AFRICANGLOBE – As all the children gathered, I remember the feeling of anticipation in the school hall. It was November and I had recently started primary school. All of a sudden, there was a loud banging on the door. I remember looking around and seeing the terror on the other children’s faces when the doors flew open and several grown men stormed into the hall with their faces completely “blacked up”. The terror soon made way for joy when the men starting throwing candy around, but I was left in total confusion. These grown men with blacked-up faces, afros and big red lips were talking to me in broken Dutch and trying to make me smile by prancing around like a clown.
I remember wondering why they were trying to look like my father, and why they were acting so silly. My father was a smart man, a grown-up. These grown men in blackface were acting like misbehaving children.
It became even more confusing when St Nicholas himself entered. The tall, old, White man dressed like the pope was treated with the utmost respect by my teachers, who had been laughing at the blacked-up men that they referred to as Zwarte Pieten – Black Petes.
As soon as St Nicholas entered, the Black Petes calmed down and silently followed his orders. I couldn’t understand the strange power that St Nicholas had over these grown men who had moments before seemed uncontrollable.
At that moment, I remember a creeping feeling that something about this was wrong. I knew that Black Pete’s behaviour was wrong and I knew the way St Nicholas was treating Black Pete was wrong, but I did not understand why. I looked around and saw the smiles of the other children and teachers, and thought the only explanation must be that I was the one who was wrong. From that moment onwards, I never thought to question Black Pete again. The acceptance and enjoyment of the tradition became a measure for how Dutch I was, and since Dutch culture was the only culture I knew, I was petrified to be excluded from it.
Last week, Amsterdam’s mayor made a statement that finally validated my creeping feeling by proposing a change of image for Black Pete. The proposed makeover follows a local court ruling that the depiction of Black Pete is, in fact, racist. The court determined that the character was “a negative stereotype of black people”. Soon after, the council of Amsterdam filed an appeal against the verdict arguing that the stereotype of Black Pete wasn’t negative.
I grew up in a middle-class environment in The Hague where I could count all the Black people on one hand. Racism was never that overt; perhaps because there weren’t that many of us, so we were not considered a threat. If any negative stereotyping occurred in my presence, it was always quickly followed by “but you’re different”. As a child, I was never sure if I should speak out against the negative stereotypes of Black people being lazy, dirty or dumb because I was still afraid of being excluded. My silence came hand in hand with a pang of guilt for not sticking up for my own.
And then there were the seemingly positive stereotypes about Black people being better at singing, dancing or sports, the example often being the Black players in our national football team. I remember feeling proud when such remarks were made by White folks because that meant we had worth. What I did not yet understand was that a positive or romanticised stereotype strips a person of their humanity by denying them individuality in the same way that a negative one does. As noted by policy officer Izalina Tavares, all the Black Petes have the same name, the same face and the same characteristics. They are interchangeable.
If I, as a Black person, had to be taught that positive stereotypes are just as dehumanising as negative ones, and therefore racist, it is not surprising that a vast majority of Dutch people truly believe that there is nothing racist about Black Pete. He is loved by young and old, he’s funny, he’s giving, he’s athletic. Wouldn’t anyone want to be associated with these traits?
And yes, he can be childish, silly, and even a bit thick at times but we love him in spite of this, so no harm done, right? Wrong. As artist Bianca Berends has written, research shows that stereotypes contribute to low self-esteem in children of colour and perpetuates the idea of White “culture” being superior to Black culture, which in a multicultural environment will undeniably affect society as a whole.
The main problem is a lack of education on Dutch slavery and colonialism. I was taught in great detail the atrocities that were committed in the British empire, how the Americans dehumanised their African slaves and how racism in Germany led to the Holocaust. Never did we have one history lesson teaching us about the severity of Dutch conduct in Surinam, the Dutch Caribbean, Indonesia or South Africa. Perhaps if this schooling was there, Dutch people would find it easier to connect Black Pete with our history of slavery and racism.
The legacy of slavery and colonialism has preserved structural racism, so for many people of colour it is impossible to disconnect Black Pete from this legacy. Black Pete is a symbol of this legacy and as long as a post-racial society is still a utopian idea, the opposition of Black Pete is completely legitimised.
By: Samira bin Sharifu