It’s that time of year again. For about the last month or more, the Dutch press has been full of articles about the controversial Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) characters, the ‘assistants’ of Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas is a Dutch tradition based on a Santa-like bishop who comes to Holland from Spain in a steamboat with presents for kids, and a ‘stick’ for naughty children, aided and abetted by the Black Pete figures. In fairly recent times, the Saint and Petes were pretty rough on naughty kids but nice to the good ones. That punishment aspect has been watered down in the last few decades though, along with the ‘silly voices’ or speech of the Black Petes… which leads us nicely into this year’s controversy update.
This time, the Great Annual Pete Debate was instigated by a UN cultural survey researcher who castigated the Dutch for still using blacked-up white people to represent Zwarte Piet, the “Saint’s little helpers”. The UN researcher, from Jamaica, saw these figures as racial stereotypes, ‘slaves’ serving the great white Sinterklaas figure, and it is of course true that the ritual blacking-up of whites for a public celebration would be regarded as extremely dubious in most countries these days.
The UN survey group were investigating whether the Sinterklaas tradition could be included on a global cultural heritage list, it generally looks at two such traditions worldwide per year and the UN points out (as it did to Dutch journalists this year) that the survey researchers do not always necessarily reflect the opinions of the UN itself.
It seems the heavier the outside (and more and more, inside) criticism, the more violent the native Dutch backlash. Within days of the UN researcher’s pronouncement, an online petition to maintain the Zwarte Piet tradition had garnered some one million digital signatures – this in a country with a population of 16 million people.
Perhaps the most poignant illustration of this backlash occurred at a recent Pro-Pete demonstration in a public park in The Hague where a black woman was harrassed by a group of the demonstrators – even manhandled by one – who took her for an anti-demonstrator. As it turned out, she was, ironically enough, just holding her own private protest against the UN’s lack of reaction to the colonization by Indonesia of West Papua. The man who grabbed her later apologised, but the incident showed how incendiary the sentiments of the demonstrators were.
The popular outrage is indeed vehement but the whole question somehow gets easier to discuss publicly each year; perhaps this acclimatisation is indicative of slow but sure cultural change.
The Prime Minister – Mark Rutte – was also keen to stress that this was a social rather than political issue, so there would be no blanket directives handed down by the government. He encouraged further debate on the matter, asking the people to explore other solutions or come up with compromises. There have been moves, for example, towards Rainbow Petes instead of black-faced characters.
Reaction to the criticism varies from region to region, town to town, with Amsterdam being amongst the least pro-Black Pete, perhaps unsurprisingly given its relatively greater share of cosmopolitan and urbanite inhabitants.
This whole annual embarrassing debate comes after a decade or more of increasingly xenophobic tendencies in Dutch politics and life in general. The far-right populist party of Geert Wilders has never been so popular and would be the largest single party in parliament if elections were held now, according to recent media surveys. Unsurprisingly, Black Pete has become a fiercely defended symbol for the ‘new right’.
The view of this long-term expat resident is that the tradition – no matter its original intent – is now on the event horizon of a cultural black hole. In time it will inevitably be sucked in. In the best of universes, it may emerge at the other side as a modernised, possibly almost unrecognisable variant of the original, humane and sanitised. At worst Santa Claus may end up alone in the chimney in December in Holland.
I for one wouldn’t mourn the passing. The Black-faced minstrels formerly seen elsewhere were condescending and crap too.