Yesterday I took a test. It wasn’t a necessity, but purely something that developed from curiosity. At Harvard they developed some implicit association tests. It’s not a questionnaire, but rather makes you place things into categories as fast as you can. The test I took was to find out if I had a preference for black or white people. The answer completely surprised me. I thought I would have a preference for white, because I am white and even though we won’t admit it to ourselves, or even if it is subconsciously, I expected to have a slight preference for white. Because it is the norm. The answer I got was: almost no preference towards white people.
The reason I did this test in the first place was a documentary by a Dutch filmmaker about racism. December is an important month, especially for children, as we celebrate the festival of Sinterklaas, or St. Nicolas. It’s a tradition I couldn’t part with and one that I look forward to sharing with my kids one day. Recently the discussion about the festival being racist has arisen again. I always dismissed this, as the festival never made me racist or think differently about coloured people. As a kid you don’t see the color, or that Sinterklaas looks just like the pope. But let me start by telling you what this holiday is all about.
Sinterklaas arrives by boat to The Netherlands with his horse and zwarte Pieten (black petes). In the weeks leading up to the 5th of December, all kids are allowed to put their shoes near the chimney. Overnight, Sinterklaas and his helpers will walk on the roofs and climb into the houses. You’ll get some special candy or small presents, and in return you leave a carrot or some hay for the horse in your shoe. This is also the place where you leave your wish list for the big night. On the fifth of December all the kids get their presents.
I love this holiday. It brings joy to the kids and comes with some delicious treats! Sinterklaas’ helpers are black, supposedly from climbing through the chimney. As a white person I never understood why anyone could take offence by that. I mean, do little people feel offended by Santa’s helpers? I think at times that we take political correctness a bit too far, like in not being allowed to call a school board a blackboard. I think this only emphasizes the fact that there is a lot of racism around.
The fact is, life is easier being white. I was shocked to see a fragment in the documentary where three Dutch people were stealing a bike. All were wearing the same clothes and looked very respectable. However, one was white, one black and one Moroccan. On the coloured people the cops were called time after time, whereas the white guy got offered help! That’s messed up! I am not confronted with the colour of my skin often, because I am with the majority of the population here. But I remember being in certain parts of Africa and Asia, where I felt people looking at me constantly.
I like to think we are past making assumptions based on someone’s looks, but the reactions this black pete debate stirs up are really awful. This documentary taught me that, no matter how hard I try, I can’t look through the eyes of another person. What is not offensive to me, might be to someone else. It is hard when an important tradition is attacked as it is at the moment. No matter how much we all like to move forward, we always tend to hold on to certain things. This festivity hasn’t changed in years. Maybe it is time for changes?
Nobody is saying we can’t celebrate our holiday. All they are saying is, The Netherlands has changed and maybe the traditions should change as well, so everybody feels welcome and included. I don’t know how confronting it is to see black pete when you are black yourself. It doesn’t hurt our kids, but if it hurts a big part of our society, then maybe we should at least look at the alternatives. I was stubborn at first, but would it really change the holiday much if we made some changes to our black petes? I think my future kids would enjoy the festival just as much if the pete’s faces were purple, red and green and their wigs orange, blue and yellow. We just can’t decide what does and doesn’t hurt other people.