Yearly Sinterklaas (a Dutch version of Santa donned in Christian attire and symbolism) arrives in mid-November in towns all over The Netherlands and the Dutch Caribbean, including Curaçao where I live, to hand out gifts to children. He’s accompanied by scores of black-faced servants called Black Petes who wear gold jewelry and bright-red lipstick to exaggerate the size of their lips. During parades, they dance wildly with a cane whilst threatening to put children who “have behaved badly” in burlap sacks and take them against their will to Spain. From time to time the white, old and wise Sinterklaas asks the Petes who obviously cannot control themselves to “tone down”. It’s very common to see children weep at this spectacle. I did as a child.
The Dutch, the inventors of this tradition, tend to argue that Black Pete is a Dutch thing and that outsiders don’t understand Dutch culture.
Black Pete is an expression of numerous classic Western prejudices against black people that depict inferiority in addition to the servant to the master attitude.
Why are these Petes black? According to the defenders of this racist tradition, they come down the chimney to bring presents for the children on 6 December. Let’s go along with this explanation, for now. Chimneys are full of soot, especially in December and the servants get dirty. But how come coming down the chimney makes their lips bright red and full? And, since we don’t have chimneys in Curacao shouldn’t the servants here be free of any soot?
When people say, (as they often do) “but it’s our tradition,” tell them: “racism is also a tradition.” What mostly baffles me however is why a large group in Curaçao -given our painful colonial and slavery past- would want to hold on to this disturbing tradition. Shouldn’t we know better than to hang on to something overtly racist? What’s wrong with us? It’s not a question of whether this tradition (or elements of it) is racist but rather why we are denying the truth that it is. As a society, we need to take a hard look at ourselves.
Alex David Rosaria (53) is a freelance consultant active in Asia & Pacific. He is a former Member of Parliament, Minister of Economic Affairs, State Secretary of Finance and UN Implementation Officer in Africa and Central America. He’s from Curaçao and has a MBA from the University of Iowa. (USA).