On changing your mind: Black Pete

This is me in blackface ‘Zwarte Piet’ (Black Pete) in 2010.


I would not do that again! Slowly over time I have come to realize that Black Pete in fact is a ridiculous tradition. I am not sure I would have been open that that idea in 2010, seriously I do not know how I would have felt if someone at this fun and festive night would have called me a racist or disrupted the party. I am happy I got the chance to change my mind though. Really, a thank you to Quincy Gario who kickstarted the modern day Black Pete revolt. I love that saying “growing old is the only way there is not to die young”.

Similarly, changing your mind is the only way there is to not die stupid.

I used to think Black Pete was a fun innocent tradition, but I did not think it through. Black Pete is racism. People in the Netherlands do not really understand what racism means, which is why this phrase is so hurtful to many of them. People here thinks racism is only shown by people in the Ku Klux Klan, or the right wing party of Geert Wilders. Only if you say: “I hate negroes” you qualify as a racist.

Racism according to wiktionary is firstly:

The belief that each race has distinct and intrinsic attributes.

With this definition it is easy to see that Black Pete is racism, because it takes a few of those attributes (curly hair, big lips), exaggerates them and then ridicules them. Yes, but everyone loves Black Pete! Sure, but he is still a stereotype, and as such is harmful.

But I did not mean to hurt anyone!

The interesting thing here is that many Dutch people think like this, they think that Black Pete is harmless, because the mean no harm. Intention counts, not result.

Compare this with hurting someone in another fashion, let’s say bumping into someone. You do not mean to hurt, them, yet you did. They indicate this by saying “auw”.  Now what typically happens is that the hurter apologizes. They did not mean to hurt you. Did that made you spill coffee on your blouse? Wow, they are really sorry and they can of course cover drycleaning.

This situation, somehow, changes when we are not talking about physical, but mental pain. If you insulted someone and they say “auw” sometimes the reaction is: “Learn to take a joke”, “I did not mean it as an insult/in a racist/sexist way”.

This piece describes it nicely:

“There’s a cognitive dissonance for them between intention and action. An act can only be racist if it’s meant to be racist.”

This is of course not true. If you hurt someone with your actions, intentional or unintentional, just stop what you were doing for a bit. You don’t have to agree immediately, but just listen.

But how does it hurt anyone?

Black Pete actively hurts young black kids in the Netherland, for being called ‘Black Pete’ in the holiday season and otherwise ‘othered’.

One thing that made me change my mind are these testimonials of black people in the Netherlands discussing Black Pete related bullying and othering. Wow! That must hurt a lot. I am really sorry I contributed to that, I did not know better at the time.

Being different in any way is so hard as a kid, I guess many people can relate to that. Non-white kids with really do not need the unnecessary stigma of being a called a Black Pete.

I know, it sucks to realize the party that you thought was so innocent and that you really enjoyed as a kid actually is hurtful to people, but get over that. The majority race, which are benefited in so many seen and unseen ways, really should not be the ones to complain.

But if we change this, where does it stop?

Firstly, does that really matter? If people are hurt and we can change that is a small change, who loses? Who really cares about the color of Black Pete anyway. Green Pete would be just as fun, let’s not forget the whole thing is a myth anyway.

Of course there are situations where the hurt person is overly sensitive and asks you to stop doing something that is outrageous. There are people from cultures for example in which I am a female would not be allowed, for example, to teach. If someone in the Netherlands is offended by me lecturing, no, I will not stop doing that. But bear in mind that taking away my freedom to work is really something different from changing my facial paint. This is not a “slippery slope”, every case should be decised on its own.

Okay, now what?

I think it is very very sad that our prime minister and public broadcasting networks (who organize and televise the national Sinterklaasparade) have not taken a stand against. So we are residents will have to do it. Just don’t do it anymore. Dan’t dress up, don’t buy candy with Black Pete on it, without political pressure, financial pressure on companies that make Sinterklaas stuff will help. If you as a white Dutch person agree that Black Pete is stupid, tell people. And, more importantly, defend Dutch black people if they argue that Black Pete is racism. Multiply their voices by agreeing, because, despite what we would like, public opinion is mainly formed by white people at this point.


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  1. Job van der Zwan

    Came to this blog for the cool Excel-related work you do, stayed for the common sense.

    Good piece.

  2. Jeroen

    I’ve come to the conclusion this whole discussion is not about whether Black Pete is objectively racist or not. Rather, it is about the _perception_ by the general public that this is something instigated by a small but vocal minority, and they don’t want to be told what they can or cannot do. I think the opponents of Black Pete shouldn’t focus on him being racist, but on the real hurt that this stereotype is causing.

    And in the end, absolutely no kid is ever going to reject their presents because Black Pete is not black anymore. So how important is this, really?

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