When debates have very strong emotional overtones, I tend to stay out of them. That is the survivor in me, who doesn’t want to get caught up in spheres where words are not safe from being misinterpreted. So I stayed out of the Black Pete debate, that has been getting headlines in the last few years. When sitting in a café with my beloved a few years ago, a little blonde girl of about five years old, pointing at him and his red baret, asked her parents: ‘Is that Zwarte Piet?’ I noticed that he was a bit disturbed, but his love for children overtook the emotion, and he answered the parents, who did not know how to react, with a smile: ‘she is a child, she doesn’t know.’ As the discussion about the racism represented by the figure of Saint Nicholas’ helper gained momentum, I noticed that his tolerance for similar incidents diminished. Recently protests against the blackface character led to 90 arrests, and he asked me to use my (small) public voice to say something on the matter, so I will try.
One of the problems in the debate is that my small country, which is mostly known abroad for its socker players and its tulips, and perhaps as a trading nation with much tolerance for different lifestyles, is now suddenly news for a cultural tradition which formerly was practically unknown internationally. From times immemorial, on the fifth of December the Dutch celebrated this Saint who is supposed to come from Spain each year, with some moorish characters (who, I understand, were added about 150 years ago) as his helpers, in the privacy of their own international unimportancy. This brings many Dutch, who mostly enjoyed the celebration when they were children themselves, or who do so through the eyes of their own children, to react to any criticism by saying that nobody understands, and that you should live here to do so. The point is that they are right mostly, in the sense that most international coverage of the matter contains ridiculous mistakes, like saying that ‘Sinterklaas’ belongs to Christmas. The downside of this is, that those Dutch discussants never arrive at what is at stake in the criticisms: that the depiction of the helpers of the ‘good and holy’ man helps to sustain overt and latent racism in our society.
While in the turmoil also some neo-fascist groups surface, who address the gut feeling that ‘our’ traditions are under threat in the globalizing world, and that ‘we’ should defend them no matter what, there are also moderate voices who understand that living traditons always change, so this one can too, but who also remind us that we should not forget that it is a children’s celebration, and that it is wrong that protesters against blackface Pete disturb the festivities. This is to my taste a very suspicious argument. It reminds me of those news items from warring groups or nations, who try to post as many pictures of wounded or dead children as possible – to gain sympathy for their cause. If they want sympathy, they should put more effort into ending their war. Dictators also love to pose for the photographer with children on their arm. So, no, don’t come to me with ‘innocent’ children to defend practices that are hurtful to co-members of our human race.
Then there is the argument that the dressing up is playful and innocent, and has nothing to do with racism. This argument is not acceptable to anyone who knows anything about symbolic messages, for it focusses only on the supposed intentions of the impersonators. If those whites who blacken their faces once a year have no racist intent, then the practice itself is not racist, is the idea. This is as untrue as it gets of course, because messages cannot function without context and without those who receive and interpret them. Intention is only one aspect of communication. There might be subconscious intentions too, by the way, but let’s not focus on those for not complicating the matter to much. The activists against Zwarte Piet, most of them from the formerly Dutch colony of Surinam, often get the accusation that they interpret the message wrong. That they see images of colonialism and slavery when those were never intended. Well, if we would accept the good intentions of all the pro-Piet-people, there still is the issue of context. If you happen to be black in our society those images may very well be obvious. Of course official slavery and colonialism is over. But their remnants are not. Or perhaps they are not just remnants, but practices that go on under different guises. To all those who want to deny this I suggest to listen to some stories of those who are in the position to know from first hand experience.
To sum things up, I have come to the conclusion that a) the protests against the Zwarte Piet character are justified. They do not want to spoil a children’s celebration, they want to change it so that it can include all of its citizens. b) foreign journalism which doesn’t check the facts leads to many dead-end discussions, and leads away from what it all is really about. c) one should watch out for neo-nazi’s posing as defenders of cherished traditions and d) take racism in our society seriously.
So what about the celebration itself? What is it about? I must confess, when I think of my own childhood memories, that our family was not representative of most people in dealing with Saint Nicholas. Where most children were told that the Saint and his helpers were real (in a literal manner), and that the presents they brought really came from Spain, this was not the case in our home. When I was old enough to understand anything, I think about age five, I was told that we as a family bought the presents for each other, and that we made the traditional poems accompanying them, as well as the famous wrappings disguising gifts to be unattractive things (the most popular is perhaps to put a gift in some stuff that looks like poo). But I was also told that this was to be a secret we kept for each other. At Sinterklaas eve you give anonymously – and your only reward will be the happy face of someone if you chose the right gift. By being thus an early accomplice to the Saint, I did not go through the phase that others did, mostly at around age seven or eight, of discovering ‘that it all was not true’. I often think this to have been the reason that I didn’t go through religious doubts about whether God exists or not which most of my christian peers experienced. From that early age I was taught that symbolic reality is true and not true in differing ways at the same time.
While at age five I was being treated as an adult in the matter of the most famous Dutch celebration of giving, I was never particularly interested in the figures of the Saint and his helpers. Their ‘arrival from Spain’ (which I knew to be nonsense) was just the announcement of the start of the season that we bought our presents, wrote our poems, made our ‘surprise’ wrappings, and hid all of them for each other. It was a season of positive suspense, culminating in an evening full of wrapping paper, poem reading, traditional sweets, and happy faces. All the same, some of the racism latent in the descriptions of Zwarte Piet rubbed off on me. Not from our family interpretation of the celebration, but from songs and stories learned in school and from picture books. Back in those days the public character was mainly designed to frighten children – as an assistant for parents who had trouble disciplining their offspring. When you were good, he would bring presents, when you were bad, he would take you to Spain in a bag. Or even make sausage out of you. Although I knew this to be nonsense, as we at home were ourselves the givers, and Saint and his helper were just symbols for our doing so, I could never completely ignore public culture, and developed a latent fear of dark faced people, which I had to consciously unlearn when I was an adult. So in my experience there is no innocence in any tradition. But tradition is neither an undifferentiated reality. It is what one makes of it. Declare all children and adults to be together in a yearly celebration of giving. And make clear that giving as such is a way to transcend ordinary reality – by adding some mysterious figures who are not really real. But cleanse them as much from the negative aspects of normal reality. This is an idealist argument, I acknowledge that. It supposes that one can learn and promote justice and peace in human relations. So be it. At this time of the year.