The Netherlands has some skeletons in its closet. Nine times out of 10, when I tell someone that I’m Dutch (and they don’t ask me if I’ve ever been to Copenhagen), I am immediately hit with stories about that one amazing and barely remembered weekend he or she spent in Amsterdam. But my birth country’s cultural skeletons don’t carry the sweet pungent smell of American college students on a life-altering summer backpacking experience through Europe. Unfortunately, Dutch tradition has a very engrained example of racism. One that I did not even realize existed until I was a teenager.
Until Hallmark holidays crossed the Atlantic Ocean, Dutch families did not celebrate Christmas Eve in anticipation of the arrival of a rotund, jolly, white-bearded man on the roof in a flying sled pulled by reindeer. Even in the post-Hallmark age, the majority of families in the Netherlands continue to celebrate Sinterklaas, which some argue is a more authentic celebration of Saint Nicholas. Interestingly, the celebration is almost completely devoid of religious overtones, and Saint Nicholas’s bishop’s attire has become more like Santa’s suit than an indication of any affiliation with the Catholic Church.
All year long, Dutch children face the choice of being rewarded by Sinterklaas (Dutch for Saint Nicholas), or being punished by Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”). For most of the year, Sinterklaas lives somewhere in Spain, keeping track of every Dutch child’s good and bad behavior. His helpers, the Zwarte Pieten, keep watch over Dutch children and help him make presents in much the same way that Santa’s elves labor all year long. In the middle of November, about two to three weeks before the original Saint Nicholas’s feast day on December 6, Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Pieten make travel by steamboat north to the Netherlands and arrive with much fanfare and singing. One of the principal characters of the Dutch version of Sesame Street welcomed Sinterklaas for many years, and the mayor of whichever Dutch city Sinterklaas arrives in usually gives an official welcoming speech. Between his arrival in the country and the eve of his feast day, children set out their shoes by the chimney, sing songs and leave carrots behind for Sinterklaas’s horse in the hope that he will ride his horse over the rooftops during the night and leave a small present behind.
When I was a little, I fervently believed in Sinterklaas, and I assumed that Sinterklaas’s helpers had black faces because they had to go down the chimneys to put the presents in children’s shoes. Not once did the thought cross my mind that the Zwarte Pieten did not look like younger versions of Sinterklaas himself, but in slightly more colorful and court jester-like clothing.
In January of 2013, the Office of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights sent a letter to the Kingdom of the Netherlands, reporting allegations that “the character and image of Black Pete perpetuate a stereotyped image of African people and people of African descent as second-class citizens, fostering an underlying sense of inferiority within Dutch society and stirring racial differences as well as racism.” These allegations did not surprise me, as any bystander with an awareness of the racial implications of colonialism, and particular of the reverberating effects of the slave trade, would be confused by such an overt display of racism in a country known for its support of human rights. Specifically, as the letter points out, the Netherlands is a part to both the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all of which prohibit discrimination against people of African descent.
The Dutch Government’s response clearly finds that it is dealing with the situation. While acknowledging, “‘Black Pete’ is considered by some to be offensive,” the Government maintains that adequate recourse is available to those who believe they have been subjected to discrimination. Before pointing to heightened criminal sanctions for discrimination, the Government defines Sinterklaas as “a traditional children’s festival,” where “the focus is on Sinterklaas as a figure who hands out presents, and the festival is celebrated in many different ways by different Dutch people.”
Is this an effective way to combat discrimination? Is the maintenance of a centuries-old tradition worth risking the continuing portrayal of Africans and people of African descent as inferior to their historical colonizers? I don’t think so. I don’t think it would very difficult to change the narrative, even if the change begins by changing the explanation to what I assumed so many years ago. Rather than be Sinterklaas’s Moorish helpers, perhaps the Zwarte Pieten could be perpetually covered in chimney soot. From there, perhaps the Dutch could change the narrative further to remove color from the equation entirely, without depriving children of the chance to believe in a magical source of presents.
Joline Doedens is a second-year law student. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Send Joline a message @jydoedens.