforcement. We keep telling ourselves that what we believe in is the truth. Even though we think of ourselves as non-racists, instead of attacking racism, we end up holding on more tightly. That is why when someone denounces this practice, it activates our disappointment, for which we are ready to jump into denial and reinforce our beliefs by bringing more of it.
How do we move on from here? Awareness is the first step, but not the only or last one. The next step is to talk more about it. When people say Black Pete is not racist, we should continue the conversation and ask “what is racism then”. When people say they should be free to do as they like, ask why should others not have the same freedom to point out the hurtful prejudices in the practices they are trying to defend. By all means, we should continue talking about it. I do believe that people have good intentions, but those intentions are not as strong as their fear for change. Because they are not the ones who are being affected or reflected in these stereotypes, it is not their need to change it.
Unfortunately people are more afraid of being labeled racist, than actually being racist. Therefore, they are going to defend themselves from the label, but won’t do anything to not be one. Something I learned from this research is that when someone defends Black Pete by saying that it is a national Dutch tradition, I will reply: so was slavery.