Hein (fub) wrote,

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Sinterklaas and racism

This evening is Sinterklaasavond, St. Nicholas eve, a traditional festivity in the Netherlands when children get presents. Sinterklaas is accompanied by a group of helpers, "Black Pete". And in the past months, there's been quite the kerfuffle about Black Pete: some people pointed out that the figure of Black Pete has racist roots -- racism that persists to today. Other people had a knee-jerk reaction and denied there's any racism, and concluded that if a person of color has a problem with Black Pete, they should go back to their own country.

It is undeniable that Black Pete does have roots in racism. The figure of Black Pete is depicted like the African slaves that rich people held, clothed in the colorful garb in the colors of their masters. But historically, St. Nicholas bought a slave and gave him his freedom, and the ex-slave decided to stay with him as his servant. Some of the lyrics of the Sinterklaas songs are also... problematic.

This is a real problem, and I fully understand that people of color have a problem with white people dressing up as African slaves for a children's festivity.
And the problem does not go away by denying there is a problem. The problem does not go away by inviting everyone who identifies the problem to leave the country. The problem does not go away by pointing to people of color who have no problems with Black Pete. The problem does not go away by saying that the figure of Black Pete is not intended to be racist.

There's a good analysis of the question here.

I really like the Sinterklaas tradition. I have fond memories of it, and we celebrate the holiday almost every year (though we do it on Christmas, because then my sister can take days off from her work to visit the Netherlands). Simply abolishing Sinterklaas is unacceptable to the majority of the Dutch -- it's a unique Dutch celebration, and we want to keep it. (But no-one who has given the matter some thought is suggesting that.)
But it is clear (at least to me) that something needs to be done. Listening to the Black Pete apologists did not make me feel proud of my fellow countrymen. The facts are simple and clear: Black Pete has roots in racism, and we should look for ways to take the racism out of Sinterklaas.

I do not have a ready-made solution, unfortunately. But I do wish to point out that there's a very easy way to change Black Pete into something else entirely within, say, four years.
Children become away of Sinterklaas at, say, two years of age. And by the time they turn six, they are let in on the secret. That gives a 'generation' of four years, from beginning to end. That's pretty short, so any change you make in the mythology of Sinterklaas can become canon within that period. And from then on, you can use the new mythology, because the target audience doesn't know anything else.
Dutch public broadcasting has been doing a 'Sinterklaas news show' every day in the run-up to Sinterklaas, for a few years now. They feature the 'official' Sinterklaas (the one in the televised arrival of Sinterklaas in the country) and his 'official' Petes. Every year, some kind of complication is scripted to ramp up the excitement (sometimes to the exasperation of parents whose children become unmanagable due to 'Sint-stress'). And so whatever they script, that's the truth for all children in the Netherlands.

I would propose that the Dutch public broadcasting invites the relevant parties for a broad discussion on what to do with the racist legacy of Black Pete, and how to move forwards towards a modern Sinterklaas mythology that retains the best of the tradition while adressing the existing issues. The trick is probably in finding reasonable people to have this discussion with -- re-stating your knee-jerk reaction is not going to move anyone forward. But hey, we have a whole year to start fixing this.
And then, when a consensus/compromise has been reached, script the news show accordingly. Make gradual changes and take a time-frame of four years. And after those four years, the mythology of Sinterklaas has been changed. Every kid who discovers Sinterklaas will then go with the new mythology because that's what they know.
Tags: society

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