For further reflection: international students on the Dutch Sinterklaas tradition

For further reflection: international students on the Dutch Sinterklaas tradition

With the Black Pete discussion in the Netherlands in mind, I asked my international students, out of curiosity, what they thought of the Dutch Sinterklaas tradition. Turns out that international students have strong opinions on this.

With the Black Pete discussion in the Netherlands in mind, I asked my international students, out of curiosity, what they thought about the Dutch Sinterklaas tradition. Were they aware of the festivities and were they going to join in the celebrations? And what did they think about Black Pete?

Professor Rikki Holtmaat already discussed Black Pete in relation to her course on equality and non-discrimination on the Leiden Law Blog in 2014. Exchange students, she wrote, questioned this figure and did ‘not accept (…) explanations’ of Dutch fellow students such as Black Pete is ‘just a nice character’, ‘who doesn’t do any harm’.

Three years later we still find ourselves in a heated debate on whether Black Pete is discriminatory or not, and whether he should be replaced by a different Pete. Discussion, within families, and among friends and colleagues, often leads to fiercely defended standpoints.

What do outsiders think about this tradition nowadays? This is what a few of my students said:

‘I honestly don't know how what to think of this tradition. It looks pretty nice, the steamboat is impressive and the Schwarzepetes apparel is beautiful. Although, I would probably be uncomfortable with Sinterklaas having helpers of my nationality/similar traits to me (as I am trying to relate to what black people might experience). Therefore, I understand black people being disturbed with the image as helpers are meant to be funny, festive and are having inferior position.’

‘It is not super offensive in my opinion, as it is just a silly Christmas tradition, although maybe inconsiderate and only to people that are perhaps sensitive about it. I understand that it is an old tradition, therefore it has very special, perhaps kind meaning and also I realize that Dutch people are not here to please everyone and be diligent about their traditions in order not to offend anyone. I think the current solution with Schwarzepete being dirty because of the chimney (and not wearing Afro hair and lipstick) is reasonable.’

‘Just watched a video about it where it is speculated that the (centuries old) tradition of Black Pete is meant to be a celebration about the abolishment of slavery but I fail to see how. However, I can understand it if some people believe that this is justification enough that it is not meant to be racist. On the other hand, it could be argued that what they are doing is blackface which just helps stereotype augmentation. Then again a good argument is that blackface is an exaggeration of features with the intent to insult unlike intentions of Black Pete make up. But for that argument to work it would help a bit if Black Pete make up looked more like Robert Downey Jr in Tropic Thunder and less like White Pete from the 19th Century.’

‘First of all, I did not know that ‘Zwarte Pieten’ are the black men who were in the streets of The Hague's last week end. I was quite surprised to see people coloured black. A Dutch friend explained to me what the characters are and why they were in the streets. She also told me that every year Dutch people are debating about ‘Zwarte Piet’ because they are painted in black. This tradition of Sinterklaas did not change my opinion about the Netherlands, because I have a similar tradition in my region in France. (…). A black man (coloured black and with black clothes) also comes with Sinterklaas, he is called ‘Rubelz’ or ‘Hans Trap’. This black man according to the legend can kidnap children who are not well-behaved. But this tradition is not controversial in my region. Furthermore, I think that children are thinking that the man is black because he has gone through the chimney to help Sinterklaas, the man is just dirty.’

‘I think it’s a mockery to black people. Black people were oppressed and slavery abolishment shouldn’t be celebrated by painting yourself black...it’s an insult. Also a very sensitive topic. Slavery hasn’t really been abolished either...still happens daily’.

‘Black Pete is a degrading and disrespectful representation of the black race. Many anachronistic and colonial undertones are portrayed through this traditional Christmas Character. I believe that it should be abolished and banned as it generates a negative stereotype of the black community to causation children. Black young individuals have been picked on and bullied as a result of this and even reach the point of wanting to change the colour of their skin. No human should ever feel like they are sub-standard or ugly. However, this is exactly what Black Pete will continue to breed if unaddressed; a generation of fragile insecure black young individuals who hate themselves because of the perceptions that surround black people. One could even go as far as to say that in the worst cases it could lead to suicide. If something is not done lives will be affected and this will be at the hand of the government. As a nation which is a signatory to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, the Netherlands has a responsibility to ensure that ALL Dutch citizens and individuals residing in the Netherlands are free from discrimination and have their fundamental rights protected.’

‘Yes, I was acquainted with the tradition and its controversies prior to coming to the Netherlands. (…) Currently, I can't think of any tradition in my country that incites as wide a controversy as this Sinterklaas. I feel that Indonesians generally take their traditions for granted; and while there might be some hidden controversial messages that might lie in our traditions, these are mostly overlooked. Personally, I really like the concept of Sinterklaas. I like seeing children being given gifts. Therefore, at first I am quite surprised that such a joyful festival can incite so much outrage. If Sinterklaas and Black Pete existed in Indonesia, I think there'd be no big controversy. Why is it controversial in the Netherlands then? Well, I think because the Dutch seem to pride themselves on being a liberal and cosmopolitan country, so the tradition seems to contradict their national spirit. Also, there are far more African-originating immigrants in Netherlands than in Indonesia.’

‘I had heard about the tradition before coming to the Netherlands. It kind of changed my perception, since I thought Dutch people were very sensitive about such matters for instance: like liberal democrats in the US. There is a picture of the Netherlands being a very liberal country, but it turns out the picture is more complex here.’

I continue to receive emails from my students on the topic demonstrating that international students have strong, but also carefully considered opinions on the issue. For many Dutch people Sinterklaas is very much about good memories of a children’s festivity. But the reactions make it clear that international students do not necessarily join in and enjoy the festivities.

1 Comment

Rick Lawson

Great blog, Esther. I recall similar discussions with international students already in the 1990s. Actually it was the reaction of these students -- some surprised, others amused, others up-set -- that opened my eyes. Having grown up in the Sinterklaas tradition it never occurred to me that Zwarte Piet might be perceived as a symbol for racism and slavery. My students taught me that, in this context too, you can see things differently -- which is exactly why a university is such a great place.
So Sinterklaas quickly became a regular in my human rights courses. We engaged in comparative research as it turned out that quite a few students came from countries with more or less similar traditions. But most of all Sinterklaas became an excellent starting point to discuss thorny issues such as day-to-day stereotyping; intentional, unintentional and perceived racism; the confrontation between traditions and contemporary insights; various strategies to change traditions and so on. I always felt it is good to have these discussions in the classroom, even if one may not be able to convince the other. Keep on talking to one another!

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