Free Piet!

22 Nov

Every December, Holland falls victim to a bizarre virus. Kids cannot sleep, parents go nuts and entire blocks are closed off for traffic. No, I’m not talking about a terrorist threat or the latest Harry Potter hype. I’m talking about one of the most popular Dutch traditions: Sinterklaas.
An old, bearded guy wearing a red dress, who supposedly lives in Spain where he owns a palace full of presents. Each year, he takes his gift-loaded steamer to visit Holland, dropping presents through the chimney. He does vaguely resemble his Anglosaxon brother Santaclaus, though Sinterklaas prefers a horse over raindeer and .. black slaves over elves.
Black slaves? Yes. Loads of them. “Zwarte Piet” (Black Pete) has been Sinterklaas’ loyal servant since he first entered the story in 1850, when Amsterdam-based school teacher Jan Schenkman wrote the first illustrated Sinterklaas children’s book. He depicted Black Pete as a More, wearing 16th century clothes, carrying a whip and threatening kids to put them in a bag and take them back to Spain, if they misbehaved. Poor Pete is sent up the roofs to drop off the presents, has to carry Sinterklaas’ cane and looks after the old man’s horse. In other words, he’s his slave.
Shocking? Not in 1850. When Schenkman wrote his book, the Dutch colonies had not yet abolished slavery (that wouldn’t happen untill 1863) and most Dutch people had never met a free black person. Now comes the shocking part. Today, in 2010, when, thanks to post-colonial migration, our country is a multicolored mosaic, kids still grow up with Black Pete. White men in blackface wearing 16th century clothes still acting as Sinterklaas’ loyal servants. And that’s not all. Black Pete is depicted as stupid (he always gets lost), dependent (he needs Sinterklaas to help him out) and scary (cause bad kids still have to fear being put into his bag, back to Spain).
What I find most shocking, is that most Dutch people refuse to acknowledge this is in fact a racist stereotype disguised as tradition. Any debate about the abolishment of Black Pete is nipped in the bud “cause it’s part of our culture.”
Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against tradition. I even have nothing against Sinterklaas. But I strongly object to the perpetuation of painful racist stereotypes through this shameful show we put on for kids each year. Let’s get this straight. It’s stupid. It’s unneccesary. It’s time to move on.

One Response to “Free Piet!”

  1. Howard MARKS December 27, 2010 at 1:56 pm #

    My position is this..

    the refrain “its our tradition” is the cultural
    version of “I was only following orders”

    In all circumstances in life I have always and will always never accept either excuse for mindless conformist
    crap that zombies justify with lame explanations.

    The number of Dutch people who repeat the he got black from the chimney line is mindboggling !! Does Chimney sut
    give a white person a cartoon Afro and red lips with a full on golliwog Black sambo persona ?

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