Traditions are the foundation of every society – but do we know where they actually come from? Traditions are a form of indoctrination. We grow up in accordance with certain norms and values without thinking about them critically or looking at them from a different perspective. As citizens, we often turn a blind eye to uncomfortable truths about our past.
Speaking of traditions that represents the past, is there any better example than the Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) in the Dutch culture? On December 6, the Dutch have celebrated Sinterklaas, a holiday dedicated to Saint Nicholas, for over 700 years. However, Sinterklaas is not the only one that shows up at people’s doors to give kids candy – he brings his companion Zwarte Piet along too. Zwarte Piet is portrayed by dressing up as a caricatured black-faced man, with big red lips, gold hoop earrings, and a huge afro. Perhaps in an effort to appease some more liberal-minded Dutch people, the story is that his face got black while going down the chimney. Yeah right, who’s going to believe that?
Well it seems that a lot of people do. If my country’s past was defined by notoriety in the slave trade, I would probably want to forget it too. The Dutch have always been one of the biggest colonial powers in the world. They controlled the East and West Indies, Caribbean islands, Suriname, and more. They may have lost most territories, but their history remains strong in the imperialist department. But, as mentioned earlier, acknowledging difficult pasts is not anyone’s strong suit. The Dutch want to be seen as a tolerant nation, bringing in people from around the world, helping them and providing them a place to stay. If a tolerant and developed society is the goal, why not change this small and obviously backward custom?
Zwarte Piet is a racist tradition; we all see that. He was obviously modeled as a caricature of a Surinamese man, with many even depicting him with a Surinamese accent. I understand that letting go of a tradition can be difficult sometimes: for some it may feel like they are letting go of a piece of their identity. However, what I don’t understand is why the Dutch are so invested in keeping this custom when it’s obviously hurting a lot of people, and not only those of Surinamese descent? You don’t get to label your society tolerant and non-racist and at the same time aggressively support things like Zwarte Piet. When I first moved to Amsterdam, I was mesmerised with the idea of how open-minded Dutch society seemed to be, but that certainly does not always translate into reality. It makes me sick to see the people getting beaten up every year for standing up for what they believe in.
Those of us who hail from elsewhere should take a look at this situation and ask ourselves: do we have racist traditions in our countries? Often, we may view such traditions like the Dutch view Zwarte Piet – some benign, fun fiction that “shouldn’t hurt anyone.” Instead, we should treat it as a learning experience. How can we make society friendlier, less racist, and more open for all of us?
Lucia Holaskova is a first-year media information student at University of Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer.
- Columnist (Fall 2018)