(c) ANP

On the 5th and 6th -depending on where you live- there is a holiday called Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas in English). For centuries, this holiday has been celebrated by children, and their families, at home and in school. But a couple of years ago, there have been questions about the origin of the helpers which are called Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes in English).

“They look black because they go through the chimney.”

In the 19th century Jan Schenkman, a teacher from Amsterdam, wrote a book called Sint Nikolaas en zijn knecht which is known for the book with the first and most known image of Black Pete. Initially Black Pete’s task was to reward candy and gifts to the children that behaved well throughout the year, and Saint Nicholas punished those that didn’t behave with a cane. Later, Black Pete also became responsible for punishing the bad children. With individual tasks each Pete had such as packing, delivering and buying gifts all Petes helped Saint Nicholas to distribute all the gifts on time. In the beginning, Black Pete wasn’t really seen at the arrival of Saint Nicholas, but after the WWII Black Pete became part of the image of this holiday.

The Black Pete, who can be a male or female, all wear simular clothing: they have similar looking costumes, black curls, red lips and big golden earrings. And that’s where it became a problem for the UN, and many other people. There are many interpretations on why Black Pete looks black. Some say it’s because they have to go through the chimney to leave the gifts in front of the fire place, others say Black Pete is unreachable that occasionally appears.

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(c) ANP

Decades ago the discussion about the image of Black Pete took place, without any changes, up until August 2015 when the U.N.’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination adviced The Netherlands to change the image to adjust the negative stereotypes. Since then, more than 75% of the Black Petes in Amsterdam, and many other places in The Netherlands have changed the looks into alternatives such as Petes with rainbow colours, or only some black lines.

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The Dutch television newschannel RTL says they don’t believe the image of Black Pete fits with their current image. (c) RTL
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In Amsterdam there need to be different kinds of Black Pete, otherwise the holiday will not take place. (c) ANP Xtra

A lot of negative comments came along after a lot of cities, television shows, and governmental bodies announced they weren’t going to use the authenic Black Pete with red lipstick, big golden earrings and black curls anymore. You can find more and more Facebook pages that want to ‘Make Zwarte Piet Great Again’ the webiste ‘Black Pete needs to stay’ which is from a right wing party from Belgium.

International media would connect the image of Black Pete with Blackface. Blackface is a theatrical technique where white actors were painted black, and in many cases the characters that were being Blackfaced had a rather negative image: they spoke Ebonic, they were mainly seen as workers, and they had bad attitudes. It was mainly used until the 60s when the Civil Rights Movement made an end to this. Blackface has had a big influence on how Afro-Americans and blacks were portayed in the American media.

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Blackface

“The Pietenpact, my black ass god damn it! -Lies Lefever

The Pietenpact is an initiative from the platform deBuren that aims for a celebration of Saint Nicholas for everyone. “The standpoint is that we celebrate Saint Nicholas without racial stereotyping.” Several well-known organisations such as the famous company that produces children shows Studio 100, the toy shop Dreamland, the children television show VTMKZOOM, schoolorganisations etc. signed the Pietenpact.

Lies Lefever is a Flemish cabaret performer with African roots. On her blog she claims that she never saw a connection between Black Pete and hatred towards races. “We are a little bit too enthousiastic with trying to be policitally correct”, she wrote. Many whites and non-white people that celebrate Saint Nicholas say they don’t see the racist part of Black Pete. The mayor of Antwerp says the Pietenpact is unnecessary, and the Minderheidforum, an organisation that is the voice of the many ethnic minorities in Flanders, isn’t ready to sign the Pieterpact yet. Basically, the majority of all opinions about the Black Pete discussion talk about how it is not racist at all, and that we should keep this cultural heritage.

So Ange, as a black young female living in Belgium and celebrating this cultural phenomenon, did you ever see the racist connotation people argue Black Pete has? 

I personally never fully acknowlegded the racist connotation it could have, until a couple of years ago. Growing up with the Flemish culture -and a little sprinkle of Rwandan culture- everything that was part of this culture was what it was. I still asked a lot of questions, but I knew that there weren’t always answers to all the question marks that were wondering around in my head. Why does Black Pete look black”, I would ask. The response would be: “because they go through the chimney to drop off your gifts.” Okay, that makes sense”, I would think. But then I started wondering why they have red lipstick, these big golden earrings and black curls. Of course there was no answer to this. But I still went along, and continued celebrating Saint Nicholas, even while being abroad.

Once I started explaining my international friends what Saint Nicholas was about, they were shocked.

“Ange, this is basically Blackface”

“WTF Ange”

“This is slavery, and you guys celebrate it every year? Even you?”

It didn’t have a big impact on myself when I was growing up. I did receive comments like:

“How did you get to Belgium? By boat?” or “Oh I guess Saint Nicholas forgot to pick you up huh.”

After trying to explain why Black Pete is black, I started thinking even more what I though of the whole image of Black Pete, and I came up with the conclusion that I find Black Pete a little problematic. I am not going to die if Black Pete stays the same, but I am not going to die either if they are making Black Pete into a Pete that has a couple of lines on his/her face. And I hope that in the future, more people will be open for a changing look of this figure.

 

 

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