What’s not to love about Sinterklaas?

It’s Sinterklaas season in the Netherlands! City lights, children singing, personalized poems, family dinners, joyful music at the shops, and parades across the country. Oh, what’s not to love? (Zwarte) Piet.

It’s that time of the year when I intentionally avoid going to the office to not engage in conversations about Black Pete. Why? Because it is so tiring to keep on trying to communicate what the problem is with this tradition to those who choose to remain oblivious to the pain that it causes to many colleagues, students, local communities, and especially children of colour.

There is something different this year, though. An email was sent from the university’s Diversity Office, reminding us that we strive towards a sense of inclusion and encouraging us to implement alternative portrayals of Piet, given that the traditional character is associated with discrimination that people of colour encounter. Hope! The university is actually doing what universities are supposed to be doing: engaging with societal issues and daring to be political – yes, I said it again.

When I moved to Groningen, a little over six years ago, I was taken aback by both the tradition and the conversations with colleagues around it. ‘Yes, but it’s fiction’ (fiction too can be hurtful), ‘children enjoy it’ (not all children), ‘you have to respect our traditions’ (even those that are racist?), ‘I don’t see colour’ (colour-blindness perpetuates racism), ‘there is no racism in this country’ (the denial of racism is racism itself). 

Can we talk about how (Zwarte) Piet is connected to the Netherlands’ colonial past, instead of attempting to erase the past?

On a second reading of the email, I am thinking: what hope is there really to a Piet in a multitude of colours, a Piet without colour, or a Sooty Piet? Do we dare cultivate hope when we are missing a critical conversation about the origins of this tradition and engagement with questions around race through university courses, public lectures, panels and arts-based events?

The fact that, according to a poll by Statista last year, about 80 percent of the population does not feel that Zwarte Piet is a racist phenomenon, despite accepting the adjustments to the portrayal of Piet, suggests that we probably do not understand racism. 

Then the real question we ought to be engaging with is not whether Zwarte Piet is discriminatory, but what racism is and how it works, how it normalizes hurtful cultural practices, and how it preserves social hierarchies without us even noticing. And, well, I will try to put this delicately: is it possible that we are drowning in a big national misunderstanding or a willful memory loss, or are we simply avoiding a painful conversation? Can we talk about how (Zwarte) Piet is connected to the Netherlands’ colonial past, instead of attempting to erase the past?

I’d like to think of the email sent from the diversity office as a small step in this direction. The adjustments to the tradition showcase the increasing interest of our local community in inclusivity. I hope that as an academic community, we will do our part: follow these developments and show that we can do better than simply implementing alternative portrayals of (Zwarte) Piet. 

We are called to do more than the absolute least and to initiate conversations around race, slavery, and colonialism. Until then, Sinterklaas season will not be joyful for everyone, no matter how colour-ful or colour-blind it is. 

LUCY AVRAAMIDOU

English

13 REACTIES

  1. Helemaal eens met de gedachtegang van Margriet! De intentie/bedoeling van iets kan en mag niet te allen tijde ingezet worden als rechtvaardiging voor een rigide instandhouding van tradities. En soms moet je ook gewoon ‘iets laten’ omdat het mogelijk als denigrerend/kleinerend opgevat kan worden, ook als je zelf al weet dat het niet zo bedoeld is. Concreet voorbeeld: onlangs bij Sint Maarten leek het mijn huisgenoot en mij een supergoed idee om ‘Wist-je-datjes’ over de geschiedenis van het Sint Maarten feest bij de traktaties te doen, onder het mom van “lekker leren!”. Die avond ging de bel en bij de deur stonden drie meisjes te zingen, allen met een donkere huidskleur. Ineens voelde ik me heel ongemakkelijk bij het semi-educatieve element van onze traktaties, terwijl de intentie goed was (ik was bang dat het “lekker leren!” wel eens opgevat zou kunnen worden als “lekker integreren!” bij diens ouders). Dus uiteindelijk maar achterwege gelaten, het voelde niet goed.

    Rekening houden met hoe een ander (mogelijk) iets ervaart kent zeker haar grenzen, maar in dit geval denk ik inderdaad dat het precies gaat om wat Margriet beschrijft: de dienende knecht met een donkere huidskleur, helemaal los van of het oorspronkelijke verhaal wel of niet gelinkt is aan het koloniale verleden (en: hoe kun je van kinderen verwachten dat ze de ‘echte’ intentie begrijpen/tot zich nemen van een – zoals door anderen in de comments ook terecht opgemerkt – complexe traditie?)

  2. Een ander verhaal over de oorsprong is dit: Sinterklaas is afkomstig uit de Germaanse mythologie. Wodan, de Germaanse God van donder en bliksem, reed met zijn achtbenige paard over de wolken. Het geluid van de donder komt aardig overeen met een paard dat over de daken rijdt. Wodan sloeg met zijn hamer op de wolken voor de bliksem. Die hamer werd de staf van Sinterklaas. Hij werd begeleid door zwarte raven die bekend staan om hun scherp en uitstekend zichtvermogen. De raven veranderden in zwarte Pieten. Alles ziet die slimme Piet! Wodan wordt wel eens verwisseld met Donar. De dagen woensdag en donderdag zijn naar hen genoemd.

    Mij lijkt dat de bezwaren tegen ZP vooral te maken hebben met de rol die ZP in Nl speelt (de zwarte, onderdanige, dommig-slimme-jolige knecht van een wijze, witte man).
    Tijdend het kolonialisme en de slavernij werden (en worden) de niet-witten gediscrimeerd en moesten zich onderdanig gedragen.
    Als je dat doorvertaalt naar hoe niet-witte mensen nog vaak worden behandeld (institutioneel racisme, discriminatie bij sollicitaties, pesten op school, etnische profilering etc.) en steeds meer voor hun rechten opkomen, snap ik dat ze ZP, als symbool van de onderdrukte zwarte, weg willen hebben. Of dat nu de bedoeling van het ‘feest’ is of niet doet er voor mij niet toe.
    Tijden veranderen en tradities dus ook. Dus: weg met ZP.

    Margriet

    • @Margriet: Ook ‘Knecht Ruprecht’ en ‘Krampus’ zijn in dit verband leuk om over te lezen. Allemaal alternatieve ‘bronnen’ van Piet. Alleen zijn we sinds de 19e eeuw vast komen te zitten aan die zwarte knecht; hoog tijd voor iets anders inderdaad. Ik ben voor Krampus. ;-)

  3. “the denial of racism is racism itself”. Thanks for cheering me up today!
    In other words: “if you don’t agree with my qualifications then you are a racist!” Please keep the logical fallacies going, it’s the best antidote to woke ideology!

    “Then the real question we ought to be engaging with is not whether Zwarte Piet is discriminatory, but what racism is and how it works”. Nice, so you simply equate racism to discrimination. Yet, these terms have very much different definitions. You are very sloppy in your argumentation and use of definitions.

    “The fact that, according to a poll by Statista last year, about 80 percent of the population does not feel that Zwarte Piet is a racist phenomenon, despite accepting the adjustments to the portrayal of Piet, suggests that we probably do not understand racism.” Or, these people have no racist intentions to begin with (and yes, the intended message matters). Zwarte Piet, being an object, cannot intrinsically be racist; this is a qualification that can only be assigned to a statement which is intended to show superiority of one race over another, or on purpose discriminate. The character Zwarte Piet is simply the “helper” of Sinterklaas, where various historical backgrounds depict Sinterklaas as a wealthy individual who freed others from slavery. But I guess this is not good enough for woke individuals; since Zwarte Piet is black, then it must be a reference to colonialism! How dare it represent anything else. Surely we are the enlightened ones and morally superior!

    PS: before jumping to conclusions, it’s worthwhile investigating if there are other explanations to the observed phenomena (basic rule in the empirical cycle). By only taking a colonial perspective, you are basically claiming that other perspectives are incorrect and/or invalid. Yet, the conclusion of Zwarte Piet being racist rests on the premise that it is indeed racist -> full circle. Zwarte Piet being racist is not a fact, but how you wish to construct reality. I find it rather interesting how you believe you can form judgments about complicated topics like these after only having lived here for 6 years, without attempting to understand alternate historical explanations for the (complex) tradition.

    • Such a judgmental response, “collega”. Feeling a bit defensive, perhaps? I agree with you that there’s more to the origins of Piet than racism and colonialism, and that it would be a good idea to include those in a serious study of the phenomenon, but that’s no reason to downplay the very clear racist aspects of the figure in its current form. Sure, most Dutch people grew up without realizing or consciously intending this (including myself), but by now it’s pretty clear that Zwarte Piet has become the mascot of the extreme right. That alone should be a reason to let it go and move on to something less offensive.

      • For sure judgmental. The condescending manner in which Lucy speaks of those who don’t agree with her qualifications of Zwarte Piet warrants a critical reply. The absolutism of her judgments and presence of logical fallacies deserve critical scrutiny. (And to me it’s clear now what she means by universities meddling with political affairs: spreading woke ideology. Not facts, but artifical constructs of analysis, e.g., colonial/oppression perspectives.)
        To address your point: I fully agree we need a complete picture. That’s why I’m very uncomfortable with absolute judgments such as “Zwarte Piet is racism” “denying racism is itself racism”, and so forth. This only serves to villainize ordinary people, who are celebrating a tradition which has no racist intention for the vast majority of them. The fact there are (possible) racist connections still doesn’t make it ok to villainize ordinary people that way, and for sure does not help in bridging different wolrdviews. If anything, columns like this only serve to show the arrogance of some who believe they know best, and whose interpretation is the only correct one.
        If you want a multicultural society, realize that this goes both ways. Sometimes it is best to accept differences and try to meet each other halfway, rather than forcing your absolute views on others. I’m constantly expected to excuse migrants and foreigners for their sometimes surprising traditions and religious beliefs, which is fine. I do expect a little understanding from their side as well. Quid pro quo.
        As for extremists hijacking norms & traditions: moving on because they hijack something is basically giving in to extremists. It’s possible to keep ZP and firmly stand against those who try to use it for ulterior motives.

        • I think you’re getting too hung up on specific phrasings that you happen to have a problem with. It seems clear to me that Zwarte Piet is on the way out, and in spite of all my own happy memories I’ll be glad to see him replaced. Indeed he has been hijacked now by the far right, as have many other images symbols most of us wouldn’t want to be seen with for precisely that reason. As for placing the debate in the context of migrants and foreigners, I’d say that’s part of the problem. Not everybody with a dark skin is am immigrant or a newcomer (not that it would make any difference if they were). Anyway, I think you’re fighting an ‘achterhoedegevecht’ here. Society changes and so do societal norms.

    • Dear anonymous colleague,

      I see that you have found your target again and also have a bad case of the woke-ghost (‘het grote boze woke-spook’) popping up in your environment? Wishing you all the best with that, there is not much to add to this discussion on what you brought in that Eric already said: society is changing and so does ZP – and rightfully so!

      But your final comment does make me wonder, if not after 6, then after how many years of living here does another person have the right to form judgements on ‘complicated topics’ according to you? Is it 7? 10? 20? Or perhaps… never?

      @ Lucy, thanks for the thought-provoking and confrontational opinion piece again, I enjoyed reading it. I also tried to find the email you are referring to but could not retrieve it, was this perhaps not a UG-wide signal then?

      • @Lucy – Once again, great column. Your second paragraph really jumps to life around this ‘virtual coffee-machine’ when a ‘collega’ joins the conversation.
        @Laurent – I’ve not had this email either – I did hear one of my colleagues received it.

  4. “Can we talk about how (Zwarte) Piet is connected to the Netherlands’ colonial past, instead of attempting to erase the past?”

    Good that you bring this up, but given how hard it is to get many people here to even consider minor changes to Piet, I fear there’s not much short-term hope for that conversation in this particular context. In which case the question becomes: do we want a quick change or a deep one?

    That said, it would be interesting in such a discussion to gather together the various sources and origins of the Piet figure. There’s the colonial angle, to be sure, but it’s not the only one.

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