The Common Good

Santa Claus and Black Face: Is Sinterklaas the Innocent Victim of Culture Clash or a Racist Anachronism?

Happy Sinterklaas?

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (aka "Black Pete") in a holiday parade in Holland, 2
Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (aka "Black Pete") in a holiday parade in Holland, 2006. Photo via http://bit.ly/4rt3nE

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Today marks a traditional winter holiday in Holland and other parts of the European Low Countries (the Netherlands, Belgium, Lille and Arras, predominantly) featuring Sinter Klaas, the forerunner of our Santa Claus, who is traditionally accompanied by a helper named Zwarte Piet (aka "Black Pete") — a young man in black face with curly black hair, thick red lips and dressed as a courtisan with a velvet jacket and frilled shirt.

 

Sinterklaas — who also goes by Sint Nicolaas or De Sint in Holland and environs — was a stranger to me until a few years ago when Dutch-American friends introduced him to me. In my friends' home this morning, the children will awaken to wooden shoes filled with goodies.

Sounds like a charming holiday tradition from the old country. But is it simply that?

In Vancouver's New Westminster community, an historically Dutch enclave in the Canadian city, the annual Sinterklaas parade over the weekend faced a clash of cultures between traditional and contemporary sensibilities when the character of Zwarte Piet was excluded from the event because of complaints about the figure's perceived racist overtones.

According to the Vancouver Sun:

 

Members of the African-Canadian community had complained that Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter, a young person in blackface makeup, is offensive and outdated and should not be included in the Dec. 3 event. This will be the first time since 1985 that Black Peter will not accompany Sinterklaas as he heads to New Westminster Quay aboard a paddle wheeler boat.

"We will not have Black Peter," organizer Tako Slump said Friday."We did all our research and came up with the understanding that they do have a point. We can assure the African-Canadian community that there will not be any offensive black faces."

A statement from Sinterklaas organizers apologized to those "who may have found aspects of our celebrations [demeaning] and hurtful." ...

Bernard Piprah, an organizer of the annual Black History Month symposium at Douglas College, had argued the Black Peter character comes loaded with offensive, racist stereotypes.

According to the Dutch tradition, Black Peter is responsible for carrying a book full of the names of naughty children, along with a rod and a sack to take the bad children away. He also scatters candy for children.

"[The character] is degrading, and it's racist, and it's incredibly outdated," Piprah said. "You can't erase that. You can go to your local library and read that this Black Peter was a slave. He beat children. He was dumb, and he spoke buffoonish Dutch. There are just so many insulting aspects to that character, and I can't believe they're celebrating it in New Westminster."

Piprah said Friday it was a "reason-able compromise" to eliminate Black Peter from the annual celebration. "It's kind of something they should address, no matter what the culture, when an aspect of it is clearly offensive to a particular group," he said.

[Read the Vancouver Sun report in its entirety HERE]
 
Yet in a Sun column titled "Caving in to misguided political correctness," Hannah Vegt defended the Sinterklaas tradition of her Dutch ancestors saying:
 
My mother and father were born in the Netherlands and immigrated to New Westminster in 1953 and 1960 respectively. As a very young girl, I went down to the quay and saw St. Nick and Zwarte Piet. I always wondered about St. Nick's face-painted sidekick and I wanted to know how he fit into my heritage as a Dutch-Canadian.
I learned that the task of Zwarte Piet is to amuse children and scatter candies to those who come to meet the saint as he visits schools, stores or other places. Some versions of Zwarte Piet say he was a liberated slave. He dressed in Spanish clothes, because Spain was at war with the Netherlands. Zwarte Piet was an equal opportunity helper. He gave candies and presents to you if you were good and a mild talking-to if you were not.
Another version of the story describes Piet as the saint's helper, going down chimneys to see if people had offerings or presents ready, hence the black face from the soot. If he saw presents by the hearth, he would be content to add some presents himself, typically seeds for the next harvest. He took care of continuity and fertility of life with these seeds, or "pepernoten" in Dutch. Today we still eat these pepernoten in the form of small spiced cookies.
It bothers me that we are more concerned with political correctness than with learning about history in all its manifestations. Are we now going to dissect every ethnic and native tradition to the point where we are left with a grey murky sludge?
What do you think? Is Sinterklaas quaint or offensive? Is it time to retire black face once and for all, no matter the venue or occasion, or should exceptions be made for ethnic celebrations and the like?
 
Listen to American memoirist/humorist David Sedaris' take on Sinterklaas (and culture clashes) in his live performance of the essay, "Six to Eight Black Men," below, or read the text of his essay in Esquire Magazine HERE.
 
 
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Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. She is the author of several books, including The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers and her new release, BELIEBER!: Fame, Faith and the Heart of Justin Bieber. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @godgrrl.

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