Santa Claus and Black Face: Is Sinterklaas the Innocent Victim of Culture Clash or a Racist Anachronism?
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Today marks a traditional winter holiday in Holland and other parts of the European Low Countries (the Netherlands, Belgium, Lille and Arras, predominantly) featuring Sinter Klaas, the forerunner of our Santa Claus, who is traditionally accompanied by a helper named Zwarte Piet (aka "Black Pete") — a young man in black face with curly black hair, thick red lips and dressed as a courtisan with a velvet jacket and frilled shirt.
Sinterklaas — who also goes by Sint Nicolaas or De Sint in Holland and environs — was a stranger to me until a few years ago when Dutch-American friends introduced him to me. In my friends' home this morning, the children will awaken to wooden shoes filled with goodies.
Sounds like a charming holiday tradition from the old country. But is it simply that?
In Vancouver's New Westminster community, an historically Dutch enclave in the Canadian city, the annual Sinterklaas parade over the weekend faced a clash of cultures between traditional and contemporary sensibilities when the character of Zwarte Piet was excluded from the event because of complaints about the figure's perceived racist overtones.
Members of the African-Canadian community had complained that Zwarte Piet, or Black Peter, a young person in blackface makeup, is offensive and outdated and should not be included in the Dec. 3 event. This will be the first time since 1985 that Black Peter will not accompany Sinterklaas as he heads to New Westminster Quay aboard a paddle wheeler boat.
"We will not have Black Peter," organizer Tako Slump said Friday."We did all our research and came up with the understanding that they do have a point. We can assure the African-Canadian community that there will not be any offensive black faces."
A statement from Sinterklaas organizers apologized to those "who may have found aspects of our celebrations [demeaning] and hurtful." ...
Bernard Piprah, an organizer of the annual Black History Month symposium at Douglas College, had argued the Black Peter character comes loaded with offensive, racist stereotypes.
According to the Dutch tradition, Black Peter is responsible for carrying a book full of the names of naughty children, along with a rod and a sack to take the bad children away. He also scatters candy for children.
"[The character] is degrading, and it's racist, and it's incredibly outdated," Piprah said. "You can't erase that. You can go to your local library and read that this Black Peter was a slave. He beat children. He was dumb, and he spoke buffoonish Dutch. There are just so many insulting aspects to that character, and I can't believe they're celebrating it in New Westminster."
Piprah said Friday it was a "reason-able compromise" to eliminate Black Peter from the annual celebration. "It's kind of something they should address, no matter what the culture, when an aspect of it is clearly offensive to a particular group," he said.