Equality: the Black Pete debate

Sinterklaas! Tomorrow! And today is pakjesavond, for those who don’t have the southeastern Dutch tradition that I grew up with. I never knew pakjesavond. As a child, I would come downstairs to breakfast on 6 December and find the table covered with gifts and goodies, and the chairs too.

flower bulb fieldsUnless you’ve been living on Mars, you likely are aware of the hot debate surrounding the Netherlands’ Black Petes.

(Thank you, Independent, for the quotation marks around ‘racist’ in that headline.)

Most countries have Santa at Christmas; the Dutch have Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) and the Pieten (Petes, elves) that climb down chimneys, using a rope, in November and early December. (The Petes also have a traditional chimney sweep tool, I think. Some historian undoubtedly has already looked into this.) St Nicholas is white, has a white horse, and somehow all of them end up on the roofs of homes, while the Dutch Santa hands out presents to the Petes for the children living in the homes. It is a children’s tradition, like the tooth fairy (which the Dutch don’t have), but much bigger. Santa-big.

Dutch flagThe Petes are black because they slide up and down the chimneys to deliver the presents. As a kid, I used to leave a shoe out every evening this time of the year. Every evening, after having brushed my teeth or whatever it is that kids do before they go to bed, I’d leave something for the horse in the shoe, like a carrot. In the morning, I’d be dying to know if Pete had left me something in return, like a bar of chocolate.

It all fell apart when one night when I couldn’t sleep, I went downstairs and spotted my dad putting something in my shoe.

The black Pete debate is the most biased debate I have ever witnessed in my 54 years on this planet, other than South-Africa’s apartheid. I would call it stupid, if it weren’t for the fact that the debate about the Zwarte Pieten reveals how biased we all still are. Do I understand it? Yes. I wish I didn’t. I wish I were merely puzzled.

  • The Petes can have ANY COLOUR and it does not make one iota of a difference to the tradition, other than that a Pete with green facepaint is harder to explain to kids. It makes no difference. It is a nonsense debate, in itself.
  • Sinterklaas is white. No one whines about that. No one says that this is discrimination of black people like one used to say about there only being white dolls for girls to play with (and that criticism was justified).
  • Sinterklaas is old and so are Santas. Is this discrimination of old people or of young people? You have to look very old to be Sinterklaas. You can’t look like you’re 20. Okay, discrimination of young people, then.
  • Certainly most Santas are rotund. I haven’t heard anyone complain that this is discrimination of obese people, or of thin people because thin people are left out.
  • Much more seriously, Sinterklaas is a white catholic bishop and lots of little kids get to sit on his lap. If there is anything to whine about, whine about that.
  • And, no one whines – whinnies? – about the traditional white horse either. Or about the mere fact that Sinterklaas rides a horse.
  • Has anyone already pointed out that clowns put WHITE facepaint on? Does that mean that black clowns are not acceptable?

I vote that from now on, Sinterklaas gets blue facepaint because he must get very cold up on the roof waiting for the Petes all the time in this kind of weather in the middle of the night, and that the Petes get blue and green facepaint and that Sinterklaas and the Pieten no longer come from Spain – has Spain complained about this tradition yet? – but descend from a spaceship from outer space. Until we’re colonised by aliens from outer space, that covers our bases.

Using the word ‘alien’ could be seen as discrimination of foreigners, but the word does not exist in the Dutch language! Buitenaardse wezens. Beings from outer space. Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Pieten can be buitenaardse wezens from now on, with green and blue faces. Hm. The Petes don’t have to be blue because they’re too active to get cold up on the roof in this kind of weather. (So St Nicholas has to get a layer of green paint first, and then blue.)

It would make NO DIFFERENCE WHATSOEVER to the tradition.

Yes, in history, this bishop probably had Moorish associates. The Moors also had a big impact on parts of Spanish culture. Many of the traditions of south-eastern Spain have Moorish elements. This is not a well-known part of the Dutch children’s fun, if it is part at all, so you can easily ignore this. The bishop came from Turkey (Myra) to Spain, I think, and whether that was just in tales or in real history does not matter. Ouch. I just insulted the people of Turkey and the people of Spain because I could be seen as suggesting that their history does not matter. And as Myra was a Greek town… and the Moors, apparently, were muslim…

Last night, the Dutch Santa TV news show for kids had a Sinterklaas with black facepaint. Earlier, they had Petes with white facepaint (and that too was attacked as being racist, so I understand).


But if you want to understand the background behind the protests, watch the movie Bamboozled, by Spike Lee. It may open your eyes.