Schimmel Amerigo met Sinterklaas (Bram van der Vlugt) in 2008. Wikipedia
In the evening of December 5th, children in the Netherlands and their families celebrate the feast of Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas. The fact that Sinterklaas is traditionally helped by Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) has led to an international outcry of racism. The Netherlands itself has now been divided on this issue for several years, and this year for the first time “Piet” was fair-skinned on television. But does the current approach really solve the problem?
The entrance of Sinterklaas in the Netherlands is celebrated yearly. According to folklore he comes from Spain by steam ship, and his arrival is transmitted on national television. He also solemnly enters every city, town, and village. Children are very excited, because they know that Sinterklaas and his Piet come for them. They bring candy, and presents – if they have been good this year, of course.
The peaceful family atmosphere that has always characterized this national feast has in the recent years been confronted with protests. The charge is that Sinterklaas’ helper Zwarte Piet is a reference to the Dutch colonial past which is blemished by extensive slave trade. While I forcefully condemn both slavery and racism, I belong to the half of the Dutch population that finds it nonsensical to link the figure of Zwarte Piet to racism. I also think it doesn’t help the cause against racism.
To me, saying that Zwarte Piet is racist is comparable to calling Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs a discriminatory tale. After all, the dwarfs look after Snow White, but still she needs to be cured by a full-size prince whom she finally marries. This story presents small people as servants that are not taken as candidates for marriage! What an outrage against people of small stature!
This example illustrates two errors. First of all, we are not talking about small people but about dwarves, legendary beings. Now it is true that legend tells us things about the world around us, but it is not true that groups of legendary beings correspond one on one to groups of people in society. Fairy tales don’t work like that. Ask any child. And so, Zwarte Piet is just that: a figure of folklore, dressed up in an extravagant outfit, not to be compared to any group of people in society.
Secondly, and more importantly, the dwarfs lovingly take care of Snow White. In this tale, service is presented as something very positive if done freely and lovingly. The same holds for Zwarte Piet: he has always been presented as figure who is a friend of Sinterklaas, and a friend of children. Service is for Zwarte Piet not something he is forced into, but something he does willingly and joyfully. After all, he is helping Sinterklaas to make children happy! What could be nicer than that?
‘Us versus them’, or ‘we’?
A big question that this discussion raises is: how do we deal with differences between people? It is clear that throughout history, some groups of people have exploited other groups of people. And that’s terrible. So, what should we do to stop that?
One answer to this question, given by Marxist thought, is: get rid of all the differences. Marx spotted the difference between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, and he proposed to overthrow the structure. This way the differences no longer exist. If they don’t exist, there is no reason to exploit anyone, or so goes the thought. We know from historical experience, though, that human beings are very creative at finding ways to exploit, and that communist countries have been a good example of that. What sounds like a good idea at first, doesn’t turn out to be a good solution in practice. Perhaps it was not such a good idea to begin with.
A second solution is the Christian one, the spirit of which obviously inspired Saint Nicholas, who famously – and secretly – provided dowries for three poor sisters so they could marry. This solution does not deny the differences, but rather lovingly cherishes them. It stimulates us to help each other out with our strong points, which each person has. Understanding this well requires a mind shift from an individualist mentality, which western society is imbued with from left to right (on the right wing it shows as Homo economicus, for instance, which I criticize in this other Sinterklaas story), to a “loving family mentality,” where the talents of each contribute to the good of the whole.
A family of peoples
This loving family mentality can also be applied to relationships between nations and peoples. It seems to me that every country, every culture, has its own gifts and talents. I occasionally visit a West African church we have in Amsterdam, where I feel very white and very welcome, and I am always struck by the great spiritual joy these people irradiate. That’s clearly a talent Europeans can learn something from collectively.
Still, one may object, where was the loving family mentality when Christian countries engaged in slave trade in the past? Clearly, it was culpably absent. But it came back when these countries started to reflect on their own principles. It is exactly the Christian inspiration taken seriously that helped abolish slavery.
A loving family mentality is not something automatic. It is hard, and needs to be worked on. But framing a family feast as a power struggle between races doesn’t help at all. Rather, to remind us how very different creatures can treat each other lovingly we have stories like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. And we have Sinterklaas and folklore figures like Zwarte Piet: good friends who together bring joy to children of all backgrounds.
Daniel Bernardus (Daan) van Schalkwijk writes from the Netherlands. He teaches about health at a university in Amsterdam and is the director of Leidenhoven College, a collegiate hall of residence. He edits a monthly ezine called “Relax, Relate, Reflect about Big Questions”.