The trouble with Black Pete

Tomorrow night, thousands of Dutch and Flemish children will hear a knock on the door. They won’t ever see to whom the knock belongs, but they will know anyway.


I’ve talked about Sinterklaas and Black Pete on this blog before. Last year, Sinterklaas arrived in Dordrecht and was greeted by tens of thousands of screaming kids and a national TV network.

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Sinterklaas arriving in Dordrecht last year.

If you’re trying to understand the mayhem by comparing Sinterklaas and Black Pete with Santa Claus and his elves, you’re selling this whole charade short. Sinterklaas is a rockstar. Have you seen the images of Beatlemania in the 60s? All the fainting women, the teeming crowds? Now you’re getting warmer.

Sinterklaas, or Pakjesavond, is a completely different holiday to Christmas, and if you want to know the background you can read last year’s blog. The supermarkets will shut early tomorrow tonight. The six o’clock news will only go for ten minutes. Why? “So they can go home to their kids,” according to Paul.

But it’s not just a kids thing.Today Paul went into work early for a special staff Sinterklaas breakfast, with everyone receiving chocolate letters (in the shape of their initial) as a traditional gift. I’ve already been given three chocolate ‘C’s myself.

However, I’m avoiding something. Something that’s quite a big part of Sinterklaas.

“So Caitlyn, what do you think about Black Pete?”

Paul almost choked on his schnitzel when he heard a friend pose the question the other night. “Didn’t you get the memo?’ he moaned. ‘It’s on the topics to avoid list!’

If you’re confused, here’s a picture I took of a Black Pete, or Zwarte Piet as they’re known here.

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I know, sorry about the bad photo. It’s not like I could say, “Hey mate! Hold still! I want to get a good shot of how you’re using your kid to make these un-PC displays that I as a foreigner will use to pass judgement on your whole country!”

So it’s a bit blurry.

Anyway, this is a picture of a Black Pete. Actually, it’s a picture of a kid dressed up as Black Pete. Because we all know that these are the real Black Petes.

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The real Black Petes are thousands of average Dutchies. You know how a neighbour or a family friend might dress up as Santa? A bit like that, but on steroids.

All of Paul’s friends were looking at me, expectantly. So I explained what blackface was, and why it’s not really the done thing in Australia or the US. But I could see the eyebrows rising, so I finished my carefully worded rant quickly. Because nobody ever wants to hear that they’re racist, even if they’ve specifically asked you if you believe that to be the case.

Do I think Black Pete is racist? Yes. Are the Dutchies happy to hear this? No.

I don’t think it’s appropriate for white people to simply paint their faces black, their lips a rosy red and prance about like a caricature. I can go on forever critiquing Black Pete but I’m already waist-deep in thesis writing and I kind of did that anyway last year. So I’m just going offer a selection of Black Pete-defending quotes I have heard myself from Dutchies, plus my own translations. Enjoy.

(And please Dutchies, don’t take it too seriously.)

Dutch person: Look at all the Antillean kids! They don’t mind!

I’m just going to conveniently ignore the fact that a number of cultural groups petition for Black Pete to be removed, or at least renamed, every year. Because just as long as I can find one allochtoon out of the thousands of kids crammed into the square here, you, dear white person, can’t talk for them.

Dutch person: It’s all about the kids. And they don’t think it’s racist.

My kids are so brilliant, they’ve learnt the history of the slave trade, Social Darwinism, the Civil War, separate but equal, Reconciliation and apartheid by the age of five. Therefore, their expert opinion has deemed the portrayal of Black Pete completely acceptable, to the point where they’re excited to coat their own faces in black paint so they can say they look exactly like a black person.

Dutch person: Come on, stop being so politically correct. It’s just a bit of fun.

Us Dutchies are so lovely and liberal all the time, so just cut us some slack, will you? It’s just going to be way too hard to change the story for the kids now.

Dutch person: It’s just all the soot on his face from climbing down all the chimneys.

So a few years back, when people started questioning the whole Black Pete thing for the first time, we made up a story that they weren’t actually Moors from Northern Africa, like we said originally. Instead, we reckoned it was less controversial to say the Black Petes look like that because they tend to get a whole lot of black soot on their faces – but not on their jester-like clothing – in the course of their slave-like duties for Sinterklaas. Now we use that excuse if we’re getting desperate. Did it work?

Dutch person: You can’t talk. You killed all the Aborigines.

Forget the slave trade, [INSERT NATIONALITY HERE] are definitely bigger racists than us Dutchies.

Zwarte Pieten photo credit: indigo_jones on Flickr

3 Responses to The trouble with Black Pete

  1. Leanne Mansfield via Facebook December 4, 2012 at 4:56 PM #

    I can’t believe Black Pete time has come around again!

  2. Jo (the blond) December 5, 2012 at 8:01 AM #

    So what is this whole tradition about?
    Jo (the blond) recently posted..Things I thought about Thailand (and which turned out to be complete rubbish)My Profile

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