Racism and Tradition (The Sinterklaas Case)

Recently in the Netherlands a group of people and the Dutch organisation NiNSee dented an old traditional celebration, namely Sinterklaas or Saint Nicolas in English. For generations Sinterklaas with Saint Nicolas as a gift giving Catholic saint, people celebrate the fifth of December as a day of cosiness, happiness and gifts. There is one strange detail, Saint Nicolas has a darker skinned helper called “Zwarte Piet” or in English “Black Pete”.

The origins of this helper are a bit vague. The helpers could have come from old North Africa, other parts of Afrika and there may be Arab origins but even that is speculation. There might be a link with Spain too. What is clear is that during Sinterklaas a white bearded bishop is assisted by dark-skinned helpers. Depending on the make up that skin is either darkish brown or simply black.

The complaint about black Pete was simple. He is black and he is Saint Nicolas’ subordinate thus he reminds the complainers of past slavery. The link with slavery is one I can understand. Thing is it does not apply as Saint Nicolas and his black Petes bring and give presents to children and bring happiness in bringing people together. Basically a strange Christmas-like celebration reminds people of slavery.

I grew up in a religious family and traditions, as silly as they may be are just tradition. Celebrations can be absurd when you look at them with a critical eye. Traditions are old rituals that passed on from generation to generation and have strange and often archaic characteristics. Now the people and NiNSee who complained about Sinterklaas see racism in this old tradition.

The racism specifically, according to them enforces the stereotypical image of slaves doing work for a master apparently. I do not see racism, I see people helping people making others happy. During Sinterklaas the black Petes are not whipped. Even more, if the image of a black servant, helper or assistant is so provoking, they why do the complainers call it racism? Call it inequality and yes, they are right.

When racism is used to name and shame old traditions that are not racist the people complaining are after something else. In the case of Sinterklaas the Dutch judge sort of agreed with the complainers and NiNSee. They now have their attention at the cost of an otherwise harmless tradition.








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