So we have this tradition in The Netherlands. All Dutch readers know. By now, since it has been in global news, lots of foreign peple know, too. It comes down to Saint Nicolas – “Sinterklaas” in common parlance – visiting The Netherlands, or more specifically, its children, and giving them presents. He comes by boat around the 15th of November, and leaves again on the 6th of December, which is supposedly his birthday. Sinterklaas has a horse, Amerigo, and helpers, the Petes.
The problem boils down to Sinterklaas being an old, rich, white guy, and the Petes being black – hence the name Black Pete. They’re not just black, but they’re stereotypically black. And not modern-American stereotypical, but slavery-style stereotypical. Petes are painted very black, have bright red lips, big gold earrings, and 17th century costumes – not coincedentally the period of the Dutch Golden Age, in which slave trade was a big source of income for the country. Opponents say the Black Petes remind of colonnial white superiority and black inferiority, and as such, it’s racist and should be changed.
I’m not going into the debate whether the festival of Sinterklaas is racist or not. It’s been all over the news, and many a debate was held on Facebook, and many a death threat was posed on Twitter. Suffice to say, I think it’s racist, and I think with all the public hysteria over the subject, it’s impossible that Sinterklaas – or especially, the Black Petes – will remain the way they are now. The media and the corporations are going to look for ways to keep Sinterklaas advertisement a thing without losing customers, and the organizers of Sinterklaas activities will want to find a common solution.
Let me start out by saying that I love Sinterklaas, and think it’s the best time of the year to be a kid. There’s candy, there’s presents, there’s singing and fun activities. There’s anticipation and there’s a feeling of mystery around it all. Whatever the solution is going to be, these things musn’t change. If anything, we must make them better.
So, onwards then. There are basically two commonly named solutions: Rainbow Petes and Ash Petes, with most people seeming to have a preference for the former. There are also people who suppose to just cancel the whole thing, as “all the fun has been sucked out of it”, but I think they’re just weary of the debate. When the dust settles, I think they’d be happy to see Sinterklaas is still very much a hugely enjoyable festivity.
In short, Rainbow Petes are no longer black, but they are all the colors of the rainbow. Blue, green, yellow, orange, red, you name it. Ash Petes are no longer face-painted, but instead have wipes and spots of ash on their face, which they get from “climbing up and down chimneys”, which is how they bring the presents to the little children. As said, most people who want to see change prefer the Rainbow Petes, I suppose because they have pretty colors.
I’m against Rainbow Petes, and pro Ash Petes.
Rainbow Petes don’t solve the problem of Pete being an image of slavery. Just because they are no longer painted in realistic skin color, changes nothing about the fact that they are no longer representating slaves. It’s just that now no particular minority claims personal hurt.
As a thought experiment: what if there was a tribe of people somewhere who were blue? Or green? The whole debate would suddenly apply again. None of the actual issues with slavery have been resolved, it’s just that it isn’t black slavery anymore.
In fact, some aspects of slavery hit me even harder with the Rainbow Petes. At least with Black Petes, they referred to human beings, namely the black community. With Rainbow Petes, their humanity is stripped from them. No human actually is bright green, or bright yellow. There is actually a blue human, due to his excessive drinking of silver nitrate, but I don’t think that applies here. So the Rainbow Petes look like humans, but they aren’t exactly human.
To be clear: during the time of slavery, we used to think black people looked like humans, but weren’t really humans. Not as human as white folks were, in any case. There’s a reason they were commonly referred to as “apes”.
Combine this with the fact that Petes don’t commonly have a name. They’re just named “Waypointer Pete”, “Presents Pete”, “Candy Pete”, “Assistent Pete” or likewise. The standard form is “[job] Pete”. They being referred to by their function, not their name, like machines.
So we have a not-entirely-human being, being called by his function. That’s a human robot. That’s a slave. He might not be black, but he’s still a slave.
What’s Better About Ash Petes, Then?
Frankly, only the first part of the “human robot” story is solved by the Ash Pete. But I think that’s a huge step, and the most important one, because the second part is taking care of itself, as I’ll argue in the next section of this post.
Foremost, the Ash Pete doesn’t deny skin color. It’s immediatly clear whether a Pete is white, black, asian, middle-eastern, or whatever. Pete remains a human being, like Black Pete, but now without stereotyping a particular ethnic group. Pete may still be a fool, a joker, slightly dumb, but it is clear that it is a white person being a fool, a joker, slightly dumb. Or an asian, or moroccan, or whatever person.
What Ash Pete does, is to no longer place the stereotypical joke that is being Pete on an ethnicity, but rather, on a job. Ash Pete symbolically says: I’m a fool, and a joker, but that’s a part of being Sinterklaas’ helper, rather than a part of being black or in some other (colorful) way, sub-human.
Some people might say that the Petes will become more recognizable without their excessive paint, but I think this is a good thing. If the little children can clearly see that the older children from school are Petes, what will they think? That everything is a farce? Or that they, when they are old enough, will also be able to become Petes and help Sinterklaas? If I remember my reverence for Sinterklaas at that age correctly, I think I would have been thrilled to find out that I, too, could become a Pete and help Sinterklaas. Instead of making Pete an exotic, outlandish and thus inaccessible figure, it’d become a voluntary position, a job of honor, that every kid could have when he or she is old enough.
But Pete Would Still Only Be His Job…
Yes, this is the second part of being a slave. Having no humanity is one, only having your job is two. But as I said, I think this problem is, much more than the first, attending to itself. Over the years, children’s programs and activities in the streets and in the neighbourhoods have shown a Black Pete that is increasingly on equal footing with Sinterklaas. They contradict him, give him advice, occasionally don’t listen to him, and are generally more vocal. Sinterklaas at the same time has become more foolish. He’s nowadays more the stereotypical kind, but forgetful old man. He makes mistakes, and he’s less busy with bossing the Petes around.
One of the best developments I’ve seen is that the Petes now sometimes have names. They’re Spanish names – because Sinterklaas supposedly comes from Spain – but they’re names nonetheless. Sinterklaas’ helpers might be named Pedro, Esmeralda, Alfonso, Juan, etc. Suddenly, their functional name – “Waypointer Pete”, “Candy Pete” – becomes a real function. “Pete” now becomes a synonym for “Manager”. I really hope this trend becomes more widespread, and that the Petes will become actual persons, with actual names and actual feelings, and more than just their job.
I’m not entirely finished yet. What has largely been absent from the whole national discussion is the role of Sinterklaas himself. Ironically, it’s only the pro-Black Pete camp that sneers: “Oh sure, and then Sinterklaas will become black, right?” Well, actually, that’d be a great idea. I mean, the actual Saint Nicolas was Turkish/Greek, so a slightly more colored guy would even be more historically accurate.
Of course, we’re talking about a children’s festival here. We don’t want historical accuracy. We want fun and joy for everyone. So to be clear: I’m not saying Sinterklaas should now always be black. But I am saying, that if we open up the Petes to every skin color, how great would it be to do the same for Sinterklaas? Then, the festivity would truly be for everyone. Children of all colors could feel joy when Sinterklaas and not-racially profiled Ash Petes come into the country. Slightly older children of all colors could feel the joy of being a Pete and getting to act childishly for a few weeks per year, while making smaller children happy. And adults of all colors could choose to be Sinterklaas, making the children happy with gifts and amusing little talks on whether they were good enough or not.
The solution to this is I think very simple and already in existence. Parents already tell their children that Sinterklaas has assistents, the so called “hulpsinterklazen”, who travel the country because he can’t be everywhere all of the time. Why would’t these assistent Sinterklaases sometimes be of different skin color?
I think that if you’d ask a child to describe Sinterklaas, they’d mention his bright red robe, his long white beard, his big red bishop’s hat and his golden curled staff. They’d say he’s really old, and maybe that he’s bit weird and funny. But I think very few kids would ever mention Sinterklaas is explicitly “white”. As long as all the other symbols are present, I think that children would accept a black or asian Sinterklaas immediatly, probably without even thinking about it, especially if they know he’s an assistent, and not the Sinterklaas they saw on TV.
Hell, to be honest, I think children would event accept female “hulpsinterklazen”, complete with beard and everything. That would be hilarious, both for children and adults. When asked why they have a beard, the “noble old ladies” could always say that it comes with being Sinterklaas’ assistent, just as the ash and the clothing and the silly behaviour comes with being a Pete.
I fear the upcoming media debate, but I was glad to read that there were Ash Petes during Sinterklaas’ arrival in Amsterdam. I hope that this would become a more commonplace solution. The Rainbow Petes are a step in the right direction, but I feel that, since there’s such great resistance at wanting to change the Sinterklaas festival, maybe we should try to do it right immediatly the first time, instead of having to have this awful discussion again in ten or twenty years. Sinterklaas is an amazing feast, with the potential to be fun for all children and all adults. Let’s try to make it that way.