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.