KAMPALA – Of course, not all racism is engrained in behavioural patterns and unconscious associations, nor are all its institutions hardly visible. Sometimes, cultural traditions from racist eras, the black pages of European and American history, are continued because, well, that’s what traditions do. These symbolic practices carry with them enormous value, even if the practice itself has lost its original function a long time ago.
Black Pete is one of those traditions. This post requires some (cultural background): a major Dutch cultural event is Sinterklaas (a.ka. the Dutch Santa Claus), who was a Bishop somewhere in Turkey in the year 342 AD. He died on the fifth of December, and we celebrate his death with presents. Popular culture made him to have his headquarters in Spain, where he prepares all year to come to the Netherlands on a steamboat. He is an elderly, white man who is eloquently dressed in what can be best described as an extravagant papal outfit. He has a staff, and rides a white horse (cause he’s old). In November, there is a huge event in a major Dutch city, where Sinterklaas officially arrives. People cheering. Candy’s thrown. The mayor greets Sinterklaas. There is a news journal on national television documenting the entire journey from Spain.
It’s all very endearing. Black Pete is his, well, Sinterklaas’ “helper” or “assistant” or “companion”. He is portrayed nowadays as a white person painted black, with substantial red lips, a huge afro, dressed funnily in outrageous colours. He’s usually not too bright. Sinterklaas delivers presents. Black Pete climbs down your chimney and deposits the said present in your shoe, which you have placed there, with a carrot or a cookie inside for the horse.
Black Pete was introduced in 1850 in a book by Dutch writer Jan Schenkman, as were most of the other more popular aspects of the tradition: the steam boat, etc.
For anyone who is not Dutch, this probably sounds ridiculous, but it is really not supposed to make too much sense. Young children love Sinterklaas, and actually believe in his existence.
However, in the last few years, there have been anti-Black Pete protests and campaigns. The demonstrations were met with equally vehement reactions from a lot of Dutch people defending this cultural tradition.
Black Pete undoubtedly carries with him a colonial past. His appearance, as an exotic black man (or woman), with huge earrings, the hair, the red lips, all bear great resemblence to the black servants in colonial times. The oriental image is undeniable, really. The fact that he is portrayed as not too bright, and in a subservient relation to the white bearded man makes it even more problematic.
Reactions ranged from people accusing the protestors of trying to ruin an innocent children’s holiday to people accusing them of cultural hijacking, black victimhood and white guilt.
Another reason brought up, one a bit more substantial than a reactive and intuitive defense to what was perceived as an attack on culture, was that yes, these racial and racist elements are there, but their racist meaning has been obliterated over the years. The kids, whose holiday it after all is, did not perceive racism, and neither do most Dutch people, apparently. The reason for that is, accordingly, the fact that racist symbolism was transformed into a cultural tradition that can only be described as “fun”.
I once dressed up as Black Pete for charity. We got to visit people’s houses and play around with the children. Some of them were a bit shy or scared of both Sinterklaas and Black Pete, but besides that, the interaction was indeed “fun”. Therefore, to abolish Black Pete would be a form of political correctness that was simultaneously tiring and took most of the fun out of the entire holiday.
I am still unsure about Black Pete. There is naturally a substantial cultural bias on my side. What I did point out, repeatedly, to both pro- and anti-Black Pete protestors, was that of all the problems black people encounter because of their perceived membership subscription to their race, Black Pete is definitely not the most important one.
Previously, I have written about the consumption of ideology, which does not require any actual sacrifice but merely the symbolic gesture of it. Black Pete is such a symbol. It is one of the few cultural monuments with a clear and undeniable racial and colonial past. It is easy to point to and scream: “RACISM!” while it is much harder to get equally upset about a more abstract and embedded version of racism.
Those who are anti-Black Pete are usually less invested in the cultural practice, and those who are pro-Black Pete are people who have very fond memories of this holiday; -they might even be slightly nationalistic and consider Sinterklaas as a national holiday.
I think abolishing Black Pete would be a symbolic annihilation without many consequences. Some will feel victorious, but structural change will not occur. The anti-Black Pete protests are an empty proxy for deeper-seated racism in Dutch society. Not to say that we should not abolish him, but limiting the moral outrage to clear and visible symbols will not address any actual racism.