COMMENTARY - Whenever we see the dehumanizing images of young children from Syria and Somalia washing up on the shores of the European Union, we cannot shake off the feeling that the effect of this in the Netherlands is contributing to the birth of a new “Black Peter” figure (Zwarte Piet). This is admittedly a bizarre, and some would even say obscene connection, but one that began to make sense to us when we took the time to reflect. Permit us to share our reflection with you.
For those unfamiliar with Dutch folklore: Black Peter is the collective name given to the servants of Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas), a bearded Santa Claus like figure, originally a Catholic Bishop that brings gifts for children in the Dutch Kingdom on the 5th of December. In the Netherlands and the Flemish part of Belgium the tradition is 500 years old. With colonialism it also became bon ton on Aruba, Curaçao, and Bonaire. You can meet Dutch citizens who would die, metaphorically speaking of course, if someone would dare change their tradition and deprive children of what they consider a perfectly honest fantasy—Black Peter: black clown like figures, with afros, and thick red lips.
According to the myth, Peters are black because of having to go down chimneys to supply well behaved children with the gifts of Saint Nicholas. Since myths aren’t about empirical truths, it is somewhat understandable that the afro and the thick red lips or the impeccable page costumes worn by Black Peters aren’t given any consideration. Neither is the fact that Saint Nicolas who is said to be a Spaniard, was born and raised in Turkey and lived in that country until his death on the 6th of December 324 A.D. Yearly Saint Nicholas travels with his Black Peters from Spain to the Dutch Kingdom with a boat full of presents and returns home with naughty children that his helpers imprison in their empty bags. What becomes of those children no one knows. Although one of us (Francio Guadeloupe) once jokingly heard adults in a pub comment that when these kidnapped children grow up they become Black Peters as only Saint Nicholas is immortal. So much for this all too brief explanation of what is in fact a rich tradition.
As is to be expected there is a growing minority in the Netherlands that are contesting this tradition. Taking over the baton from activist groups such as the Solidarity Movement Suriname (Solidariteits Beweging Suriname) public and academic intellectuals as diverse as Quinsy Gario, Kno’Ledge Cesare, Anousha Nzume, Sunny Bergman, John Helsloot, Zinhi Ozdil, Sylvana Simmons, Kunta Rincho, Alex van Stipriaan, Artwell Cain, Abulkasim Al-Jaberi, Manu van Kersbergen, Ramona Sno, Mitchel Esajas, Corna Dirks, and Kevin Roberson to name but a few, argue that the Sint Nicholas tradition with its Black Peters is a remnant of Dutch imperialism.
Yearly Dutch children with a darker hue are teased and called Black Peter—meaning insipid happy-go-lucky black servant. What’s more, they stress that the tradition symbolically legitimizes the continuing blight that is racism against dark skinned people of Sub-Saharan descent in the Netherlands. These activist intellectuals use their scholarly prowess to make the case that Saint Nicholas gained black servants in 1850, more precisely, in the work of the Dutch author and educator Jan Schenkman.
This date is of course interestingly close to the period that slavery was being abolished in the Dutch World. It does not surprise these intellectuals that eight years after his first appearance in print, Jan Schenkman proceeded to depict Black Peter as an eternal boy (read “boy” in terms of Jim Crow USA and the UK’s golliwog figure) with an Afro, thick lips, a beret and page costume. Scientific racism—science being used to present the lie of there being biological races instead of one human race—had its companion in the racist culture and arts of the time. White, was alright, Black, slave like. Activist intellectuals emphasize that the intentions of those who celebrate Black Peter do not count; what does count are the consequences, which prolong the racial nightmare the Dutch world is trying to awaken from.
Rather simplistically put, these are the two camps: 1) the pro Black Peter bloc that base themselves on myth (Black Peter is actually a white man), intentionality (most people do not mean to denigrate black people when they engage in the Saint Nicholas celebration), and the noble cause of defending cultural heritage and the right of children in the Netherlands to have fun free from the intellectualizing of grownups, 2) the anti-Black Peter bloc that base their argument on history, consequential ethics, and the need to decolonize Dutch cultural heritage so black children will not to be negatively stereotyped.
Our take on the whole debate surrounding the figure of Black Peter is to connect this cultural heritage with the new political correctness in the Netherlands on the refugees seeking to enter fortress Europe.
If we were to believe the dominant message coming out of the mouths of leading politicians, conservative pundits, and opinion makers in the Netherlands, we would think, that as is supposedly the case in the entire European Union, Les Pays-Bas is being flooded by Third World peoples who may have Jihadist leanings and cultural mores that are backward when compared to Enlightened Dutch citizens. In fact these refugees may strengthen the intolerant tendencies displayed by the new Dutch, those from the Third World and those who have parents that were born in the Global South. We however consider this new political correctness politically suspect, as it obscures vital aspects of the current refugee crisis.
Of the 60 million human beings on the run, only 600.000 sought entry into the 508 million strong European Union in 2014. When we look at the Netherlands with its population of 16 million, it needs to be emphasized that about 13.500 persons sought asylum in 2015. The supposed flood of refugees turns out to be, to put it mildly, an overstatement. There is also a clear connection between the growth of refugees and the exploitative practices of multinational companies in the Third World whose centers of operation are located in the wealthy parts of the globe (the Netherlands and the EU as a whole being an example hereof). Then there is the undeniable historical record of the governments of wealthy countries, the capitals of these multinational companies, helping to keep many of the Third World dictators in power (think Syria). And last, we cannot but see the colonial legacy staring us straight in the face. The countries, from which the refugees are fleeing, are the same ones that were dominated by Imperial Europe. No, we haven’t succumbed to the new political correctness.
So what does this all have to do with Saint Nicholas and Black Peter? A lot, if you know how to look. Through education, popular opinion, arts and craft, commerce, and a host of state backed activities, an ideal conception of the citizen is created by contrasting it with a fantastic image of an intimate yet ultimate outsider. Both images find their translation, amongst other things, in the dominant childrearing practices of a society. In the Netherlands of the 19th century, the time when Black Peter was born, the ideal conception of the Dutch citizen was a white, wise, rational, sober, upright, god fearing, principled, emotionally in control person that carried his/her body like a knights armor. The intimate yet ultimate Other bore all the characteristics that according to the dominant narrative Dutch people should not be: an irrational, emotional, playful, black or brown, hedonistic, malicious, eternally childlike person unfit to govern him- or herself. But of course most Dutch exhibited these traits, except for well being black or brown! These negated traits had a certain attraction, especially because they were frowned upon. Slowly, as is always the case in every centralized society, a national figure emerged in the popular culture related to upbringing through which this drama of repulsion and attraction could be ritually enacted: Black Peter from Spain (in a fantastic feat, the Spanish from whom the Dutch gained independence was tied to the black colonized in the Dutch possessions!). Black Peter, the malicious one with a spice of attraction.
Now fast track to the second half of the 20th century, the time of decolonization, the period that the offspring of the colonized living in the Netherlands join hands with the progressive descendants of the nation that colonized them to fight the racism they see in the figure of Black Peter. Think of the work of Quinsy Gario and the other intellectuals we mentioned. Concessions are made (never without a fight). Attraction gains more ground. Black Peter becomes a more likable figure. Children want to be like him, they are more interested in him than Saint Nicholas. With United Nation committees on cultural heritage and racism choosing the side of the anti-Black Peter protesters (for example the Working Group for the People of African Descent of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights), leading politicians like the Dutch Deputy Prime Minister, the honourable Lodewijk Asscher, admit that in the poly-ethnic Netherlands, black and brown, despite being predominantly white, the tradition will have to undergo more changes (the Prime Minister however, the honourable Mark Rutte, and Dutch EU Commissioners, such as Frans Timmermans, aren’t so forthcoming).
As an aside we must mention that on the Dutch Caribbean islands, the majority has traditionally employed the subtle tactic of co-production. Black people on Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire paint their faces black or white thereby perpetually severing the link between these Black Peter and Saint Nicholas and human beings. In co-producing the tradition they have also successfully made Black Peter blue, green, and red, beside black (Perhaps in the spirit of creating equitable ties within Kingdom of the Netherlands, the Ministers of Aruba, Curaçao, Sint Maarten, and the commissioners on the BES islands/overseas municipalities, ought to encourage their counterparts in the Hague to be more sensitive to the racial underpinnings of our colonial legacy).
Back to the Dutch case. The burning question is what happens next with Black Peter recognizing that s/he will change dramatically? To answer that question more fully one needs to appreciate that a new image of the ideal Dutch citizen is emerging: educated, trustworthy, feminist minded, gay friendly and secular to the bone, yet defending a Judeo-Christian heritage. And his/her Other, his/her new “Black Peter”? Well, it is too soon to tell. But s/he seems to be a religiously fanatic (Islamic), homophobic, misogynistic, uneducated and untrustworthy refugee out to steal the wealth of the Netherlands. And with all the repulsion there is for this Other that embodies the repressed parts of Dutch people, one can smell the faint whiff of attraction. Soon a fantastic translation of this Other will emerge in the nationally endorsed popular culture. This is what we mean when we say that in the Netherlands the new “Black Peter” will be grafted on the refugees washing up on the shores of fortress Europe.
Dr. Francio Guadeloupe: President/Interim Dean of Academics of the University of St. Martin (USM)
Mr. Erwin Wolthuis: Division Head of Business and Hospitality programs of USM.
Mr. Pedro de Weever: Lecturer at the USM
Ms. Sharelly Emanuelson: guest lecturer at the USM
Ms. Jordi Halfman: guest lecturer at the USM
COMMENTARY (The comments made here are the sole responsibility of the authors.)