About Black Pete

In the Netherlands, they celebrate Sinterklaas on December fifth, and every year there are critics about Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). When the international media picks it up, the Dutch are painted as Most Racist Ever. I hope I can explain the Dutch stance on this subject a little.

I won’t go into the history of Black Pete, if he was a friend, a boy, or a slave. I think – looking at the Dutch history of VOC, slavery and apartheid – it’s clear that there’s something dodgy.

And Sinterklaas? It’s a holiday for children. It’s about candy and presents and each year it divides the Netherlands.

This year the discussion finally happened nation-wide. It started with Quinsy Gario, an Antillean artist that called Black Pete out as racist. Media ran with it. The next day, there were opinion pieces from historians, other non-white Dutch people. There was a petition to “stay away from our Dutch traditions,” Facebook groups about it being time to realize how racist Black Pete was. Sad stories about Dutch people of colour that wanted to enjoy the holiday, but just felt less Dutch because they had to look at Black Pete and hear the stupid remarks. And per usual, the prime minister disappointed me by saying: “Black Pete is black, we can’t change that.”

Dutch candy and presents
It should just be about presents and candy.

The supporters came with the familiar remarks: “My friend is of colour and doesn’t care,” “How do we explain this to our children?” and “They want to take ALL our Dutch traditions!” (I’ll continue with the racist bingo later.)

If you’d ask a Dutch person about minstrel shows, blackface or golliwogs, you’d very probably get a blank look. Black Pete is dress-up, racism only involves violent things. And did I mention yet that Sinterklaas and Black Pete are tradition?

Besides that, there’s a huge anti-movement against “extreme” political correctness. We’re supposed to be allowed to say anything, we don’t want to change into super easily offended people! (Bingo!)

This combined with a growing us versus them feeling in society (more countries added to the European Union, the economic crisis needs to be blamed on someone, politician Wilders and his fear mongering) make the Dutch cling to “Real Dutch” things. Sadly, not a lot of people know Sinterklaas found his origins in Turkey.

After a (verbally) violent week, discussion faded away again. The result? Five municipalities said they would look into changing things. A few others said they’d wait for the results of the UN rapport (a month later, still no result) on Black Pete. One small rural municipality planned brightly coloured Petes (yellow, purple, and so on). They got death threats (!!) and dropped the idea. The only non-Black Petes these year can be found on Curacao.

I support the Dutch government poldermodel a lot. It’s a great way to talk something to death without anything unwanted changing. But on this subject I really wish there was more action and less talk. Because of the interviewed Surinamese woman who asked how to explain Black Pete to her daughter. Because of the Indonesian senior that after seventy years of living here still feels less of a human being because of Black Pete. Because I don’t want to explain any more how the Dutch with their Don’t Give A Fuck attitude suffer so badly from blinkers.

Traditions aren’t set in stone. It’s time for Pete.

Published by

freckle [M]

Freckle can't decide between writing fact or fiction, so she does both, on a very regular basis, and sometimes even for money.

13 thoughts on “About Black Pete”

  1. As a Dutch lady, I should reply to this post.
    I am very glad that finally there is a wide spread discussion about Zwarte Piet. Alas, I am very disappointed in my fellow Dutch people. I haven’t had a true good discussion about it thus far and I’m sorry to say that I kinda feel like I’ve already given up. I feel like no-one understands why it is racist, at least in my environment. They really don’t. I don’t get that, because I feel like it’s so obvious why it is racist. I feel ashamed of my country. The most well-known Dutch word is apartheid, and Dutch people don’t get why Zwarte Piet is racist. I can’t even.

    1. Hoi! ;)

      I was surprised by how diverse the people are that signed that stupid Pietitie, that saw red when you tried to hint that it could well be racist.

      I really think that we need to look at the association people have with racism. Not just violence, not just KKK. Looking down on other people, not counting their opinions as highly as yours. Because this is cringe-worthy and embarrassing and I don’t want to be part of the country of Zwarte Piet.

      1. Hey ;)

        Yeah, I know what you mean. Although a roommate talked about it last night and he said it was racist. That was a suprise!

        I think most people indeed think of racism as something very violent, but it’s subtle and most people don’t recognize it, especially when it’s just ”a tradition” as Zwarte Piet is.

  2. I first became aware of Black Pete when Flavia Dzodan over at Red Light Politics began writing about it a few years ago: http://www.redlightpolitics.info/tagged/Black-Pete

    I admit to being somewhat astonished about it, and a friend of Indonesian descent who lives in the Netherlands explained something more of how this tradition came to be and some of the recent shit that has gone down around it. I hope, for the sake of the Black population there, it’s something that is eventually phased out or changed in such a way as to not invoke Blackface. :/

      1. I can’t say I’m too surprised. I think we as Americans (or as American liberals) sometimes assume Europe is this enlightened utopia where people understand race and gender and sexual orientation and religion and whatnot but everyone else can be just as bad as us, just in different ways. How many times have we condemned French Vogue for using blackface? Now we’ve got white pop stars emulating hip-hop while simultaneously mocking and/or condemning it (Lorde, Miley Cyrus, Lily Allen, etc). People looooove their privilege. Just try to make them aware of it or take it away and watch them go nuts.

        1. I tend to have the opposite problem where I’ve run into many white Europeans (and Australians and New Zealander’s for that matter) that try to argue that racism is “different” where they are and therefore “not as bad.” :/ This sort of, “We don’t care about race like you do in the United States” line of bull that’s meant to curb my raised eyebrow at some of the things that go on. Yet, every single PoC I know from these same areas tells an entirely different story, unsurprisingly.

          But, I do think, for a lot of people, there’s definitely a notion that Europe is especially enlightened when that’s clearly not the case. Personally, I AM surprised at people parading down the street in obvious Blackface and arguing that it’s not racist. But, that’s the same sort of “I’m surprised, but I’m not really surprised” I reserve for when racist white folk do what they do. Sigh.

          Thanks for speaking truthfully about this, Freckle.

          1. Whenever someone says that they were cat-called somewhere in NZ or the Netherlands I cringe. Of course no-one wants to hear that the people around them are cruel towards the people you have an (online) connection with.
            But that doesn’t mean I should close my eyes to it. I can never imagine what the experience is for a person of colour, but that doesn’t mean I should wave it off.

            And that is something a lot of (white) Dutch people have to learn right now.

        2. It’s so confusing. As you say, some think it’s an utopia, while in other places I hear “EUROPE IS SO FUCKING RACIST I WAS LYNCHED THERE”. People seem to forget that every country has its good and bad individuals.

          What you say in your last two sentences is an absolute truth. A column writer put it done great as well: “White men have the biggest issue with the comments about Black Pete, while having the littlest to do with it”. It’s waah waah without a center.

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