UKREN blog

Friday 12 December 2014

Sinterklaas: racism or a cultural tradition in the Netherlands?

Blacking up in East London doesn’t go down so well, as Dutch filmmakers recently discovered. It is seen as racist. Yet in the Netherlands, lots of people do it every year as part of a traditional children’s party. Let me give you a little background to this peculiar specimen of festive racism.  

Blacking up is part of a national tradition where Sinterklaas, an old white man with a beard in a red costume not to be confused with Santa Claus, comes to the Netherlands by boat in early December to hand out presents to children. He is helped in this task by a league of Black Petes, who are a little silly but nice. These fictional characters are all played by actors and amateurs who tend to be white, so that the Black Petes are white people who put on black make up, wear an afro wig and hoop earrings, and draw big red lips on their faces.

In London, these Petes were met with disbelief, confusion and anger. People commented on the likeness of the boat the Petes sail to the Netherlands to the slave ships of the 17th century. Black people said they were offended. In the Netherlands, many black people also feel this way and they have been opposing the tradition. This opposition has gained support over the last decades, slowly but surely, and the documentary that took the Petes to London forms part of this protest.

This protest itself is starting to become an integral part of the whole Sinterklaas tradition itself it seems, as each year these protesters, let’s call them team A, clash with people who vehemently defend the tradition in its current shape, let’s call them team B. They say the tradition has been around for a long time, everyone has fond childhood memories of Pete, the Petes are friendly and the kids like them. Nobody means to be racist by liking this tradition, so surely it cannot be racist. Each year team A gets upset with team B for defending a tradition that furthers stereotypical images of black people, while team B gets angry with Team A for calling them racists when what they are doing is not racist but simply enjoying their cultural traditions.

A stalemate? Sadly this type of heated debate often results in both teams retreating behind their own boundaries, fortifying these with ever more indignation. Reasonable arguments, such as those presented by ENAR against the standard defences of Team B, may fall on deaf ears. International condemnations of the tradition, such as by the UN, are met with anger. So how can we move the debate on from ‘you’re racist’ – ‘you’re wrong’? Perhaps we can start by moving away from the emotionally charged blackface tradition for a moment to address some of the questions that lie behind this debate: how should we think about cultural traditions? What is their status and importance, is it OK to enjoy them even when they are known to harm our fellow citizens? Are they beyond critique so that they should always continue in the exact same form as they exist now? Under what conditions would change be necessary or desirable? Does this hold for all cultural traditions, including national celebrations, but also honour killings, female genital mutilation, and arranged marriages? When is a practice racist - can it be racist even if it is not done with racist intentions? Let us know what you think!


Elise Rietveld

UKREN Project Intern

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