Will the Sinterklaas tradition die without Black Pete?

Will the Sinterklaas tradition die without Black Pete?

Guest post submitted by Anneclaire Michele

AMSTERDAM – A YouTube movie of two activists getting kicked and sprayed with pepper spray by several police officers led to nationwide attention to the arrestees.

Why were these men, one of them repeating, “I did not do anything, I did not do anything” over and over again, so forcefully arrested by the police force?

The answer is that they were protesting against the current style of celebrating of Sinterklaas during the arrival of Sinterklaas in Dordrecht.

Sinterklaas is a part of a century-old Dutch tradition, during which every child who has behaved him- or herself in the past year receives presents on the 5th of December.

During his arrival in the Netherlands, a white horse and many Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) accompany the Sint.

It is this notion of Zwarte Pieten both men had problems with and would like to see changed. They represented the movement “Zwarte Piet is Racisme (Black Pete is racism)” at the arrival of the Sint in Dordrecht, by wearing t-shirts with that slogan across their chest, which according to the police was reason enough to arrest them with an iron fist.

What is at heart of there movement? Why are these men demonstrating at what at first sight appears to be an innocent celebration for children?

“Zwarte Piet is Racisme” first and foremost stresses that they want to enter a peaceful dialogue. As one of the men arrested in Dordrecht, Quinsy Gairo says in a radio interview: “Do not use force, we want to engage in dialogue, not violence”.

The group states on their Facebook page that “for the greater part we have nothing against our national holiday. Unfortunately, there is an element in the celebration that promotes inequality and racism.”

The element promoting this inequality and racism is Zwarte Piet, a figure that was added to the Sinterklaas celebration during the colonial times.

Five years prior to the abolishment of slavery, “a Negro, under the name of Pieter” is firstly described as the “servant” of Sinterklaas, he received his name Zwarte Piet (black Pete) three years later.

Currently, Zwarte Piet has a black skin tone, frizzy hair and thick lips that are often painted red. His clothing is based on the uniforms black pages wore in the 17th and 18th century and his earrings are large golden Creole earrings.

This image shows many similarities with the stereotypical representation of Africans.
This image coming from the colonial times is an expression of the notion that the ‘White race’ was supreme to the ‘Black race’.

Moreover the cast between the white boss (Sint) and his black servants (the Pieten) inevitably evokes associations with the Dutch colonial past.

Zwarte Piet usually talks improper Dutch, often with a Surinamese accent, and does silly tricks, which in the eyes of many stimulates a negative imaging of certain groups in society.

“The message behind the ‘Zwarte Piet is Racisme’ campaign is not that the Netherlands are bad, the message is that the Netherlands can do better”, says Jerry ‘Kno’Ledge Afriyie’, one of the men arrested in Dordrecht on Facebook.

The group is not against the poems, the idea of giving and receiving or children getting presents, but he continues: “Our campaign wants to get rid of the racist element in our national celebration, namely Zwarte Piet”.

Their main goal though, is to get people talking: “We want people to enter a dialogue with each other about their personal experiences with Zwarte Piet and his image”.

A lot of Dutch people are not in favor of changing the celebration of Sinterklaas and are in favor of maintaining this image of Zwarte Piet.

An often heard counterargument is the argument that Zwarte Piet would get his black colour due to all the trips to the chimney he makes and thus has nothing to do with the racism.

But then, proponents of the ‘Zwarte Piet is racisme” movement state: “Why does Zwarte Piet has red lips and frizzy hair?”

Some state the tradition will die without Zwarte Piet, however, in earlier celebrations of the tradition, up to the 1850s, there was no Zwarte Piet.

Another important question to ask is whether will Sinterklaas be affected when the notion of Zwarte Piet will be gone or changed?

Is the essence of the party the look of the servant of the Sint or that children are being spoiled with gifts and sweets for their good behavior?

There is also a possibility that the people that believe Zwarte Piet needs to remain part of the Sinterklaas celebration, want to secure the economical benefits of Sinterklaas.

A spokesperson of “Zwarte Piet is Racisme” says: “The police literally told us that Dordrecht has spent a lot of time and money in obtaining the arrival of Sinterklaas and that they will not tolerate any opposing opinions.”

People do not want to change the Sinterklaas celebration, because they don’t want to lose their part-time job, and companies are also reluctant to change the celebration, because they will then be stuck with all the merchandise.

“It is very sad to hear that apparently economic interests are more important. Society has seriously drifted away from its original foundations, if we allow this organization of priorities,” the spokesperson continues.

It is safe to say that the discussion about Zwarte Piet has not settled yet, and one might wonder if it ever will.

But what is maybe even more worrying, is how this debate uncovers the racist ideas some people still have.

The people disagreeing with the current Zwarte Piet are by many not consider to be Dutch, which can be seen in their arguments starting of with: “Well, WE Dutchies, …”.

Moreover, as long as people post messages on Facebook telling the supporters of this movement they “have to stop with playing the eternal victim”, the Netherlands still has a long way to go, not only regarding the Zwarte Piet issue, but also in terms of becoming the tolerant nation they claim to be.

Guest post By Anneclaire Michele

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