Cultural appropriation in Belgium. Black Pete’s debate. What’s next ?

Black Pete’s origin

The dark history of an ancient folklore

Saint Nicholas and his helper Black Pete are symbols of the Belgian and Dutch pre-Christmas tradition. The 6th of December is then marked by festivities that celebrate the Saint and his sidekick. But this annual event has been heavily criticized by multiple organizations who see a harmful portrayal of slavery.

Black Pete originates from the mid-nineteenth century where he first appeared in a book of Dutch author Jan Schenkman. The illustration from the novel Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht depict a scene in which Saint Nicholas is seated at a desk with an open book in front of him. Black Pete stands right beside him with a small package in his hands. The Saint’s acolyte seems to be represented as a blackamoor in traditional clothing.

Cover of Jan Schenkman’s book Saint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht from 1850.

At that time, blackamoors were often exhibited as a from of art. The widespread use of candelabras, statues and small jewelry pieces showed black faces wearing renaissance costumes. The richly decorated crafts belonged to the wealthy European elite who wanted to portray their slaves.

Whether the Dutch writer intended to represent Black Pete as a servant or not is up to the reader’s interpretation. Historians have several different theories. But many individuals claim that the Saint’s companion is related to the enslaved. They argue that it is an image of slavery. Surinamese-American founder of the Black Heritage Tours, Jennifer Tosch says that the challenge consists of being able to see other people of colour as our equivalent. She thinks that her experience as a black person should be equally as important as the Black Pete tradition.

“The Dutch erased a part of their slave history. Black Pete is a symbol of racism that takes us back to slavery”

Jennifer explained that The Netherlands legally abolished slavery in 1863. But this legislation did not mark the end of black servitude. The owners of the enslaved demanded to be compensated for prohibiting slavery. Instead, the Dutch government allowed them to keep the black servants for ten more years. The slaves were required to work for a decade before gaining their freedom back.

The CEO of the Black Heritage Tours erected two excursions, one in New York City and the other one in Amsterdam. Those two cosmopolitan cities have a rich history of servitude. The buildings in the Big Apple and the Venice of the North testify of the booming of slavery.

The purpose of those guided tours is to educate people about the black history. Both excursions focus on the colonial period and slave trade. Jennifer plans to widen the community of black history lovers by establishing another tour in Brussels, Belgium.

Chairman of the Saint Nicholas Society, Jan van Wijk points out that the celebration of Saint Nicholas and his assistant has been existing for over 200 years. In the ancient times St.Nicholas was a bishop who rewarded children for their good behavior while Black Pete punished those who would misbehave. The Austrian and German folklore portrayed the Saint’s loyal colleague as a semi-goat, semi-demon called Krampus. The evil accomplice was the complete antithesis of the modern Black Pete. He would appear on the 5th of December roaming in the streets looking for disobedient kids. In most representations, Krampus would carry a sack or a basket to cart off recalcitrant children to hell.

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The contrast of the white bishop and the black devil shows a conflict between good and evil. Those two characters are rooted back in the Middle Ages where Christianity played a prominent role. The pagan tradition quickly evolved into a Christian custom with biblical references. The moral tone of this folklore tried to teach children right from wrong.
By 1923, the Christian Social party in Austria campaigned against the pagan Krampus ritual. The political association argued that the evil figure scared youngsters and symbolized the devil. The partisans of the collective banned all celebrations linked to Krampus.
After more than five decades, the revival of this custom has been re-emerged in The United States and Eastern European countries.

Rage against the Pete

Whitewashing of Belgian and Dutch history

After years of loyal service to Dutch and Belgian children, Black Pete is now being painted as a caricature of racism. The clumsy figure is at the centre of an equal rights debate in the low countries.

The controversy began when The Netherlands introduced a demand to put the Sinterklaas custom on a UNESCO list of the country’s intangible cultural heritage. When Verene Shepherd, a Jamaican researcher on the panel of the UN, heard of this tradition, she immediately wanted to put an end to it. “The purpose of black face is to mock and dehumanize Africans”, declared Shepherd. She urged The Netherlands to change the custom.

Various Petes have been created to show the positive mindset.

Chimney Pete is the best alternative for Black Pete, according to the majority.

Dutch authorities were forced to adapt Black Pete to the image of a caucasian man with soot marks. Multiple variations have been designed to match the UN’s expectations. But the most popular is Chimney Pete. The new Pete is a compromise between keeping the tradition alive and eradicating a cliché.

Multiple supermarkets and toy stores in the low countries will replace Black Pete by the softer version, Chimney Pete. This marketing strategy targets the minorities who are obfuscated by the black faced figure.

But not everyone is prepared for that drastic change. A poll by Flemish magazine Klasse showed that 72 % of the Belgian pupils prefer a Black Pete while 22 % chose the Chimney Pete. The rest, 4% and 2% were attributed to White and Pink Pete. Those results date back to 2015.

A petition called Red Zwarte Piet circulates online. The aim is to collect as many support as possible to keep the Black Pete tradition. The Belgian petition has already gathered more than 14,000 signatures.

The Black Pete debate triggered tensions between different communities in Belgium and The Netherlands.

Black Pete is too often associated with black faced slaves. But the conceived problem of Zwarte Piet is the name. His name clearly states that he is black. Founder of the Jim Crow museum, David Pilgrim thinks that Belgian and Dutch children have a lack of daily interaction with people who are racially different from them. “If the only black people they see, are in festivals as black face representations, that is probably not a great foundation for building images of those people”, says Jim.

The American public speaker is also an expert on issues relating to multiculturalism. He does not understand how a cosmopolitan city still has to deal with such discriminatory practices. According to David Pilgrim, people will use techniques of neutralization to cover up what they really think of this custom. Instead of justifying themselves they will deny any signs of racism and keep on thinking that the Saint’s helper is a symbol of interracial interaction.

The international speaker believes that people in general don’t like to give up their traditions. “It is a lot easier to say that Black Pete slid down a chimney than to say that he is black because we want to scare white children”, says David Pilgrim. His analysis shocks those who are in favor of the tradition. They think that he takes things out of the context.

Dutch author of the book Black Pete, Marcel Bas has a different opinion. He thinks that Zwarte Piet is a faithful helper of Saint Nicholas who has nothing to do with slavery. The writer argues that Black Pete is not an African character but represents an ancient, mythical and pagan personality.”Being a helper of a caucasian man may look like it could be a remnant of slavery, but it isn’t”, states the writer.

Marcel Bas believes that the political correctness has gone too far. Both parties, pro and con, should reach common ground by promoting the awareness of Black Pete. “Instead of condemning this age-old practice, the opponents should try to understand the principles of our culture”, thinks Marcel Bas.

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In 2015 Belgian Minister of Youth and Culture, Sven Gatz was caught up in a conflict. The politician posted a selfie wearing Black paint on Twitter with the caption “And we dance and jump because we are happy there are no naughty children this year”. The politician faced heavy criticism after his post. Many joined the twitterstorm to denounce his racist attitude. One of the protestors was Wouter Van Bellingen. The director of the Minderhedenforum pointed out that he was offended by this post. “It is an outrage to see that such a high-ranked politician can propagate archaic ideologies. It is intolerable and inappropriate. It really came as a surprise”, claims Wouter Van Bellingen.

Van Bellingen is a Flemish politcian with Rwandan roots. The spokesman and chairman of the Minderhedenforum wants to put an end to xenophobic folklore. He thinks it is a throwback to colonial times. “If we would rewind time, I would have been in a cage labelled as an attraction,” declares the politician. Van Bellingen strongly believes that the debate is not about Black Pete but about respect and the peaceful coexistence of different cultures. “We have to build a strong foundation for the future generations”, claims the orator. He clearly wants to preserve the children from xenophobic stereotypes.

Poet and human rights activist, Jerry Afriyie is an anti-Black Pete demonstrator. He has a long history of disturbing the public order.

Jerry Afriyie wants to be the voice of the discriminated minorities in the Back Pete debate.

Afriyie showed up at numerous Saint and Black Pete parades in The Netherlands to protest against the racist figure. The activist fights an institution which approves racism. “The government, the police, professionals and schools encourage this tradition. It is so embedded in the society that it is difficult to change it.”, says the human rights advocate. He wants to change the mentalities who, according to him oppress the black minorities.

Jerry Afriyie got arrested several times for participating in demonstrations. His support to the cause even cost him his job as a security guard. But he kept showing up at the manifestations because he believes his cause is worth fighting for.

Belgians responded to the question ‘Do you think we should held a debate about Black Pete?’.

Text and interview  ©Morgan Mc Kenzie