Zwarte Pete, a tradition in need of change

It seems like anybody in the public eye who expresses an opinion opens the door to a firestorm of hate on social media. Your chances of being abused are increased if you’re female or a person of colour. If you’re a black woman commenting on the annual Zwarte Pete debate in the Netherlands, not only can you expect racist and misogynist abuse, you will also receive death threats. Videos showing you being lynched, Klu Klux Klan style, will be circulated online and viewed by thousands.

I always thought the Dutch an open-minded and tolerant bunch. Yet this has been the response to a well-known black Dutch TV personality who expressed an opinion on Zwarte Pete. In the three years I’ve lived here, my views on Dutch tolerance hasn’t changed much, after all they put up with me. My eyes have, though, been opened to the fact that, like in Brexit Britain and Trumpish America, there’s a sick undercurrent of xenophobia and misogyny.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pete parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pete parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pete parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pete parade, The Hague, Netherlands

I know most Dutch people think Zwarte Pete is a piece of harmless fun for children. I know many say that Zwarte Pete is a positive role model, one their children want to emulate. I know a lot of Dutch people feel their culture is being judged, even threatened, by anyone who questions the ‘tradition’ of white Sinterklaas and his black sidekick, Zwarte Pete. That just seems illogical to me.

Zwarte Pete is a racial stereotype that draws a straight line to the slave trade via the Scramble for Africa; a stereotype used to legitimise European superiority and rule over other peoples. Given that the Dutch played a major role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and were one of the last European countries to ban slavery, Zwarte Pete is a tradition that needs to be challenged in a modern, multicultural society.

I went to see my first Sinterklaas parade in 2014 and was shocked by people ‘blacking up’. It was like being transported back in time, and not in a good way. I skipped 2015 but, a couple of weeks ago, I decided to go to the 2016 event. I’d heard that the debate had progressed and, rather than blacking up, Zwarte Pete would become Blue Pete, Purple Pete and Orange Pete. Maybe in some parts of the Netherlands that’s true, but in The Hague we had traditional Zwarte Pete again.

Traditional Zwarte Pete is little more than a Golliwog caricature. The Golliwog is a symbol of a racist past, one I remember from my childhood in England. Created by American author Florence Kate Upton, Golliwog books sold well in Europe, including The Adventures of Two Dutch Dolls and a Golliwogg. The Golliwog is described as “a horrid sight, the blackest gnome”. Later he transformed into a kind, fun and friendly character. That sounds a lot like Zwarte Pete.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pete parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pete parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pete parade, The Hague, Netherlands

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pete parade, The Hague, Netherlands

There is some movement towards reforming the tradition. Many in the parade had makeup that looked like soot, the story being that Pete came down a chimney, a bit like Santa Claus, and that’s the reason for his black face. There were even some dancing chimney sweeps (they were the most entertaining thing in the parade). That seems like a workable compromise between traditionalists and reformers.

Traditions can change, and some things are best left in the past. So here’s to continuing the debate, and the evolution of Zwarte Pete into something that isn’t offensive. Saying so is likely to cause offence to many who defend the Zwarte Pete tradition, so thank goodness I’m not on Twitter.

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