UN also involved in Black Peter

Sint en Piet  It is a surprising step in the Black Peter debate: the UN is now investigating the Sinterklaas and Black Peter tradition. Chair of the investigating group professor Verene Shepherd has already concluded that Black Peter is a return to slavery and should be abolished (see http://www.eenvandaag.nl/binnenland/47577/zwarte_piet_waarom_raakt_de_discussie_heel_nederland_?autoplay=1) She is surprised that the Dutch close their eyes for racism and she thinks it is the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, who should abolish the tradition (as if we live in a country with a dictator, and not in a democracy with a poldermodel). She gives her comments as ‘a black person’ even before the investigation has taken place and shows her limited multicultural knowledge by remarking that the Netherlands do not need ‘two Santa Clauses’. The Dutch only recently knew the American Santa Claus that comes with Christmas; it is certainly not a Dutch tradition and many Dutch hesitate to adopt it: they think that Christmas is for religion and Santa Claus is not part of that, or they think it is too commercial or too American. Very strange to see the head of a UN team as a promotor for American traditions around the world.
All this is part of the Human Rights policy of the UN and it leads to cynical remarks: that apparently the UN finished the job for human rights in Syria? that there is no starvation, genocide or war left the UN could better be busy with? In the meantime this year, the UN also ranked the Dutch children for the 2nd time as the happiest children in the world: http://www.dutchdailynews.com/dutch-kids-ranked-happiest-in-the-world/

So far the Dutch debate was much about the origin of Black Peter: people were trying to prove that the source was bad so Black Peter should be forbidden, as the art historian Elmer Kolfin thinks (see: http://www.volkskrant.nl/vk/nl/2686/Binnenland/article/detail/3531694/2013/10/23/Geen-twijfel-over-mogelijk-Zwarte-Piet-stamt-af-van-kindslaven.dhtml), he says Black Peter reflects 17th century child slavery. Others say the opposite, that Sinterklaas has freed black child slaves or just one, the Ethiopian boy Piter, and that that is what the Dutch celebrate. Organisations were talking about experiments, working with a black Sinterklaas and white Peters, or multicoloured Peters. But the freedom of experimenting has disappeared suddenly. Whoever experiments with this tradition now, is seen as someone who calls others ‘racist’. Anger has entered the debate. The world is now really black and white, some are ‘good’ (Verene Shepherd c.s.) and some are bad, racist (the Dutch celebrating).
A new facebook page was opened yesterday to support the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas and Black Peter and it now has already 1,5 Million likes, an extreme amount of reactions for a country like the Netherlands: https://www.facebook.com/pietitie. The debate has sharpened and I think the UN involvement has done a lot of harm.




Black Peter in full debate

zwarte piet in parool19-10-2013  It is not even December yet and the discussion of Black Peter is more alive than ever. Here you see the newspaper Parool that spent 4 pages to the subject last Saturday! This means, I guess, that we are now leaving the theoretical discussion and coming to the period where some people really want change. On the other hand, others are very much opposed to that and see it as a threat to the Dutch culture. This is just one of the pictures I saw passing on Facebook:
black peter on facebook1  Personally I do not see why we cannot have a multi coloured group of Peters helping Sinterklaas, maybe because I do not think it is so easy to threaten my culture just by changing some symbols. I am not against Black Peter either. The discussion itself is most interesting though: what do people come up with to make their point? Today I found this youtube that is showing how Sinterklaas and many Black Peters arrive in Paramaribo, Suriname: it is sent around social media to prove that black people can like Black Peter. Don’t ask me what else it proves….
See for yourself at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJeUye3zZnU


Black Peter heating minds again

black peter  As ‘Sinterklaas’ (5th December) approaches here in the Netherlands, the discussion about Black Peter (Zwarte Piet) comes to life again: should we forbid Black Peter as a racist expression, or maintain him as an authentic Dutch – or whatever – tradition?
Living in an international city with many expats, Amsterdam, I know that especially  foreigners are surprised about the Sinterklaas tradition: they see an old white man, a bishop, entering the city/different events, followed by black servants who give sweets to nice kids and have a whip to punish those who did not behave well. They judge it as racist and are usually shocked about  it.
Today the Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool shows new visions on Sinterklaas and Black Peter. I have followed this discussion now during several years (see below my former blogs) and I notice that proves of history ‘nothing wrong with Black Peter, nothing to do with racism’ become stronger as well as the resistance against it.

Journalist Arnold-Jan Scheer says he studied Sinterklaas-like events in many countries and ‘blackening the face at the end of the year happens from Cornwall to Macedonia, I discovered‘. He says that in Persia since 5000 years the venue of New Year was celebrated with men in black acting foolishly, dancing during a week in Black Peter like clothing. They were followed by an old man with a long beard who brings presents like seeds and nuts. Iranian Islam does not allow this tradition he says, but in the Iranian country side and among Dutch Iranian immigrants this feast still exists.
On the other hand Machiel Keestra and Mercedes Zandwijken also refer to history and claim that Black Peter was added to the Sinterklaas tradition by an Amsterdam school teacher in 1850 who considered (black) slavery as a normal state of life (the Netherlands abolished slavery only in 1863). They claim that the historical roots of the Sinterklaas feast are irrelevant, and so are the intentions of the most probably good willing people playing the role of Black Peter. ‘Only relevant is whether this tradition is humiliating or painful for a part of our population, or that it provokes humiliating or painful behaviour in children or grownups. In a decent society the majority follows no concepts or customs that hurt or humiliate a weaker minority‘. And they see as an even more important reason: ‘who wants to celebrate a children’s feast where part of the parents and children are not happy‘?

We see 2 sides of the same medal here. One side is going back all the way to Persia and other locations (see former blogs below, explanations were usually more close) to prove that Black Peter is a valuable tradition more than 5000 years old. Maybe his documentation is good, but his argumentation in the newpaper itself is rather week.
The other side is talking in terms of a ‘weaker minority’ and you think of your black friends and whether they should be included into their ‘weaker minority’ concept? Their core argument that people cannot celebrate because others are unhappy about the celebration remembers me my orthodox education: we were never allowed to do anything because always someone more orthodox would get unhappy with what we did: whatever a person did, a more strict interpretation was possible and prevented others/us from being happy.
In the midst of this discussion – that matters – we should not forget to live and let live.

Former blogs about this subject:

Santa Claus: not Germanic, not racist, so what about him?

 Plaatjes kerstmannen Vancouver, Canada has rejected the Dutch celebration of Sinterklaas because they feel that Black Peter who works with Sinterklaas is the symbol of a racist tradition (see two previous blogs). Santa Claus, who is doing his work without Black Peter is widely accepted, not only in Canada but also in the USA and many countries all over the world. With my background, an orthodox protestant community, this has always surprised me.
I remember during my childhood, there were many discussions about Sinterklaas because Sinterklaas – there can be no doubt – is a Roman-Catholic saint and the community I lived in was against Catholicism. Some families were not too much into principles and celebrated Sinterklaas on the 5th of December with presents surrounded with all the Sinterklaas rituals. Other families were strongly into principles so they fought against any use of Sinterklaas images or rituals. However for the children, they would allow presents given at 5th of December but without any reference to the Catholic saint; 5th of December became a ‘neutral’ present party.
In the 18th century, Dutch immigrants brought Sinterklaas to New Amsterdam (later New York) and Sinterklaas transformed into Santa Claus, a succesfull transformation that travelled around the world. It is very funny to know that Santa Claus was deliberately connected to Christmas instead of to the 5th of December to make folks forget that he was a Roman Catholic saint; as a person who was giving presents on December 24th or 25th, he could be seen as more ‘neutral’. This was convincing in countries like the USA and the UK, merely protestant countries where Santa Claus has been popular ever since, but untill 5 years ago unsuccesfull in the Netherlands. Times are achanging, but I remember very well how my community reacted  furiously against Santa Claus.
In the orthodox protestant point of view, Santa Claus is bringing down the holiness of the message of Christmas, making the story of the birth of Christ disappear in the light of presents, consumentism, greed. The horror of the values of Santa Claus was so big that not just his presents but even his image was banned from any event or information in my childhood. We didn’t miss him by the way because we were celebrating the 5th of December with presents anyway, with or without Sinterklaas, thus separating the Christian Christmas message from desire and other earthly matters and feelings.
Every community, every (sub)culture have their own role models and rituals and their own ‘horrors’ that they reject. My question is, how much do we know about each other? My experience is that when I start to talk about the community that shaped my childhood, even Dutch people hardly understand anything about it. The first step to take is to talk to each other, explain our values and how we live, explain our perspectives and the emotions that come with it. The second step might be to develop a mind of openness for change and diverse thinking and behaviour. Both steps prove to be difficult – not theoretically, but just look around and see – but they are certainly not impossible.

Vancouver – Canada rejects Sinterklaas and Black Peter

Since 1985 the Dutch community in Vancouver – Canada, celebrates our traditional party Sinterklaas. As I described earlier this week, there is a discussion in the Netherlands whether this tradition has racist roots (see http://grethevangeffen.wordpress.com/2011/11/28/is-sinterklaas-a-racist-or-a-germanic-tradition/) but in general, Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) are cherished and well accepted. For expats in the Netherlands it can be quite a surprise to be confronted with this tradition. So it is predictable that Dutch expats or immigrants in Canada who want to celebrate this tradition meet with questions or even negative reactions from the public. 
You’d think that people who leave their country to live in another one, do some efforts to adapt to new customs and traditions. For Sinterklaas this would mean that both characters are made blue, or that Black Peter is abolished completely or that children get a nice role in helping Sinterklaas out instead of Black Peter.
However, none of this seems to be possible for the Dutch community in Canada… They prefer to ignore complaints of the African-Canadian community that “the character of the event is offensive and outdated.” See also http://www.straight.com/article-551796/vancouver/sinterklaas-cancelled-new-westminster-after-concerns-about-blackface-characters and http://www.vancouversun.com/news/Sinterklaas+celebrations+Westminster+cancelled+after+Black+Peter+kerfuffle/5790836/story.html
As was officially decided in Vancouver that there would be no Black Peters accompanying Sinterklaas because of the complaints made, the Dutch organizers decided to cancel the whole event: no Sinterklaas in Vancouver this year.
In the Netherlands we largely agree upon the fact that immigrants have to adapt to norms and customs in their new country: immigrants coming to the Netherlands. What about Dutch emigrants to other countries? It is very interesting to see how hard it is, also for Dutch people, to view and live the world through the perspective of different cultural mindsets.

Is Sinterklaas a racist or a Germanic tradition?

Wodan on Sleipnir (18th century)       Sinterklaas on his white horse (begin 20th century)

In the Netherlands, we celebrate a specific day, the 5th of December, where all the children – and often the grown-ups – get presents from Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas looks quite a lot like Santaclaus that is celebrated in Christmas time in other countries, but there are some varieties. Although Sint Nicolaas, popularly called Sinterklaas, originates from Myra in actual Turkey where he was a bishop, the tradition wants Sinterklaas to come from Spain on a steamboat, riding on a white horse and accompanied by many helpers, Zwarte Pieten, guys with a black skin. They help Sinterklaas to organize the presents, to punish the children that didn’t do good, to spread candies and other nice eatable stuff allover the houses. They climb in and out of chimneys to put presents into the shoes that are placed in front of the chimneys and rumours say this is why they are so black.
Our yearly discussion in the Netherlands is: is this a racist tradition? Is this about white superiority and black slavery? Is this just a nice tradition that everybody should enjoy, or is this something that should be changed fundamentally? Some parties make Sinterklaas black and Zwarte Piet white, just as a statement. For sure, many expats that meet Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Pieten for the first time are shocked and think it is an unacceptable tradition. They cannot believe that they see this in the Netherlands. However, the tradition stands superstrong; the Dutch resist to any notion of racism in relation to this yearly party. They do not accept the views of outsiders on this event that is as generally celebrated as Santaclaus presents are in many other countries.
This week I read about an interesting theory with a completely different explanation of the roots of Sinterklaas, going back much further than the history of slavery (Ria Scharn in Het Laatste Woord in Het Parool). In this theory, Sinterklaas is not a bishop but the Germanic god Wodan (Odin). As the Germanic celebration of winter solstice was changed into Christmas at the time of christianization, the god Wodan who drove in the skies on his white horse Sleipnir was changed into Sinterklaas also riding on a white horse. When Wodan was chasing in the clouds, winds were cirkling in the chimneys; that would make the fire lighten up and thus Wodan brought light and warmth to the people on earth. He even threw presents in the chimney like seeds and nuts to provide fertility, like the Zwarte Pieten bringing presents through the chimney. Two black crows, Hugin (thought) and Munin (memory), accompany  Wodan to inform him about the behaviour of men on earth. And Wodan is assisted by two men, Eckhard and Oel who are part of the army of death that follow him. All men in his army have faces that are coloured black by death. So according to this theory, Sinterklaas has no racist roots at all but just very very old Germanic roots, dating back to 10, 15 or even more centuries.
This is so interesting, and most probably it is true. However, one does not exclude the other. An old Germanic tradition might have been mixed during the centuries with Catholic religion, 16th to 18th century views on black people and ended up to our actual Sinterklaas traditions. I am one of the very consequent celebrators of Sinterklaas parties, so I am not in favour of abolishing them. Nor do I believe that we can undo history in whatever way. But what we can do, is add our own 21st century views, perspectives and meaning to very old traditions, so that they can go with us many new centuries to come. Let’s not just discuss, let’s create the world the way we want it to be; together, we can transform traditions into new and relevant rituals!