“Sinterklaasje kom maar binnen met je knecht want we zitten allemaal even recht (Sinterklaas do come inside with your servant because we’re all sitting straight).” joyfully sing young children with their parents.
“Zwarte Piet is racisme (Black Pete is racism)!” scream the angry protestors.
My adopted country, The Netherlands, is suffering from serious social discord and an international relations nightmare. Journalists love to describe the tension as an increasingly acrimonious debate. It’s more akin to a cultural war.
This past weekend, when Saint Nicholas (Sinterklaas) and Black Pete (Zwarte Piet) were officially welcomed to The Netherlands by the city of Gouda, 90 people were arrested. Gouda failed to placate the anti-Pete protestors with the introduction of Stroopwafel (Waffle cookies filled with caramel-like syrup) Petes, Cheese Petes and White Petes and infuriated the pro-Pete demonstrators with changing the appearance of Black Pete.
What is essentially lost among the headlines is the gross violation of a festivity centered around young children. We’re talking about the six and under crowd here – the toddlers and preschooler children. They, most of whom are highly intuitive, had to witness the protesting, the scuffles, and the presence of riot police.
And like any natural reaction of a parent, I too am deeply hurt and disappointed. The protesting reveals the utter disregard and respect for the magic and fleeting innocence of young children. Suffice to say, I’m having my Tiger mommy moment.
For fifteen months now I’ve been playing the part of the Asian-American storyteller in Holland, embracing and settling into an easy compromise of an Asian, American and European way of life. Though being a foreigner may at times be lonely and challenging, I have chosen to focus on the bigger picture.
And in our Dutched reality, we’re among the many people in the Netherlands able to pursue fulfilling careers and enjoy domestic lives. We’re fortunate to live in a society that not only says it values children, but actually provides a societal structure that does: part-time work, private maternity nurses, free health care coverage and dental care for all children, childcare subsidies and education. Our children (Dutch kids) are happy.
And unlike the United States, there is no real danger in being a person of color.
We generally don’t have the kind of violence against strangers and amongst each other endemic in America. I would know about it. When I was nine years old, my twenty-six year old uncle, whom I was very close to, died of gunshot wounds.
So I write from the perspective of an Asian-American raised in the multicultural San Francisco Bay Area, educated at one of America’s most liberal and progressive universities, the University of California, Berkeley, as a daughter of immigrant Filipino parents who inherited my parents dark brown skin, black hair, dark brown eyes and short stature, as a wife to a not-so-typical Dutch man, and a mother of a two year old boy who is enamored with life, including Sint and Piet.
In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk The Danger of a Single Story, she teaches that “The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
And like Adichie confesses, I too am guilty of believing and perpetuating the single story. There are several features of this iconic Black Pete that naturally grate on my American sensibilities – the black face paint, gold earrings, bright red lips, afro wigs, the Renaissance style page costume and the clownish, playful banter and antics. Observing from the periphery, I make the connection between the Dutch past of colonialism, slavery and racists stereotypes with Black Pete. I wonder how a racist stereotype continues to prevail in a country renowned for (and proud of) its progressive ideals and tolerance.
Ironically, the stereotype of Black Pete being a racist caricature, is the one story that prevails in the media. It is the story of a white Dutch majority continuing a blackface tradition which oppresses, disregards and disrespects the feelings of the colored minority. Taken completely out of cultural context, it isn’t surprising why British comedian and actor Russell Brand coined the holiday as a colonial hangover.
And yet, I find my skepticism and frustration over this holiday tradition softening thanks to a myriad of ordinary events and light-bulb moments. I reflect on my interactions with Dutch people who love the tradition – from the kindhearted, middle-aged preschool teachers who adore my son; the helpful, welcoming neighbor who has been playing the role of Sinterklaas for the past forty years; the many colored minorities, both who have grown up here and recently immigrated, who also absolutely love the tradition and see nothing wrong with the Black Petes; and my readers who patiently explained to me their perspective and about the history of their feast of Saint Nicholas (this speaks volumes because I am a hard-headed woman).
They are all part of the population living in the Netherlands that lovingly declare “Black Pete, c’est moi .” Black Pete, that is me. It is spoken with self-love and pride. They represent the 82% of 27,000 Dutch people polled by EenVandaag Opinion who do not want Black Pete to change.
But the biggest eye-opening experience I had and that made me finally have a change of heart (or more accurately, less judgemental) is witnessing my two-year-old son. He is absolutely crazy with Sinterklaas and Black Pete. Bless his heart as he bursts into random song and dance, singing the only line he could muster to say, “Sinterklaas kapoentje…”. For the record, my two year old doesn’t care about the actual color of Pete – he’s simply infatuated with the sweets and presents. As long as the candy and presents keep coming, his heart is open to all different kinds of Petes.
The love, care and attention to detail that all the Dutch adults around him create to foster this magical fairytale of a saint and his helpers would make any outsider envious. The American approach to Santa Claus pales in comparison to the concerted efforts of the Dutch and their Sinterklaas.
And for the first time, amidst his infectious enthusiasm, I finally realized that to many Dutch people, Sinterklaas and Black Pete are their erfenis. Erfenis is roughly translated in English as inheritance and heritage. The Dutch culture considers inheritance not only the physical passing of wealth from one generation to another, but also heritage – one’s history, traditions, culture and identity. Black Pete is their heritage, their birthright and it transcends color lines.
If I intend to raise my son with an open mind, to teach him about kindness, I too must have an open mind, be kind myself, and make a genuine effort to learn about another perspective. I have to practice what I preach.
In the process of us rejecting a single story, we start acknowledging that we are all Dutch regardless of the color of our skin. Both foreigners and native Dutch have a voice and a responsibility to continue this wonderful children’s tradition because at the very heart of this contentious adult debate is a festival centered around the innocence and wonder of young children.
It’s time that we all stop yelling, name-calling, ostracizing and shaming and start listening and respecting other people’s stories. As Adichie so brilliantly shares: “That when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”
I too am hoping that we can keep the magic of Sinterklaas, where ever our culture takes us. Culture, after all, isn’t stagnant. It directly reflects the beliefs, customs and ways of thinking of a particular society – Sinterklaas and Black Pete included. I simply ask that we find more appropriate venues for expressing our opinions (both for and against Black Pete) other than a children’s festival.
Here’s to Finding Dutchland, where ever you may be.
(Photos taken on 16 November 2014 during the annual Sinterklaas parade in Utrecht, The Netherlands)