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.”
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.