Black Peter discussion: “We should take a critical look at our tradition”


MAASTRICHT. Is Black Peter (Zwarte Piet) a racist phenomenon or not? The discussion on this issue has become more heated during the past year. A discussion in which universities should involve themselves more, wrote five academics in a column in daily newspaper de Volkskrant last Monday. Most universities appear to have only marginally adapted their 'Sinterklaas' celebrations, while this was an outstanding opportunity to take a stand, according to the authors. What do Maastricht academics think about this?


The black servant – often looking a little foolish – of the white Saint has been a tricky problem for years, but the discussion really flared up at the beginning of this year. The United Nations set up an investigation and there were various lawsuits and demonstrations. Both supporters and opponents received death threats. Various cities adapted their entry parade and had ‘Peters’ with faces in a variety of colours or introducing the soot Peter: he has a few smears of soot instead of his whole face completely black.

Not much changed at the universities’ annual Sinterklaas celebrations for employees and their children. At Maastricht University everything remained the same, said chairman of employee association P-Universeel Jo Gorissen. “There was no discussion on the matter. Even our foreign members participated with their children in the Sinterklaas celebrations last weekend.” However, he does not preclude that next year there may be adaptations. “If things change for example, in the Sinterklaas News, then we will also adapt. It is all about children feeling happy at the party, they are the focal point.”

Erasmus University Rotterdam, after some hesitation, allowed some aspiring Peters with soot smears to participate. Radboud University in Nijmegen had already modernised its Peters some six years ago; their Peters are ‘smart advisors’ for Sinterklaas, rather than his servants, and they are brown, not black, wear modest wigs and have no red lips or earrings.

“I think we need to take a critical look at our tradition,” says Wiebe Nauta, sociologist and anthropologist at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. “I feel it is a real problem if you try to talk your way out of it with a veiled explanation that Black Peter gets his black colour from the soot in the chimney. If you look at the pictures, you can clearly see a simple servant alongside a white Saint. People have a rather provincial image of what makes a Dutch person. For centuries, the Dutch have originated from all corners of the world. I think that it is a good thing that people with roots in countries that are former colonies, say when their feelings are being hurt.” According to Nauta, the celebrations can continue to exist with just a few minor adjustments. “Those multi-coloured Peters are a great idea. The university could be a little more proactive and adapt its celebrations now. You would expect that with an international community like ours, we would be trendsetters.”

“I don’t know anything about Black Peter; have not celebrated Sinterklaas in a long time,” says Arnold Labrie, professor of Social and Cultural History. “I have watched the whole debate from a great distance and I would like to keep it that way. As far as I am concerned, they can abolish it or keep it with Black Peter. Bottom line: I think there are more important problems. The only role I see here for a university is to put money on the table for one or two PhD projects on the history of the celebrations and its characters.”

‘Sinterklaas’ should be a festive event for everyone, says Aalt Willem Heringa, professor of Law. “If a substantial section of society sees Sinterklaas as a colonial institution, then I think it is reasonable to make changes. After all, we live together in this country. It doesn’t take away from the celebrations at all. Presents, poems, surprises, these can all continue to exist. I am charmed by the alternative Soot Peter. Just a couple of black smears, perfect.” He feels that universities as institutes need not enter in the debate. “Allow professors to have their own opinions on the matter, as individuals.”

Philosopher Sjaak Koenis agrees with him. “I didn’t like the article in the daily newspaper de Volkskrant. The writers assume that universities should be even closer to society. I am a little wary of that. I think that science should keep its distance. A university should carry out research on the festive event and the way in which it is experienced has changed, we are not an action group.” He noticed this change in experience in himself. “Like many native Dutch people, I was unaware for a long time of the negative feelings that other people had about the Sinterklaas feast. Apparently we are not sensitive to what others experience as hurtful. This last year I thought: it is weird to celebrate it in this way. We should see if we could set it up in a less colonial fashion. As a social philosopher, I find it interesting that it is Sinterklaas which has become the focus of a discussion about our identity. Who are we really? Why do we feel that we would be left to the mercy of the gods if this is taken from us?”

It is not up to university boards or mayors or members of parliament to dictate change from above about a children’s feast, says Joop de Jong, cultural scientist and director of the master’s of Arts and Heritage. “The academics in the daily newspaper de Volkskrant have already taken a stand. They are talking about the racially stereotypical character of the present Black Peter. So you are already drawing a conclusion while the debate has not even begun.” A debate that he thinks is all about identity. “A group chooses to base its identity on the role of the victim because of something that has happened in the past. To them Sinterklaas is a racist tradition that excludes. The other group does not have that feeling at all. They dig their heels in because they think part of their identity – their heritage – is being taken away. The Netherlands sees itself as a tolerant country, which is a core value for us. So if a group then says that you are not tolerant, but actually the opposite - intolerant and racist - then that hurts.” De Jong expects Sinterklaas as a festive event will slowly evolve – “heritage is by definition changeable” – but in which way he does not know. “It can go two ways. Either Peter changes, or the opponents change their position. The sharp edges of their role as victims in their identity will wear off. They may then even participate in the tradition, like other new Dutch people have done before them.”

Cleo Freriks/HOP

Black Peter discussion: “We should take a critical look at our tradition”
~foto op 5.JPG
Author: Redactie
Wiebe Nauta
Categories: News

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