Black Pete

Black Pete

The Black Pete case is a good example to demonstrate how hard it is to see the prejudices and stereotypes that are inherent in one’s own culture and society. However, the discussion about Black Pete has become rather nasty and unproductive.

Article 7 UN CERD: States Parties undertake to adopt immediate and effective measures, particularly in the fields of teaching, education, culture and information, with a view to combating prejudices which lead to racial discrimination and to promoting understanding, tolerance and friendship among nations and racial or ethnical groups.

For years I have been teaching courses on non-discrimination law during the fall term of our exchange programme (LLC), and each year students ask questions in class about the blackened figure they have seen appearing in commercials and in the streets after mid-November. “It’s Black Pete,” they learn from their Dutch fellow students. “It’s just a nice character; a children’s fairy tale figure; he’s the servant of Sinterklaas, helping him to deliver the presents down the chimney; he’s a jolly good fellow, who doesn’t do any harm.” But my students from abroad do not accept these explanations, and ask me what I think about this figure. What they see is not just a ‘jolly good fellow’ with a blackened face; they see a caricature of a servile and stupid or ignorant negro with curly hair, golden earrings and huge lips that are painted red. This appearance, in their view, cannot be explained by the chimney story. Black Pete, as far as they know, is originally a servant of Moorish origin. His role is to help the white Sinterklaas and to carry round large bags, which perpetuates the stereotype that black people are naturally physically stronger than whites. Didn’t I just explain in my course that stereotyping is a root cause of discrimination, and that some courts, like for example the US Supreme Court, consider stereotyping as a form of discrimination in itself? Is this Black Pete figure not an example of such discrimination and how is it possible that the Dutch people, who are known for being so tolerant and liberal, still accept this so-called tradition and did not abolish this figure a long time ago?

The Black Pete case is a very good example to demonstrate to students how hard it is to see the prejudices and stereotypes that are inherent in one’s own culture and society. Often it needs people from the outside to reveal aspects of a particular tradition that may have detrimental effects for minorities within the dominant culture or may harm their human dignity. Mostly, such ‘interference’ from the outside is reason for a particular community to start defending such a tradition or culture even more vehemently. This was the exact reaction when the UN special rapporteur on Cultural Rights started to question this Dutch tradition in 2013: “Keep your hands off our traditions!” However, we – the Dutch – do not accept any such ‘defence’ when it comes to traditions that we deem to be indignant or violating human rights. Like, for example, the tradition that girls do not need education because they will inevitably become mothers and housewives anyway.

Over the past few years, the discussion about Black Pete has become rather nasty and unproductive, in my view, because terms like discrimination and racism are (ab)used in this context. For me it is clear that the figure is indeed a caricature of a silly, physically strong, servile, ‘negro’ and as such contains harmful stereotypes about presumed or ascribed characteristics of persons with a black skin. Is this racial stereotype in itself discriminatory? Are people who dress up as Black Pete or who admire this figure and want to keep it, racists? These terms carry a heavy load of ‘badness’. Anybody who is accused of such nasty things will get very emotional and defensive and will close his or her mind to a calm and rational discussion about the topic. The discussion has now also become legalized, since some NGOs opposing this tradition have instigated legal procedures against the Mayor of Amsterdam for allowing Black Pete to appear at the festivities surrounding the arrival of Sinterklaas from Spain. It is worth analyzing the case law that has been produced by these proceedings, and the legal academic discourse surrounding it, from the perspective of whether and how law could or should contribute to the elimination of racial stereotypes. How can the Dutch fulfil their obligations under Article 7 UN CERD and what should the role be of public authorities and the courts in that regard? I welcome proposals from students to investgate this issue in depth, for example in a master’s thesis.


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