The ‘Black Pete-debate’

There is an ongoing debate in The Netherlands about a children´s festival in December called ‘Sinterklaas’ (Saint Nicolas). Every year Sinterklaas and his helpers are coming to town. They bring gifts, joy and sweets, but also something less festive: a discussion about racism and cultural adaptation.

Sinterklaas is accompanied by many helpers, the so called ‘zwarte Pieten’ (black Petes). The fuss is all about the black painted helpers with their red lips and Afro wigs. Some people feel insulted since Holland has a history of slavery. ‘Black Pete’ is often portrayed as a dumb helper of a white boss.

To me and to many other Dutch people this celebration was a magical and care-free part of our childhood. I never made the connection between Sinterklaas helpers and colored people, let alone that I made the connection to slavery or seeing non-whites as inferior races. I have to admit I was raised in a mostly ‘white’ society. Maybe it’s a bit naive but I never made the connection before the discussion started to mount.

If people feel insulted by the appearance of Sinterklaas helpers, it’s absolutely worth the discussion. I have to say to me it’s more the way the helpers are portrayed than their physical appearance. Children are really influenceable, so it’s important what your intentions are and what you teach them. Being a teacher at a multicultural school kids sometimes compare their colored classmates with Sinterklaas helpers. My duty to explain the difference between a colored skin and a painted face. The black is soot and will come of. The helpers get soot on their faces by going down chimneys to get the presents to the children. Instead of portraying the helpers as dumb, pointing out the good qualities of the variety of helpers, would make a significant difference. Sinterklaas needs all kinds of helpers.
Kids like to believe in fairytales. Once I dressed up as Sinterklaas in front of my four and five year old students. Even before I put on the beard the kids started calling me Sinterklaas. When I asked them where I was they were convinced that I left the room.

Unfortunately even though your intention are sincere there is always the possibly that you will insult someone.

I felt betrayed when I was told Sinterklaas does not exist. What other lies did they tell me? As a teacher when kids ask me if Sinterklaas exists I always return their question by what they think.

Despite it being the 21st century a distinction is still made between boys and girls gifts. What affect will this have on curtain kids? -Bregje

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