Black Pete wraps it up

This blog is the fifth and final post in my Black Pete Pentalogy. 

My plan was to have my Black Pete conclusion-blog done on the fifth of December, which is the final day of the Sinterklaas celebration in the Netherlands. I failed to meet the deadline, but have had this blog on my mind pretty much every day.

A quick review:

  1. Black Pete & Childhood celebrations, about my own personal memories and Dutch Sinterklaas traditions
  2. Black Pete & the Frisians, about the 2017 highway blockade and my own personal resentments
  3. Black Pete & Politics, about the political response to the debate, if “apathy” is a response
  4. Black Pete & Opponents, about the people who want to kick out Black Pete but are probably its only real friends.

The four blog posts I have written over the last few weeks have really helped me untangle some of my personal frustrations. At the same time it help me to (re)connect with thoughts and ideas I had distanced myself from. 

Sinterklaas’ 2018 arrival, with different types of Petes.

Conclusion 1: There aren’t just two sides to this matter

At a first glance it seems there are only two sides in the Black Pete debate: people in favor and people opposed. However, I have come to realize that the motivations of both sides vary greatly and understanding these motivations is crucial.

Let me share some of the different angles with you:

People in favor – thoughts and motives

  • “I love Black Pete because I have fond memories of him. It hurts me that people call him a bad element in our celebration. I don’t understand why we can’t just go back to the way it was when we all still loved Black Pete and everybody had fun.”

  • “I love Black Pete because he is part of my culture. It angers me to see my culture being criticized, (in my own country nonetheless)! I want to protect Dutch traditions. People that don’t like what they see, can move on to somewhere where traditions are more of their liking.”

  • “I love Black Pete because it is dark element in an ancient celebration, dating back to Wodan & Odin. Sinterklaas without Black Pete is yin with no yang. To change Black Pete or remove him completely destroys the balance”

  • “Every Dutch child loves Black Pete. They look forward to his arrival, sometimes even more than Sinterklaas’. The concept of racism is an adult invention. Removing Pete from the celebration taints the celebration with a hateful sentiment that was never there to begin with.”

Opponents – thoughts and motives

  • “Black Pete must be removed from the Sinterklaas celebration because his appearance is disrespectful towards present day black people and descendants of slaves.”

  • “Black Pete must be removed from the Sinterklaas celebration because it is beneath ourselves. We were ignorant in the past and did not realize there was racism at play. Now we do. Holding on to the tradition is unacceptable.”

  • “Black Pete must change. We have been telling our children that he is black with soot, so there is no reason for him to go full blackface. A couple of black smudges on the face should do it. (Aren’t chimneys much cleaner now then they were in the past anyway?)”

  • “Black Pete can change. Children’s imaginations are open for wonder. We can introduce a Rainbow Pete and a yellow, green and blue Pete to demonstrate this and push the diversity factor further.”

Starting with the girl in the mirror

As I illustrated with the examples above Black Pete supporters (which not so long ago, was pretty much everyone around me) are not all the same. As a longtime opponent of Black Pete I may, at times, have been quick to label someone as “racist” or “hateful”. 

I realize now that some Black Pete supporters are merely melancholic souls. Others are nervous conservatives that don’t really want to deal with change, in any way, shape or form. Me calling them out as racist only made them put up their guard and counterattack, bringing us no where closer to a common ground.

Also, apart from Black Pete supporters and Black Pete opponents, there is a growing group of people that is just fed up with the discussion and doesn’t really care how we resolve the issue, as long as we can just carry on.

Conclusion 2: Admitting you’re wrong is hard.

You know the kind of fight that is way too loud, over-dramatic and full of inaccurate accusations? The type of argument that comes with a lot of finger pointing and sentences that begin with, “Yes, but you ALWAYS…” or end with “Well, that’s just typical!”.

It’s a fight that’s probably not really about what we are saying it is about. It’s a fight we’re having because we actually care a lot about one another but have forgotten how to show it (and our pride is making it hard to admit it). It’s a fight with no listeners. It is a fight with no winners.

We are now in that awkward phase, right after an argument, when neither side is ready yet to extend a hand to the other, nor is anybody willing to admit that all they really want is a hug.

That silence can go both ways. It can turn into passive aggressive silence, which is actually just a continuation of the conflict, but with no sound. The “silent treatment” keeps wounds open and painful and often leads back to the point where we started: the yelling and the closed hearts.

The second option is that, during that sudden and uncomfortable silence, the words of the other suddenly start sinking in. Words that you had been blocking with your own stream of words start connecting with your own ideas and concepts.

It takes courage to admit you were wrong and even more to admit someone else was right. Sometimes an apology is necessary, which is next level stuff!

So I guess what I’m saying, is that the screaming and the yelling, the threats and the arrests, may have looked bad (and they really were), but there is something in the air that makes me feel optimistic.

Speaking for myself, I must admit I may have been a bit too harsh on my compatriots over the last few years.

I’ve been asking (demanding?) friends to accept a whole new set of truths, to change a tradition that has been passed down for generations and then also apologize for it. I’d rather they got to it yesterday, rather than today, giving them very little room to make it right.

So if some Dutchies start celebrating “new style” Sinterklaas but find it hard to do this without being sarcastic about it, that’s fine. If they say they only do it because PC immigrant-huggers made them do it, I’ll happily take the blame (and give them a free hug in the process).

And I guess this brings me to the third and final conclusion:

Conclusion 3: Black Pete is bad karma

My first Black Pete related blog was in 2013. For years it felt like I was one of the only ones speaking out against this tradition. What bothered me the most was (is?) the denial.

However, defending Black Pete is becoming harder. Social media is letting the world peak through the windows as we celebrate. We are being exposed for what we really are.

We are not quite ready to actually say Black Pete is a racist phenomenon, but we are somewhere close to “no longer denying it is not free of racism”, which is progress!

Black Pete is becoming a burden. A smudge on the global image we have created of ourselves.

Breaking with the shackles of tradition

Yes, Black Pets is bad karma and we will rid ourselves of it.

In the meantime, please be patient with us (but don’t let us off the hook either).

Black Pete & Frisians

As I mentioned in the final sentence of my previous post, I have some pent up frustrations on the matter of Black Pete and the way my fellow countrymen are handling the debate.

And as if finding a common ground with the “regular” Dutch wasn’t complicated enough, the Frisians decided to put in their two cents as well. 

Black Pete & the Frisians

It all started last year (2017) when Sinterklaas’ arrival (de intocht van Sinterklaas) was celebrated in Dokkum.

Dokkum is a city in the northern province of Friesland. Friesland also happens to be the province that I was born in and where I lived during my high school years.

Friesland and I have bit of a complicated relationship. Don’t get me wrong; I love Friesland. I love its rural nature and its endless skies. I love the merciless winds and the darkness of the nights (if you want to see an amazing abundance of stars, go to Northern Friesland). 

“Rural” and “merciless” are words that not only apply to the landscape but also to its people. Additional terms to charecterize Frisians would be “blunt” and “stubborn as F**K”. 

Now, those last two are descriptions foreigners might use to describe the Dutch in general. But the Frisians really take it to a different level and I am quickly running out of patience for their harmful humor and narrow minds.

Also, the pride with which they carry themselves and their bullshit arguments infuriates me to no extent. Relevant for this story is also the fact that they identify themselves as “Frisians” first and “Dutch” second. The rest of the Dutch population is refered to as “Hollanders”, with which they mostly mean the people from the big city areas in North and South Holland (i.e. The Hague, Rotterdam, Amsterdam).

But back to the intocht… 

In the build-up to the intocht in Dokkum, a peaceful protest was announced by an organization called “Kick out Zwarte Piet” (KOZP). It was approved by local officials and would take place in Dokkum but not directly on the route of the Sinterklaas procession. 

Frisians however, were having none of this “political correct nonsense from Holland” and decided to take matters into their own hands. Social media groups exploded, resulting in a large group of knuckle heads (soccer hooligans and mudrace fanatics) getting in their cars and stopping the buses on the highway (you know, to “protect the kids at the celebration”).

The Frisian rioters got out of their cars (I repeat, this all took place on a highway, where speeds up to 120 kms per hour are allowed), waving flags (mostly the Frisian one, not the Dutch one), middle fingers up and baseball bats in hand (ok, maybe not with baseball bats)…

Highway blockade in 2017, stopping Black Pete demonstrators from reaching Dokkum.

Black Pete & Jenny Douwes

As the preparations for Sinterklaas’ 2018 arrival began (this year in the less polemic city, Zaanstad), the Dutch judicial system also just happened to be rounding up the court case against the “Blokkeer Friezen” (Blockade Frisians), which is how media refers to last year’s highway hooligans. 

Quite a poor timing, if you ask me, as it meant that Frisian opinions were once again making headlines.

A woman called Jenny Douwes was particularly vocal in all of this, as she was apparently the initiator of several Facebook groups aimed at mobilizing like minded people. She was also present on the highway and has made her appearance at several talk shows on TV and Radio since then (with such infuriating results that I can’t quite get into that right now, as my computer might end up flying through the window). 

[correction dd 23-11-2018: I have now learned she was actually NOT present on the highway during the blockade]

As you can imagine, Jenny Douwes has no regrets. Any person that felt threatened during the spontaneous highway blockade is either overreacting or creating a false version of events to demonize her and her rightful cause. Jenny Douwes has a charming farmergirl accent and a pretty smile.

In the days before the Blockade Frisians’ trial, social media blew up with declarations of support for her and her cause. Crowdfunding campaigns were initiated to fund her legal battle and within no time, thousands of euros had been collected. 

Jenny Douwes waves to the crowd, with two of her most classy co-protestors

Last week, Jenny Douwes and her partners in crime were sentenced to several hundred hours of community service, which is basically a slap on the wrist (and way too lenient as far as I’m concerned). Her followers are furious (because of course,) and have started a petition to not only free her of all charges, but to reward her with a medal of honor (or rather a “ribbon”, which is something our King awards to people who have done something exceptional).

Jenny Douwes has now become a national symbol of determination and a protector of Dutch culture. And Dutch culture needs to be protected from islamic influences and politically correct Hollanders who would rather cancel Sinterklaas than insult a minority. If KOZP and the Hollanders get their way there is only one way this can end, which is obviously the implementation of Sharia law in the Netherlands. 

(sorry if the paragraph above is a bit heavy on the sarcasm scale)

The true extent of the support these anti-anti-Black-Pete activists have only become clear to me in recent weeks and it makes my heart ache.

All my childhood friends, all of their parents, my neighbors, my teachers; they all applaud the blockade. To be honest, I haven’t even really dared ask my own parents about it…

If there were such a thing as a Frisian nationality and passport, I would hand it in today.

Black Pete & Childhood

This is one of those blogs that has been in the making for months and I was convinced today would be the day I’d share the whole thing with the world.

However, as I previewed it just now I realized it was turning into a lengthy thesis, rather than something easy-to-read-while-sitting-on-the-toilet (which is one of the best places to catch up on blog updates and news events, and you know it).

So I decided to pull a JK Rowling.

Instead of one massive text, I will now be publishing 5 Black Pete related posts, spread over 5 days. The fifth one will contain a meaningful conclusion to tie it all together, which I hope to come up with any minute now…

So, without further ado, let me introduce to you episode number one, in which I take you back to my own personal childhood memories of Zwarte Piet, aka Black Pete.

Childhood celebration

Growing up as a privileged Dutch kid in South America, I remember feeling sorry for my non- Dutch classmates who did not know about Sinterklaas. At the international schools I went to, it was mostly Christmas that was celebrated in the holiday season, and I remember it made total sense to me that Santa Claus did not exist, but that Sinterklaas absolutely did. I was a true believer.

Sinterklaas and Black Pete arriving from Spain.

It was a well known fact that Sinterklaas arrived in the Netherlands from Spain every year by boat. This steamboat carried all our gifts, Sinterklaas’ horse and his loyal companions: the black Petes. 

For kids, the Petes are often quiet scary, and this is kind of the point. As the
(literal and figurative) “dark element” in the Sinterklaas celebration, the Black Petes were always used as a threat to keep children in line throughout the year. Nowadays this is less common, but Pete’s disciplinary character still shines through every now and then.

Black Pete and Sinterklaas stuff the naughty kids in jute bags to be taken back to Spain, where they are to be put to work.

Sinterklaas’ arrival, which is referred to as “de intocht van Sinterklaas” is celebrated every year in a different Dutch city. Kids from all over the country count down the days for his arrival, as this is when they can start leaving out their shoe (usually in the windowsill or by the fireplace).

With a small gift or snack for Sinterklaas’ horse (usually a carrot) tucked safely in the shoe, each child sings one (or several) traditional Sinterklaas song(s) and then heads off to bed. The next morning the carrot is gone (eaten by the horse, of course) and traces of Sinterklaas’ visit may be seen around the house. Most importantly though: the shoes are filled with traditional seasonal candy and a small gift. They get to repeat this ritual several times until December the 5th, which is Sinterklaas’ birthday.

On the day of his birthday, Sinterklaas and the Petes go door to door handing out gifts to all the good kids, in a tradition packed evening called “pakjesavond” or “gift evening”. It is said that naughty kids receive a lump of salt instead of a toy (no idea why) and that repeat offenders may end up being taken back to Spain in the jute bag as Pete trainees. 

Upon their arrival, the black Petes barge in, making a big ruckus, doing cartwheels and jumping on the furniture. Sinterklaas enters after them, slowly and solemnly, waving at the kids and winking at the parents. I never recognized any of them, all though they probably were parents, uncles and aunts of my friends and classmates. 

How he managed to arrive in Bolivia on the same day he was busy handing out gifts in the Netherlands never raised any questions. Living in a landlocked country I should perhaps have been worried about the fact that his preferred means of transportation was an old steam boat.

I was satisfied with the idea that he probably sailed up the Amazon river and had ridden the rest of the way up the Andes mountains by horse. How the Petes had made their way to my home is a question I ask myself for the very first time today… I wasn’t a great critical thinker at the age of 6, apparently.

Even as I grew older I continued to look forward to the Sinterklaas celebration. Of course I no longer believed he was anything other than a man in a costume, but I still got jitters when the Black Petes made their entrance, throwing sweets through the classroom and later in the offices where I worked.

All though kids usually stop believing in Sinterklaas around the age of 8, most families continue to celebrate “pakjes-avond”. The shoe-element disappears to the background as children grow up and a new element is introduced: poetry.

Adult celebration

The adult version of the Sinterklaas celebration still revolves around giving each other gifts, but more than that, it is about praising, reprimanding and teasing each other with cheeky rhymes.

Contrary to Christmas (which obviously has some common traits and historical origins) Sinterklaas-for-adults is not exclusively a family celebration but something people also often celebrate among friends.

Celebrating Sinterklaas with friends, drinks and games

All though there are many ways these get-togethers can take shape, the most common one can be summarized as follows:

  1. Establish gift-budget with the people you will be celebrating with.
  2. Write your name + wishlist (within budget range) on a piece of paper. and put it into a box or bag along with everyone else’s.
  3. Everybody picks a name from the box, Secret-Santa-style, and buys that person a gift.
  4. The gift is presented or wrapped in a “surprising” way (for example stuffed in a big jar of gunk or hidden in a papier-maché sculpture). 
  5. Along with the gift every person must make a poem for the other, in which gossip and old grudges about the receiver can be put into rhyme. The poem is usually written from the point of view of either Sinterklaas or Pete.
  6. On pakjes-avond each person reads their (sometimes quite embarrassing) poem out loud to the rest, before unpacking their present (and hopefully having a great laugh about it all).

If you are interested in reading more about the many different ways in which adults celebrate Sinterklaas I recommend the following blogs and articles:

During most of my lifetime, I had never thought of the Black Pete element in this whole celebration as wrong or discriminatory in any way. I can’t even remember anyone ever telling me it wasn’t ok, not even any of my international friends. If someone did, it didn’t really make an impression.

The racist character of Black Pete is a real problem however, and one that is becoming increasingly hard to ignore. I will go into different elements of this matter in upcoming posts and hope I will be able to rid myself of some personal frustrations along the way.

Giving thanks to traditions.

native-americans-white-people-eat-thanksgiving-ecards-someecards

All though it is not a holiday on my side of the pond, I am well aware of the fact that many of you are celebrating Thanksgiving today. A beautiful tradition with wonderful customs and rich foods to last for the rest of the year… and then there is always the recurring controversy surrounding the celebration, which is for a great deal understandable and frustrating and not likely to go away, as we can not change what happened in the past…

In Holland we have a holiday of our own around this time of year, which has become a bit more controversial than we seem to be able to handle, even though the discussion has lingered in the background for years. It’s the holiday of Sinterklaas, or as it is commonly referred to in English: Saint Nicholas. Sounds familiar right? Well, the plump guy from the North Pole many of you know and welcome into your homes in December, is based on the same guy that arrives in the Netherlands every year from Spain. Where Santa has a sleigh with reindeer as a ride, our man has a white horse called Amerigo and a big ol’ steamboat to bring all the presents up to our small little country. And well, where Santa has a bunch of elves helping out, Sinterklaas has a bunch of negroes doing the work….

https://i1.wp.com/www.mediation.nl/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/Zwarte-Piet.jpgHe has a whole army of them and they are all called Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), with curly black hair, golden earrings and big red lips. There are female Petes as well, but their name is still Pete. The Petes are well loved by all, all though kids are a bit afraid of them, as they are also the ones that take you back to Spain with them in their big jute bags, if you’ve been a bad child that year. Oh yes, they also carry a bundle of sticks to hit you with… Really, don’t ask, I don’t even know….

Anyway, we have managed to convince ourselves and the world for a very long time that this tradition is not at all racist, that we love and respect Zwarte Piet very much and that Sinterklaas would be lost without his Petes. This year however, we seem to be failing at this and I must admit that for the first time in my life I have come to believe that we are indeed doing something wrong and that it might be time to change…

As I said, this discussion about Zwarte Piet has been around for years, but this year, it has become bigger, louder and more extreme than ever before. The whole thing exploded when the United Nations decided to say something about it and even threatened to prohibit the holiday all together.

Sinterklaas-stormNow, first of all I would like to start by saying I think it is absolutely ridiculous the United Nations thought it wise or necessary to say something about this at all and even started an “investigation” to determine if the tradition was indeed racist or not. A ridiculous waste of time and resources that could have been applied so much better on at least 100 different and more important matters. At first, I thought the discussion would blow over and out, along with the first big autumn storm as it always has, but I was wrong.

Sadly, in an attempt to defend Black Pete and prove that we don’t have racism running through our culture, my fellow countrymen have accomplished the exact opposite. I am now convinced, more than ever, that we are indeed racists and that we have been blind to it all this time.

As a counter reaction to the UN report, stating Sinterklaas “might be racist”, a petition was started to defend our tradition. The Piet-ition went viral nationwide, sparking reactions such as “If you don’t like Zwarte Piet, you are not Dutch”, or even worse, “If Zwarte Piet isn’t allowed, than neither is Eid al Fitr”. I almost shit my pants out of shame, reading these reactions, and couldn’t believe all these people didn’t understand how counterproductive they were being.

I am still convinced children do not see Zwarte Piet through racist eyes and that we were doing fine telling the kids that Pete is black because he climbs down the chimneys to put presents in the children’s shoes. We always said that Petes were in fact themselves children, who had been naughty and were taken back to Spain to help Sinterklaas prepare for the next year. This all made sense, especially as they were always portrayed as being a bit mischievous and fun loving, as naughty kids would be. Even more so, they were the cunning and witty ones in the equation, where Sinterklaas was often portrayed as the sweet and generous, yet slightly forgetful, old man. Without Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas is a pretty dull old guy. Even his horse is boring.

But instead of making space for an open dialogue, acknowledging the feelings of others and showing some willingness to share experiences, we have engulfed in this crazy crusade and made complete fools of ourselves. Everyone’s yelling and no one’s listening.

Black Pete is now indeed tainted. Well done. Idiots.