On November 16, hundreds of thousands of Dutch children will take to the streets for what should be the jolliest feast of the year: the annual arrival of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) in the Netherlands. Sinterklaas makes his entry accompanied by black-faced helpers: “Black Petes,” or “Zwarte Pieten.”
While the tradition’s racist undertones have been discussed for decades in predominantly progressive urban circles, this year, for the first time, the debate opened up to a broader public. Sinterklaas is often perceived as core to Dutch national folklore. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, national pandemonium broke out when the chairperson of the United Nations Working Group on People of African Descent, Verene Shepherd, stated in an interview with a Dutch public broadcaster that “the working group cannot understand why it is that people in the Netherlands cannot see that this is a throwback to slavery and that in the 21st century this practice should stop.”
Shepherd’s statement was met with widespread hostility for its perceived interference with, and failure to understand, a purely national cultural issue. Advocating to keep “the Netherlands’ most beautiful tradition as it is” and to push back against critics who say Black Pete is racist, two young Dutch advertisers set up a Facebook “Pete-ition” page. The Pete-ition gained over two million supporters in a just few days, which is a fairly substantial number in a country of almost 17 million.
The Pete-ition has polarized Dutch society. The majority, mainly Dutch white citizens, for whom the Sinterklaas celebrations are primarily associated with positive emotions, refuse to acknowledge any racist connection. But the minority, mainly Dutch citizens of Caribbean descent, is asking for a transformation of Black Pete’s physical characteristics. The positions of these groups have become entrenched, paralyzing further constructive discussion.
At the extreme end of the debate, those advocating for change have been subjected to racist comments. Some of the typical responses from those in favor of the tradition were summarized by a Dutch journalist. He quotes a supporter of the Pete-ition page, saying: “If you, as a ‘black’ figure, have problems with a feast that has been held here for years, you should get the hell out of here!”
Unfortunately, questions worthy of deeper consideration raised by advocates for change have been trivialized by prominent public figures. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, supported by his governing partner from the Social Democrats, Diederik Samsom, stated that “Black Pete is black, and there’s little we can do about that.”
A prominent progressive commentator argued that the “Black Pete Is Racism” movement is attempting to point out racism to a population that “after years of enlightenment” is largely blind to the existence of the phenomenon. Ian Buruma observed a similar reaction of denial in his analysis of the equally polarized debate that followed the murder of Theo van Gogh.
Perhaps for outsiders, it does not take much to recognize that the figure of Black Pete—with his black face, big red lips, curly hair, and inherently subordinate position next to Sinterklaas—is a caricature borne out of the Netherlands’ colonial past. The Netherlands, however, is ill-equipped to deal with the colonial past or recognize its present day legacy.
School curricula do little to educate the population about the country’s “Golden Age”; the appalling exploits of the Dutch East and West India Company and the Dutch slave trade fill very few pages in the history books of primary and high schools. Ninsee, the one institution that has worked to raise awareness about the history and legacy of slavery outside of formal education, recently saw its state subsidies cut so drastically that it had to close.
Because Dutch society is (willfully) blind to its past, Black Pete’s opponents have been ridiculed, subjected to racist slurs, and their arguments trivialized in their fight for equality. The faultlines that have emerged in society over this debate should alert the public that Black Pete is merely a symbol of much deeper problems.
Although the Netherlands perceives itself (and is typically seen by others) as a tolerant, progressive and fair society, in reality there are deep problems with racial inequality and discrimination, as was recently highlighted in a report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance. Until it can acknowledge the harm caused during its colonial history, and the continuing legacy of past injustices such as slavery, the Netherlands will remain unable to engage in a constructive national conversation over inequality, or create a truly fair and tolerant society.