Fifty Shades of Piet: International Pete

Foto: Michell Zappa. De licentie van dit bestand is verleend onder de Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License.

There certainly are a lot of cultural differences when you live in a different country. The Sinterklaas holiday in early December can be a bit of a head scratcher for non-Dutch people and might not be easy to understand at first. With all the controversy, one can ask if the tradition is creating more harm than good old holiday feelings.

What makes the Sinterklaas holiday special for non-Dutch people is his helper, Piet, what throughout the years became Zwarte Piet (‘Black Pete’). The importance of this character, the consequences of having such a character and the glorification of it is something that has stirred controversies.

Foto: Harry Pot. De licentie van dit bestand is verleend onder de Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.
Sinterklaas and Black Pete in 1957. Foto: Harry Pot. De licentie van dit bestand is verleend onder de Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

Chimney versus Slavery
Black Pete is portrayed as a helper with Afro hair, a big collar, and puffy clothes. Also, he has big earrings and a dark skin. The usage of black paint by people who act like Black Pete is the controversial issue. According to the holiday itself, Black Pete got his name because of the countless times he has to go down the chimney to deliver presents. Therefore his skin got darker, because of the ashes. Purely based on the holiday and the tradition, this should not be a problem, as it is quite logical why Pete has to do that (instead of Sinterklaas himself).

However, the extensive use of black paint to the extreme dark, combined with his role as a helper, can be resembled with how people of a darker skin and African heritage were dressed up in the days of slavery and perceived as a lower class, compared to the big powerful white man.

Foto: Sander van der Wel. De licentie van dit bestand is verleend onder de Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License.
Foto: Sander van der Wel. De licentie van dit bestand is verleend onder de Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License.

Eliminate, Change or Remain?
In the fall of 2015, the United Nations reopened an investigation against the Netherlands, the committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, stated in August 2015: “Considering that even a deeply-rooted cultural tradition does not justify discriminatory practices and stereotypes, the Committee recommends that the Netherlands actively promote the elimination of those features of the character of Black Pete which reflect negative stereotypes and are experienced by many people of African descent as a vestige of slavery.”

One has to wonder if the involvement of Black Pete has to be stopped entirely. Is the tradition creating more harm and controversies than good old holiday feelings? One must also not forget that this tradition is primarily for children, who would not care if it was Black Pete, Yellow Pete or White Pete who helped Sinterklaas. For them, the holiday represents fun and games along, with presents and good candy.

So, is there a compromise? In Amsterdam, there is now a rule saying that you can  not paint your face entirely black, but only have black traces to emulate the journey through a chimney. Although this is the closest there will be to a compromise, people from both sides seem to not fully embrace it. The roots at this point are already too deep, and any sort of change will take a long time.

Discrimination and Tradition
From a government point of view, one can think that it can be a little contradictory to have a character like Zwarte Piet in a public holiday. Over 1.8 million foreign born immigrants live in the Netherlands and many of these are from African countries or have African descent. The willingness to diverse the society by the government is not matched when it comes to the Sinterklaas holiday and the portrayal of Black Pete, because it can aggravate so easily. The counterargument to that is that immigrants have to learn and understand Dutch culture as much as native Dutch people have to understand the new cultures who are coming to their country.

The children’s vulnerability and inability to think critically should not be taken advantage of

The relationship between discrimination and tradition needs to be determined. Even though Sinterklaas and his Black Pete helper is a long running tradition, there needs to be an establishment on how to portray Pete. Ultimately, it is the children who enjoy this holiday to the fullest, and their vulnerability and inability to think critically should not be taken advantage of. All in all, this is a  celebration for all children. Not just for children with Dutch descent, but also for second generation immigrants who are growing up in the Netherlands.