This article was written by guest blogger Anette Moolenaar, a Political Science student at the University of Amsterdam. Want to read more from Anette? Click here.
In order to try to understand another person, we need empathy. We need to willingly push ourselves beyond that which we think we know, that which we think we understand, or that which we are able to relate to. We must allow ourselves the needed space to explore what else is out there, to explore that which we are yet to discover or that which we may never be able to fully relate to. Empathy asks us to rise above ourselves — or better yet, above the perception we hold of ourselves. All in all, it takes some loss of identification with the ego to step into the realm of universal connection. Ironically, this seems to become harder and harder nowadays, in spite of the ever-growing plentitude of resources we have at our disposal to communicate and connect with one another. Currently, a trend in public discourse seems to be that it increasingly fails to fit the characteristics of actual discourse. What once would have been a dialogue, is now often a far cry from civilized conversation, as it increasingly lacks consistency, arguments or objective judgment. Through the abundance of communication channels, people seem to throw whatever is on their minds out into the world, making their rants legitimate by the notion that it is simply “their right to an opinion”. And even though freedom of expression is essential for a well-functioning society, whose opinions are those that gain authority? Which opinions are those that decide on the preservation — or transformation — of the cultural status quo?
Time has shown us again and again that those voices which shape social standards the most, are those that hold the most power — often as a result of good old white privilege. And each year, this issue comes up in full force during the annual ‘Sinterklaas’ celebration in the Netherlands. The celebration, in short: Sinterklaas, a fictitious white elderly male from Spain dressed like the pope, visits the country in November to deliver presents to children who behaved properly all year. On its own, this would not sound all too problematic. It is the helper of Sinterklaas, a blackface caricature with oversized red lips and a pageboy outfit who goes by the name of “Zwarte Piet” or “Black Pete” that causes thousands of anti-racism activists, people of colour and other citizens to speak out on its racist connotations.
Already in terms of history, their arguments are fully sustained. After the tradition was celebrated throughout the Middle Ages without a character like Black Pete, the first depiction of Sinterklaas and a black servant was seen at the end of the 19th century. It was introduced by a Dutch teacher and children’s books author called Jan Schenkman, who published the book Saint Nicholas and his Servant in 1850. He wrote about Saint Nicholas, a white male delivering presents through chimneys, together with his servant, a Moorish person with curly hair, red lips, a chain around his neck and 18th-century pageboy clothing. The character was not given any name in the book, yet 40 years later in 1891, the name “Black Pete” was found for the first time in a story which built on the original. Black Pete was the servant who would help Sinterklaas, by punishing kids who had been bad and rewarding those who had been good.
These are simple, historical facts. Facts that clearly reflect the deeply-rooted racial marginalisation dating back to the Netherlands’ colonial past and its resulting denigration against people of colour, which seems so inherent to white Dutch culture that white people simply don’t notice it. They lack awareness of the effect it may have on people of colour to this day, as racial slurs and collective pain are annually reinforced by the idea of the colonial relationship between a white master and a black servant. Personally, during my childhood, I never quite knew what to think of Black Pete, although I do remember moments of being terrified of him. The Black Petes always entered the school hall first, where we would all be gathered to await Sinterklaas’ arrival on his white horse. The Petes seemed uncontrollable, acting like quasi-misbehaving youngsters in their demeanour, only until their master stepped into the room and made them follow his orders within seconds. It felt deceiving to me that even though the Black Petes cheerfully entertained people as they followed Sinterklaas like the loyal ‘friends’ they were, one of the Petes could whip me with his rod or kidnap me back to Spain any time if he found I had been bad. I feared for the authority that Sinterklaas seemed to have over him, as he was the implementor of his decisions. I began to see Black Pete as the ‘enforcer’: the muscleman of a white, grandpa-like guy who always remained quiet and kind.
Since the 1970s, the racist nature of Black Pete has been protested against, yet every attempt at changing the celebration has been met with violent resistance from white people. The following question in this issue is an intriguing one: why are facts so unconvincing for them? The mere truth that the name “Black Pete” is a racial description already shows that the name that a character bears reduces him to nothing but the colour of his skin. And as children are introduced to Black Pete from a young age, they become conditioned to associate darker skin colour with fear and menace. They become subconsciously habituated to respond to people of colour with an underlying emotion of fear and terror. As this becomes their ‘model’ of this group in society, they are provided with an automatic connection between darker skin colour and something that belongs to an enforcer of bad things. As we are seeing now, this eventually becomes so engrained in their consciousness that it seems unacceptable for anyone to tell them that it would be more appropriate if it would be different.
It is important to hereby acknowledge that the burden that certain factions of society — in this case, people of colour — carry with them is inherently related to the collective struggle they went and continue to go through as a result of a characteristic that they happen to share. Aiming for their trauma to be acknowledged, they are now simply standing up and telling white people that prejudice is so inherent in their culture that they must be actively reminded of it. And still, all attempts at civilized dialogue are fought with opposition to change.
As white people stress the “unchangeable” nature of “their” Dutch tradition, protests against Black Pete end in extreme riots and death threats that seem far from what a children’s celebration should look like. “You simply cannot change a tradition that has been part of Dutch society for so long”, they argue. But when people say we shouldn’t abolish an appreciated tradition, what do they think of Dutch practices that were once also traditions, like the death penalty, female exclusion from voting or smoking indoors? These are all traditions that haven’t withstood the test of time: a social transformation which has resulted in substantial inclusivity and fairness. It is clear that white people are selectivewith what they think can and cannot be abolished for the greater good — and their selectivity seems fuelled by the deeply engrained prejudice and sense of entitlement that springs forth from their privilege to have a voice. The tradition that is the blackface caricature of “Black Pete” is hereby merely a symptom of the underlying lack of empathy that is enforced by institutionalized racism. As Dutch customs are forced to prevail under the notion of “it’s our tradition”, generational continuity will overshadow the simple truth of other people’s feelings. The question of why it seems so hard for white people to consider the feelings of those who do not share their life experience hereby remains open to answer.
For instance, an answer could be that white people defend this tradition as it was important to their childhood. It shaped them into the confident, ‘knowing’ person they are today. Indeed, it may not be easy to admit that you once enjoyed something that turns out to have been a major tool of oppression for centuries. Your fond childhood memories are messed with, and your comfortable identification with what you thought you knew becomes questionable. Being in this vulnerable state, it’s difficult to imagine yourself being part of a problem that is so traumatizing for others, so in turn, you deny that the problem even exists. The Black Pete debate — or rather, lack of debate with a genuine willingness to hear others — is hereby shaped by white people’s fear of self-expansion. The deep denial prevalent in white consciousness increases the comfort in unrelating and decreases the awareness of others’ rights to feeling, down to the point where a perspective of loving-kindness, human connection and empathy seems out of the question. White people are willingly ignorant about experiences that go beyond their own; experiences that often belong to someone who lives beyond their immediate environment. So could it be that ignorance is the thief that abducts empathy from its home, the heart?
The answer remains vulnerable to context, yet it can be generalized that where there is expansion, ignorance cannot exist. Throughout time, those that hold the widest perspectives show willingness to connect with anything or anyone, whether it is the inspiring resilience of a tree or a child asking a seemingly silly question. Yet, widening your perspective in a racial discussion such as this one takes courage, and it takes commitment. It means opening your eyes in a space where the light switch hasn’t been found yet, and until you may find it, you need to trust others to guide you towards it. You must be open to others that reside in that space, to tell you about something that isn’t familiar, or even something which actively provokes a sense of discomfort. Still, it seems like the only key towards opening the heart up to others: trust. When people simply stand up and express their inner experience, trust them to be telling their truth. When people tell you that something provokes pain, trust their veritable attempt to connect with you. When people open up about having been bullied because of something you happen to believe in, observe your own identification with what you thought you knew and abandon it, to allow yourself to enter the room of expansion. It can be difficult and it can be dark, at first. However, once the light switch has been found, we will finally be able to see each other for who we are. Together, in one space, simply trying to understand each other.
Text: Anette Moolenaar
Image: Isabel Sijbrandij