Last year, not for the first time but for the first time I did notice, debate sparked in the Netherlands about the St. Nicholas celebration and the color of “Zwarte Piet” (Black Peter), St Nick’s helper. I didn’t pay much attention to the debate, but when a number of my Facebook friends signed the “Pietition” to keep Black Peter black, I did so, too. I had never thought of Black Peter as referring to slavery. Possibly, it’s because I didn’t know that he was decorated rather steretoypcially with red lipstick, earrings, etc. More likely, it’s because I possess White privilege and I horribly neglect racism in my attempts at educating myself about minoriyt points of view.
Around the discussion last year, my husband introduced me to a point of view which said that apparently White people’s enjoyment of the tradition is more important than Black people’s dissatisfaction with it, and this is racist. We, and I include myself here, often say that Black people who complain are just “professional niggers” shouting “racism” at every opportunity to do so. Then again, I for one am pretty well-known for calling out ableism (discrimination of people with disabilities) at every opportunity at least on my blog.
I understand both points of view. White people insisting on tradition probably aren’t otherwise racist, rather more likely having trouble shifting perspective from their own privileged stance to the minority person’s. Of course Black Peter has got to be black, everyone knows this, because I’m in the majority here and I know. On the other hand, Black Peter does have a traditional helper role, which could easily be interpreted as a reference to slavery (and it is likely that the historical St. Nick had slaves too, though they may not have been Black). Tradition is important for many people, but can’t we shift it a little bit for some people’s comfort?
St. Nick will arrive in the Netherlands in Gouda on November 15 this year. The St. Nicholas committee has decided to include a majority of black Peters, but to include yellow-faced “Gouda cheese” Peters too. That way, they give both parties a little of what they want, but I doubt either will be satisfied. Particularly some people supporting traditionally black Peters have radicalized over the year a bit towards a more hostile form of racism rather than mere ignorance.