Black Pete -- the New Westminster cancellation
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 Part Two and Part Three "Black Pete" letters in Your Dispatches
Roger B. Jones of Burnaby B.C. played a key role in the fate of Black Peter in New Wesminster, B.C.:
I was the person who initiated the action to eliminate Black Peter from the New Westminster "celebration". This was not an easy decision, because it was obvious that it would be emotional and potentially messy.
Anyone who doubts that this portion of the Sinterklaas event is inappropriate, should spend some time researching the subject and talking to people outside your social circle.
Because the idea of Zwarte Piet/Black Peter is so ingrained in the mindset of the Dutch community, I realized early on that a serious debate would be difficult (if not impossible). A quick read through comments on the Sinterklaas Facebook site (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Sinterklaas/147484605352659), reveals the large rift between many African Canadians and Dutch Canadians. That said, it appears that there are some Dutch who are willing to explore an alternate version of the Sinterklaas event.
Regardless of what we read in the media, it was never my intention to cancel Sinterklaas. I believe it is a wonderful tradition that deserves to continue indefinitely. The organizers in New Westminster, decided that they wanted Black Peter or nothing. I still cannot grasp how they came to that decision.
The question is,where do we go from here? I for one, will never accept Zwarte Piet or Black Peter being celebrated in a public place in Canada. African Canadians have fought too long to be treated with dignity and respect in this country. My family has been here for several hundred years and have continually worked to make this a better country for everyone. Ironically, many of my relatives put their lives on the line at wartime, partially to help Dutch people. For this we get Black Peter in return?
We have a year to create a much more hospitable celebration, that could be welcoming to all cultures. I challenge everyone who is clinging to the notion of Zwarte Piet/Black Peter, to think deeply about what you are doing. Do not make lame excuses trying to explain away the blackface with images of soot I have yet to hear anyone account for the big pink lips and woolly hair. Everyone also agrees that the Sinterklaas story has changed many times throughout history. Why not make another change for the best? If you can convince your children that a Black man from a far-off land, comes on a boat as a helper for an old white man, passes out cookies, possibly puts little children in a sack and spirits them away; then you can easily spin another tale!
Canada is supposed to be a welcoming society. Zwarte Piet/Black Peter does not belong here. Now that we are aware of his existence, there are many who will diligently oppose any reappearance of this character.
Roger B. Jones
Categories: Your Dispatches
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