Black Pete and the United Nations

October 22, 2013

(Michell Zappa, Creative Commons license)

For Dutch children the main event of the holiday season is not when Santa Claus travels south from the North Pole on his red-nosed reindeer to distribute presents prepared by his magical elves. Instead, Dutch children eagerly await the day St. Nicholas travels north from Spain on his steamboat accompanied by his white horse and six to eight black helpers –  all conveniently named “black Pete” (zwarte Piet). Here is an explanation in rap form.

In terms of historical accuracy, the Dutch story wins in a landslide (Stephen Colbert cites it as  a perfect example of “Christmas originalism” about 1:40 in). It is, of course, also blatantly racist (see my ps. for some context). Some people try to argue that Piet is black because he crawls through chimneys. This is nonsense. But it has proven exceptionally difficult to break the tradition. There have been some experiments with “rainbow Petes” but the Dutch still prefer St. Nicholas’s helpers to be black.

A rapporteur acting on behalf of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights (U.S. Professor Verene Shepherd) has now urged the Dutch government to abandon this practice and even the St. Nicholas celebrations altogether (a story in English is here). This has raised some sharp responses. Extreme right politician Geert Wilders has called upon his followers to abandon the United Nations instead (in Dutch). A Dutch parliamentary delegation wants clarification from the United Nations (in Dutch). Even the prime-minister felt the need to comment that “black Pete is black,” suggesting that things should stay the way they are. In short, it is not just Americans who get touchy when the United Nations (or really a U.N. rapporteur) criticizes a domestic practice.

In the meantime, the Dutch actor who has been playing the head black Pete for the past 14 years on Dutch television has a more measured and pragmatic response: There is no reason for Pete to be black other than tradition. Nothing about the stories, practices, or songs surrounding the St Nicholas festivities relies on Pete being black. Traditions can change, and so can this one.

P.S. This post was written too bluntly and without sufficient context. I love the Sinterklaasfeest. I celebrated it as a young boy and continue to celebrate it with my daughter. That will not stop. I certainly don’t want to imply that those who celebrate it are racist. I believe that many people feel that the way the Black Pete character was traditionally portrayed was a problem. This is why the character has evolved. Indeed, hoofdpiet Erik van Muiswinkel (the actor who plays the main black Pete on Dutch television) points out that they already refer to him as Pete rather than Black Pete in most of the television productions, that he no longer has big red lips, that he no longer talks with a funny accent, that he no longer appears threatening, and that he can now be a she. Traditions evolve. I agree with him that it is very possible to make Pete less black and less of a servant and still enjoy everything that is great about Sinterklaas.

 

Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh Associate Professor of Geopolitics and Justice in World Affairs at Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and the Department of Government.
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