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Continuation on my text about "Zwarte Piet" being racist or not.

It was the last I wanted to say or write about it, but of course: good thoughts are not enough. The following were thoughts that kept running through my head:

  • "The respect that Petes show towards the older Saint Nicholas is now seen as supressed slave-behaviour."
  • "De jokes and mischiefs for the benefit of the children is seen as showing people with dark skins as stupid."

At the end of this year I expect the discussion to breakout again and for that reason it kept playing in my mind. I kept reading about opinions and thoughts of others and even dived into history itself. Someone against Black Pete was "friendly" enough to help me with a banner of fallacies, of which the original can be found here: https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/. The only downside was that he used it to ignore whatever I said, so there was no discussion possible. In the end I saw no other option than to list his arguments against Black Pete under the same fallacies, which he used to try and convince others. Involving the Holocaust or the mere fact that some are offended by the image are fallacies in itself to the suggestion that this makes Black Pete a racist character. Also history - where Black Pete came from - does not guarantee racism, even if the original intend was racist. I'm trying to bend the arguments of Black Pete being racist to People seeing racist trades in the character of Black Pete. There is no harm in asking attention to the usage of the character, but describing people who like Black Pete as racists is another thing entirely.


Racism (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/racism)

1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior and has the right to rule others.

2. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.

3. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.

I'm under the impression that Saint Nicholas is not superior to Black Pete, but that Pete advises the Saint. Saint Nicholas may be in a higher position than Black Pete as Saint, but Pete is still in a position above ourselves, serving the Saint.

With only one Pete, in earlier times representing a sort of devil, this may have been meant in a discriminating way, when it was Pete who delivered the punishments, and the Saint who delivered the presents, but this has long been cut from the tradition and it is now mostly Pete making the children happy. Today this has nothing to do with hatred or feeling superior to another race. I can however believe that people may think that it does.

Black Pete is called a servant, which is what the Dutch word "knecht" means. A servant is not a slave... The Dutch word "geknecht" is what throws some people of, which means "to be subjected into serving." You can serve someone as a profession in which case you can be a "knecht": the person serves out of free will. When you are "geknecht" it means you did not have that free will any longer, which can also be translated as being forced into slavery. But Pete is a "knecht" and had not been "geknecht".


Pete's clothing does not only look like that of a house slave, as some say, but also looks like that of a footman or page, so the clothing does not automatically indicate slavery as well.

(image example: http://www.catawiki.com/catalog/cigar-labels/brands/vander-elst/2636275-edelknaap-van-particier-van-de-geslachten)

The blackface argument (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackface) is most likely the strongest argument against Black Pete, because it is basically the same, although it may be doubted that the origin and intent is the same... Also this site lists Black Pete under Black-faces: "http://black-face.com/blackface-world.htm". The way it was used in America at the time Pete came to be was definitely racist and again the original intent of Pete since that time may have been the same, but over the many years the intent has changed and racist trades have been removed up to the extend where Pete's colour is being explained as soot from chimneys. If the black colour was explained as skin colour, than the argument that Black Pete is a blackface and is therefore strongly based on racist trades, would be true. To my opinion the colour of Black Pete should not be explained as skin colour, which also makes the curly wig unnecessary. The lipstick colour is already reduced to no longer simulate big lips. However I don't think the argument that they're filthy of soot is a very strong one, because the colour is equally put on.

People with good intentions, wanting to change Pete to go from fully painted to a few smeares of soot I think have forgotten the point of the paint: the disguise. Through soot-smears you can still immediately recognize the person underneath. I also don't think it such a good example to kids to have dirty Petes in a parade and why would they come off a boat all dirty. To change Pete to another colour I don't really like, especially when it will become skin colour, like the rainbow Petes... Although personally I would have no objection to colourful Petes, painted in all colours for the festive occasion.

Saint Nicholas News

A few days ago I watched the Sint Nicholas News of last year (2013) specially recorded to entertain kids in the days towards the celebrations. I wanted to see how the media projected the figures and I wanted to look especially to the Petes, but what caught my eye mostly was Saint Nicholas himself. I think of him as an older man, wise, a Saint who does great things and rewards children with presents, much like Santa Claus. For what he does he deserves the respect with which the Petes serve him. However what I saw in the news were his complaints about anything going wrong with work that the Petes had done: his staff was left behind (which it seemed was intentional by Saint Nicholas, but he never mentioned to his Petes), the presents did not arrive at the warehouse and the notebooks of Listening-Pete disappeared, because of which Saint Nicholas could not finish his work on the Big Book. I actually saw nothing come forward for which quality the Saint deserved the Petes' respect. Also what the Petes showed was more the kind of fear you'd expect from children to their parent, or of course slaves to their master. Also Saint Nicholas did use a downward tone towards the Petes to let them know that they just needed to solve the problems, as if they were kids. Of course it's all obviously aimed at kids, but I can really imagine that people who see Petes as an image of people with a dark skin feel offended or see this as glorification of slavery.

I don't think the media learned anything from the Pete-debate, even with people working on the show who I think clearly got to understand the message.

"Zwartepiet toespelen"

I was also surprised to find that the usage of the frase "iemand de zwartepiet toespelen" (to point to someone as the bad guy) is still being used in jurisdiction. Why not change the word "zwartepiet" there to "boeman" to keep the meaning of the frase, but get the negative meaning off Zwarte Piet. Especially in an educated part of society you'd expect a good example.

What are we celebrating actually... and why?

It all made me wonder what we actually wanted to celebrate with Saint Nicholas. Sure I have fond memories and I definitely want to celebrate it later with my children, but what is the thought behind all this. The only reason I could find from what I'd seen around me is commercialism. Why else, in a country which has so many protestant influences, are we still celebrating a Saint that was very orthodox catholic? At the time of Saint Nicholas, the catholic church was still being formed and the first Roman Emperor became catholic. Still in his young live, christians were persecuted like the protestants during the reformation.

To my understanding, the celebrations were kept through the reformation because of it's value for education, which is in my eyes to make kids aware of their own behaviour to which they may expect to be rewarded having done their best (in earlier times they were more likely expecting judgement: present or punishment). But now you see more that kids don't think about this. The Saint is just giving presents away because it's normal; the more the better, deserved or not. The biggest spoiled bully gets the biggest presents. Don't understand me wrong, I think every child is basically good, but becomes spoiled by no- or a weak education, or in some cases conflicting education. 


As to what I hear about the way lessons are being taught at school - the children do and think as much as possible on their own - I think of this as a lazy approach. For some this may work. For others, to which I include myself when I was young, need more structure, direction. Some teachers seem to be afraid to correct children on their behaviour; for the child or maybe even the parents. Where then have the social / educational norms gone? I'm not talking about physical violence to the child, which should never be necessary, but a teacher should be able to make clear to the child at least that it is supposed to treat others with respect and the teachers should have the support of the parents in this.

Concerning correcting a child which calls someone "Black Pete": when a child is called "Black Pete" and is offended by this, explain to this child that to be a Pete is a profession for which one could be proud and even if the other child means to bully, he didn't understand what he was talking about. When I was young someone drew a swastika on my lockerdoor in school. This shocked my greatly and hurt me a lot. To me it resembled a strong form of hate, which I felt I certainly had not deserved (later it turned out a friend of mine had done this as a joke he found innocent). One teacher told me about the original meaning of the sign: a sign of luck from boeddhism (a.o.) and with that the heavy weight on my heart was lifted as was my mood. The whole intention of the sign on my lockeddoor was no longer important.


I'd like to be able to keep celebrating Saint Nicholas with the educational value and the good (Black) Pete can add in a positive way, but not the Petes we see today in the media. To my opinion people tend to think too much about the way children think, how their attention can best be taken without asking if it is the best way to educate the child as long as there is commercial benefit. And this even while it's the task of the parents and the environment to guide children to the best of their ability towards adulthood. No wonder there are so many adults nowadays acting childish, when no-one taught them.

The website of the Saint Nicholas Center explains a lot and also asks for change on Black Pete in a friendly way: http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/who-travels-with-st-nicholas/

Also the book Lola's Sint (double language) by Kristina G. Langarika work to acceptable Petes in a way presentable to children: http://lolassint.nl/

I'm hoping Zwarte Piet can continue, no taboo, but equality. My hope is to see Black Pete in an honorary position next to Saint Nicholas, advising with mutual respect both ways, no fear, next to other Petes, being dumb or not with or without paint of whatever colour. Also I'd like to see the Saint set the good example; hard working, worthy of respect.

The Saint Nicholas celebration is about children and therefore part of the education. What we want to give to our kids is what we should constantly ask ourselves when shaping this celebration as well as all other educational matters. The media has a big responsibility here with nationwide traditions, they can make it very hard for parents to explain certain aspects when making the wrong choices.

A letter from Saint Nicholas to the people of The Netherlands

My heart ached as I watched the heavy emotions that have been displayed at the expense of our helpers in the Netherlands. In years past we held on to the idea that our celebration is for the children and thus might have mistakenly looked beyond the prevailing sentiment among some adults. It has become clear we were wrong to think that understanding would follow now that we received such strong reactions, even from abroad, of incomprehension at our celebration. We can no longer disregard the spreading misunderstandings about our celebration for kids.

Earlier, we already noticed that we got a request from a growing number of parents to pass by their door on St. Nicholas' eve or Pakjesavond in Dutch. And until recently we had the perception that, however much it did hurt us, we had to respect that. The number of homes that we got the request from grows faster these past years and the controversy that has arisen again this year, made it painfully clear why.

For us the task to disentangle a number of misconceptions and the image that has emerged over the last few years.

Provided that we realize that some things need to change, I hope you will all take the time to take notion of the following.

Long ago, the number of children that I had to visit was nowhere near as high as it has become today. After a lifetime of work for charity Peter was given to me by a teacher, to thank me for what I did. Then, Peter was a slave child indeed. For me personally, I have always been against slavery and I gave Peter his freedom immediately. I gave him the option to stay and I would take care of him until he found his own place. Over the years, however, he learned what my job was and he joined me in a profession that at that time was called "knecht" or servant. It struck some that this word is wrongly linked to the word "geknecht", which indeed means enslaved. The difference for these two Dutch words lies in the voluntary enter the profession or being forced to exercise that function. My friend Peter was one of the free people.

His clothes are those of the profession of a noble youth, brightened by some colours for the children and now sadly explained as that of a enslaved house servant, which indeed it has strong similarities to. The earrings do come from his slave past. He himself had become attached to them and he wore them with pride: the gold of which they were made had a very high value. Times have changed and looking back to the past I can imagine how one could be offended by this, much to the grief of my helpers now.

Pieter was black, and this led to his nickname Black Peter. It was not a lie, so Peter took no offense to it and the name was not used in an ugly way against him, but pronounced with love by more and more young admirers. It also makes me very sad that this name is now used to discriminate, and people feel discriminated against by the use of this name; both to be taken equally serious.

The years passed and with only my good friend Peter we just no longer succeeded in our task. We took more happy helpers in our service to deliver gifts in shoes and deliver the presents on Pakjesavond. It will come as no surprise that the helpers do not all have the black colour, but the black colour proved extremely useful for the large round over the rooftops at night: you heard them, but you couldn't see them, making the Petes quick,  undistracted in their job, delivering the presents to all the children in time before the evening had gone by. Yes, many parents still tell the story that the colour comes from going down the chimney and in earlier times this was indeed a true reason, but today there are very few chimneys left for our helpers to climb down from. How we do get in I unfortunately can not tell. This will need to continue being our professional secret to prevent abuse of it, but as far as we know it can only be used with good intentions, so be at peace.

In fashion worldwide there was also commotion about the big earrings, and with great tension the Petes followed this news back then. To their joy there were eventually accepted; today there are many women and men also that do not even have a small sense of the history of these earrings, but they wear them with style. They love these big, notable, golden rings. Our Petes wear them with lots of joy around the holidays in December.

The full lips were a feature of old Peter, which he really doesn't share with all helpers. When I see the images I remember the old Peter with great love. On the other side of that same love others others such hatred when seeing this feature pictured, because of what so many others so many years ago underwent based on their race. This causes me to grief and all this is certainly not the intention. I would like to ask you, the Dutch people, to show the helpers as neutral as they are now and leave the happy memories I have to Peter to me. The commotion causes me too much grief. Show the Petes in their natural skin colour rather than the make-up they still use for their nightly charity. You will understand that the natural colour now comes from all over the world; black, dark, light, I've even seen them green on board the steamer, and blue during the cold December nights or red, when they are in love.

I find it very unfortunate that people from all over the world responded to our festivity for kids with incomprehension and are to quickly to judge instead of asking open questions going into the the discussion, to look for mutual understanding. But then I would like to believe that perhaps it has taken too long for a response to the feelings felt by those that feel hurt. On the occasions to answer questions, both parties responded in our eyes with reticence. Both sides arising from this lack of understanding do not seem to see the whole picture. The festive is about generosity, helpfulness, openness, equality, happiness, being together, and above all, good behaviour.

Not all helpers nowadays have a black skin, therefore we find it sensible to show my  present day colourful companions, at our arrival without their nightly professional make-up, possibly even in festive colourful make-up, to prevent further misunderstandings. The earrings I would prefer to leave to the choice of the helpers if they want to wear them or not. About the apparel; I myself see no problem in  with cheerful colours and shades for the imagination of the children. Yes, slaves have been used a pages, but a page does not equal a slave. I do hope that these merry clothes are of no offense. There are too many helpers to change their clothes within a year, and we prefer to use the money for gifts for the kids. If this does proof to be offensive, we'd love to hear your reasons, and I hope that by means of a discussion between equals we can modernize the cheerful outfit of our helpers over the years. I am also very happy with my mitre cap, which only recently was added to my own wardrobe. Hopefully you will understand that for their profession to fill the shoes and on Pakjesavond, the helpers will still use their beautiful black as soot make-up so they can do their rounds through the city without being spotted too much. It also helps them preventing recognition for the rest of the year in Spain.

Then there are some questions from our loyal fans I wanted to answer: "Why do some children actually receive such great gifts, while other children are only given trifles? There are also children who receive nothing. Not even from their parents. Why is that?" This is indeed often misinterpreted. It is false that some children receive large gifts from me. The children are all given gifts that they deserve or which they need to grow into adults. Mostly the gifts are small but meaningful, a gift every child should be able to appreciate. Some parents themselves buy some extra gifts for their children and sometimes even such great presents that I, in some cases with pain in my heart, come realize that I can no longer contribute to the gift for these children.

For the second question I have the following answer: It sometimes happened that the Petes and I make a mistake. We are after all only human. But there are also cases where parents have indicated to us to have no wish to participate in our festivities. We have to respect this decision. Sad children's faces hurt, but we cannot undermine the parent's teaching. Choice of education is up to the parents and if they see no place for us in that education, we take a step back.

Finally, I would like to urge you, the people of the Netherlands, to show respect for yourself and to one another. Break the taboos and avoid embarrassment. Speak not to blame each other and make no bogeyman. When a child calls someone on the street "Black Peter", simple explain to that child that not everyone is 'Black Peter'. Being Pete is a profession and naming someone Black Pete, who is not one of the helpers, is like calling the butcher a baker. Also, black is not a negative colour. Children do not distinguish colours so well, because they do not yet know the names for them. Teach the child what is right. Also explain to a child, which is called Black Peter, that this is not a bad name. No matter your own experience, when you tell your child that Pete is bad, the child will feel hurt. Explain to the child that Pete is a hero with a super cool job, and the child will shine, regardless of the intent of the comment. Thus the child fends off negativity. Break the taboo. Speak out to one another that it is not good to call names that are incorrect. It is ignorance of the child, not good, not bad, but to learn. Apologize if necessary, and shake hands. By shame one accedes more quickly to escape or denial and so gives off a sense of negativity; intended or not. A smile does so much more. Talk about right and wrong, talk about feelings and listen to each other. Leave each other and yourself with dignity. The history is behind us and is undeniable, but knowledge is not always wisdom. The future is ours, let's make something beautiful together.

With the very best wishes

Saint Nicholas and Head Piet