Saint Nicolas and Black Petes are back with a vengeance

A while back I wrote a piece about the Dutch children’s tradition of celebrating Saint Nicolas and his helper Black Pete. About the latter one, Black Pete, a rather violent discussion is currently raging in the Netherlands. About a year ago the latest discussion ensued. It even went up as far the UN. One Dutch judge made it illegal for Saint Nicolas to parade around Amsterdam with Black Petes and then another judge overturned the initial ruling. The extreme-right political part of Geert Wilders wants to make a law guaranteeing that Black Pete remains black. In short, the Black Pete discussion will continue to rage on for some time.

The celebration of Saint Nicolas starts with his arrival by steamboat all the way from Spain. After a few weeks of touring the Netherlands he quietly returns to Spain right after he gave all the good kids their presents on the eve of December 5th. His arrival by steamboat is a big event. Often thousands of kids (and their parents/guardians) will line the streets to get a glimpse of Saint Nicolas and maybe a handful candy from one of the many Black Petes who accompanied Saint Nicolas.

Today, November 15th, was his arrival in the Netherlands and the town of Gouda was the scene of many happy children. As the discussion around Black Pete has been going on for a while, a group of people came to demonstrate against the character of Black Pete. They perceive his character to embody a negative stereotype of black people. For some reason today’s protest did not go smoothly and resulted in at least 90 people being arrested [BBC report]. 60 for demonstrating in a non-assigned area (they were not allowed at the celebration sites) and 30 for disorderly conduct. One of the people arrested was the journalist Sunny Bergman, who is in the process of making a movie critiquing Black Peter, and her camera was convincated as well. Shortly after her arrest the camera was returned to her employer.

This event has elisitated a response from both Saint Nicolas himself as well as the Dutch Prime Minister. Where Saint Nicolas says that all will be fine and not to worry as he embodies a fatherly figure. Prime Minister Mark Rutte was less fatherly in his response. He remarked that he was saddened that a children’s party was disturbed and he hopes that this won’t happen for the remainder of the Saint Nicolas celebrations.

It is apparent that the discussion about the role and physical appearance of Black Pete as part of the Saint Nicolas celebrations evoke many emotions on both sides of the aisle. Except for a very small group, the role of Saint Nicolas is not in contention nor is the celebration itself. Whereas one group argues that Black Pete represents a racist stereotype based on his appearance and the role of the Netherlands in the transatlantic slave-trade. The other group, pro-Black Petr, argues that Black Pete is an integral part of the Saint Nicolas celebration and there is nothing racist about him. He needs to be black, but is not a stereotype. Video’s such as the one below, where the character Black Pete is introduced to a non-Dutch crowd in London, are ridiculed. “These foreigners don’t understand our tradition, so why should be listen to them.” Overall the arguments made by the pro-Black Pete group sound to me like a provincial attitude. Almost isolationist-like. Responding from the gut without taking a second to consider alternative viewpoints (sort of like a national version of the psychological phenomenon of groupthink). This quickly creates an entrenched position which can only upheld by even more extreme comments, such as the PVV wanting to make law demanding Black Petes always be black. This behaviour strongly contradicts how the Dutch economy is heavily dependent on trade with the same silly foreigners. Pretending that foreign opinions don’t exist or matter to you is rather naïve.

It would also be very naïve to assume that there is little to no racism is day-to-day life in the Netherlands. Just like people in the US will become more vigilant if they see a small group of black youth standing at a corner, Dutch people will become more vigilant when they see a small group of youth of Turkish- or Moroccan-descent. The Dutch even invented a word to describe someone of not 100% Dutch origin: allochtoon. Racism is also about stereotyping minorities. It doesn’t matter if this is done with malintent or even consciously. The guise of tradition does not justify stereotyping. When considering the historical position of the Netherlands with regards to black people (establishing settlements or participating in the transatlantic slave-trade) an aware posture would be expected, yet we see the opposite when it comes to Saint Nicolas and Black Pete.

The comments of the mayor Milo Schoenmaker of Gouda, who also functioned as the host of Saint Nicolas, were very typical: “it were outsiders who came to to us to cause ruckus”. The old bogeyman argument. Back in 2011 when UC Davis police pepper sprayed several students, the chancellor used identical arguments. In that case the initial handling of the event was extremely poor. As the mayor is in charge of the police, it is important to know why 60 demonstrators were able to mingle with celebratory crowd in the first place. Of course it is tempting to be cynical about these arrests as all 90 people were charged with a € 220 fine, which mean they expect to receive €19,800 (or $24,795).

With what I have learned I have to revise my former position. I will celebrate Saint Nicolas, but the Black Pete part I will leave out, at least as a Black Pete. It is not so much that Black Pete is an established part of the celebration for the last 150 years. It stereotypes the black population in the Netherlands, which is wrong. Revising the looks of Black Pete would be one way of resolving the issue, as well as changing his name to for instance Pete the Helper. I doubt the kids will care what Pete the Helper looks like, as an argument of the pro-Black Pete camp is.

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