Holland and Its Mysterious Racist Black Pete Tradition

Holland and Its Mysterious Racist Black Pete Tradition

Generally I am proud to be a Dutchman. Holland is in the Top 10 of almost all the important indices, and not only in those about tulips and windmills. I mean, Holland is number 1 biking country and since last week it exports the wooden bike (no, not the shoes) to the beautiful city it once founded, New York. But that's not as surprising as the fact that this country is number 4 in the Human Development Index, based on life expectancy, education and adult literacy. Or that it is number 5 in the Digital Access Index and 8 in the FIFA World Ranking for best soccer nations, just behind Brazil. And as the first country in the world it legalized marihuana, abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage, just to name a few liberal achievements and many countries are now following. Holland is also the proud host of the Greenpeace fleet and as a true David the small country is now protesting against the Russian Goliath that jailed the activists of Greenpeace ship 'Artic 30'. So far so good, but there's one mysterious stubborn tradition in Holland, fiercely defended by the majority of Dutchmen, as if their whole cultural heritage is at stake: the mysterious, racist tradition of the Black Pete. Did you know about it?

In the USA you have Santa Claus, in the UK there's Father Christmas and in Holland we have Sinterklaas. Next month he will arrive in a boat from Spain, bringing thousands of presents for all the Dutch children, many of them waiting for him in the harbor, singing songs and waving flags. Once ashore Sinterklaas, dressed like an old bishop with a long beard, will continue his journey through the small country on a white horse and around the horse there are always - as David Sedaris tells us on a hilarious way - six to eight black men. These black men are the servants of Sinterklaas and they all have the same name: Black Pete. They are dressed as Renaissance minstrels with black faces, painted red lips and Afro wigs. They jump around, talk foolishly, make mistakes - like constantly forgetting things - and behave like naughty little boys. For weeks Black Pete's are everywhere, in shops, houses, schools and TV commercials. They distribute candies and presents till the Birthday of Sinterklaas on the 5th of December.

And the next day, they are all gone. But I do remember how I once pointed out to a colored Dutchman with Surinam origin and shouted to my mother: "Look, look, there's still one left!". The man and my mother both looked angry. This is more or less how I learned that I wasn't allowed to say this. I did look over my shoulder though, to be sure if he really wasn't secretly carrying some presents behind his back. Which he wasn't.

More than ever newspapers, talk shows and blogs in The Netherlands debate about the Black Pete tradition right now. The vast majority says the tradition is over 150 years old and kids love it, so why would you fuzz about it? And anyone who dares to share doubts about this tradition or suggests that it looks like a racist happening gets confronted with fierce verbal attacks. Facebook pages like 'Black Pete must stay forever' receive tens of thousands of likes. And amongst the comments you find remarks as 'If the blacks don't like this they should go back to their country', ignoring the fact that a fifth of the country is colored and most are born and raised in the same Holland.

Thousands of colored people in Holland feel pain and insult by this tradition. The white boss and his black servants sometimes remind them of a much more painful part of the world's history. And when thousands feel humiliated this should be enough reason to change the tradition, don't you think so? Or do we need the United Nations to interfere again? Till 2002 Holland and several other western countries knew stubborn fans of the ages old tradition of dwarf tossing. No kidding! Only after the UN Human Rights Committee decided in September 2002 that this was a humiliating tradition people stopped tossing dwarfs around. Yes, in case the Dutch can't find the guts, the creativity and honest self-reflection to keep the Sinterklaas tradition alive without the humiliating Black Pete's then I think we must ask the UN to interfere again.


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