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"Black Pete" letters -- Part Three

The discussion continues, about the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas and his sidekick Swarte Piet.  It started with a piece Lauren Comiteau did for Dispatches -- about growing concern that the kinky-haired blackface character is racially offensive and shouldn't be part of the traditional opening of the Christmas season in Dutch culture. There have already been dozens of emails to Dispatches about this.  A selection is posted in Part One and Part Two "Black Pete" letters in Your Dispatches

 

Anthony Corrado of Toronto writes:


I first became aware of the dark side of the Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas from the recent documentary Becoming Santa, where Zwarte Piet was denounced by African American historians as a demonic black-faced foil to the sainted bishop. Even if Piet's role is no worse than a gift bringing counterpart to our elves, this subservient image of dark-faced lackeys imprinted on every Dutch child seems entirely consistent with the historic attitude their Boer cousins have held toward indigenous South Africans.

 

Anthony N. Morgan, a law student at McGill in Montreal, explains why he'd like to see an end to the practice of Zwarte Piet: 

I am the student who was involved with the "blackface" incident that took place on a university campus in Montreal this past September. I would like to offer my thoughts about the tradition of "Black Peter":

I am a born and raised Canadian of Jamaican heritage. In September of this year, I brought to the public's attention the occurrence of 20 or so students who decided to parade on a university campus in Montreal wearing blackface, carrying monkeys and chanting about consuming marijuana.

My experience with the Montreal blackface incident has heightened my interest in this debate about Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete. This interest has only increased since last week when the Dutch community of New Westminster, BC decided to cancel its Sinterklaas festivities because a group of Black Canadians in their community expressed opposition to the featuring of Black Peter in the celebrations of Sinterklaas.

From my perspective, what is most problematic about the debates concerning the tradition of celebrating Black Peter is the obsession with reducing the matter to one about feelings and intentions.

If we are ever going to fully grapple with what is at issue here, we have to avoid getting caught up in the banter about who does or does not feel offended by the presence of this character. Similarly, truly unpacking the issues at play means getting beyond the overly simplistic defenses rooted in expressions like "this is part of our history, culture and traditions". In other words, true progress and understanding on the matter will only come when discussions about who is happy or hurt by the tradition of Black Peter are ignored, and when arguments about whether the intentions behind his celebration are for ill or good will, are resolutely dismissed.

From the purely objective realities of the Netherlands' deep involvement with the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade, the colonization of Africa and support and defense of now-dead Apartheid in South Africa, Black Peter emerges as a symbolic glorification of the enslavement of Black people by Europeans. Within this history, the tradition of Black Peter also stands as a celebration of historical notions of Black inferiority and subservience to Europeans.

Because this tradition makes a large number of people smile and feel good does not allow the clear symbolism and representation of Black Peter to be swept under the rug of historical amnesia. Advents of the internet and sites like Wikipedia make this kind of historical ignorance inexcusable and irresponsible in our present world.

Yes, slavery, colonialism and Apartheid and the unfortunate involvement of Dutch peoples and countries in these institutions is tough to face. But these are the objective facts of history. When we meaningfully engage them and situate Black Peter within this history, we should all realize why we cannot continue to embrace and celebrate the tradition of Zwarte Piet.

At this point, I can hear many responding by saying "the past is the past and it should be left there". The clanging irony is that this is exactly what those opposed to the Black Peter tradition would like to see, namely, a move away from the past and an evolving into contemporary understandings that demonstrate a commitment to an appropriate recognition of the of humanity, dignity and respect that all peoples should be equally afforded.

When the historical argument is used as a contextual basis for opposing Black Peter, it should be understood that this is not done so that we can go back and list the atrocities of the past. Rather the historical context is brought up in order to highlight that Black Peter is an inextricable part of that past and therefore has no place in our present-day globalized societies.

All the Dutch people I have had the pleasure to meet, hang out and socialize with have always been most lovely, understanding, fair-minded, intelligent, friendly and warm. Everything I have learned from them has indicated that racism is not a part of their culture. Rather, like almost every other culture, including that of Blacks, Jamaicans and Canadians, it's not perfect, and is trying to find its way in an ever changing world.

As such, I feel very strongly that empathy and support, rather than ostracism and criticism will be what ultimately helps us all work together with our Dutch brothers and sisters to bring an end to the celebration of the tradition of Zwarte Piet.

Anthony N. Morgan
Hons. BA
University of Toronto
B.C.L./LL.B. Candidate, Class of 2011
McGill University, Faculty of Law

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