Give Sinterklaas a driving license
This Christmas season, I spent a lot of time discussing the origins of Sinterklaas and his assistant, Zwarte Piet, with a friend of mine. My friend contends that Zwarte Piet is a slave of Sinterklaas, and he finds it horrifying this could be openly celebrated in the 21st century. I did not quite agree; I thought this is a rather racially innocuous topic that sounds racist only due to oversensitivity. Yet, he made me reconsider many things. Both of us being Africans, there was a lot of passion in our debates.
One day in December, I received an email from the secretary of our department stating that ‘the special assistants of Sinterklaas have arrived with the presents’, and so I was invited to drop by and collect the presents.
As I picked the large box of presents, along with gratitude, I felt sorrow for the assistants of Sinterklaas. If Sinterklaas had a driving license, I thought, they wouldn’t have to carry such a huge pile of boxes, and that through the chimney!
When I soon opened my friend’s Facebookpage, what I read was Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote which he had just posted: ‘Those willing to give up liberty for security deserve neither and will lose both.’ This made me feel even more guilty: did I sacrifice the liberty of Zwarte Piet, and of myself, for the security of a package of presents?
This must be the kind of guilt some people felt upon recognizing that the bar of chocolate they ate was produced using cocoa harvested by poor child workers. And I ask myself, how come that the abuse of child workers in a faraway continent elicits so much guilt and action, but not the servitude of Zwarte Pieten in our own backyard? If economic misfortune induced the poor kids of Africa to abandon school and harvest cocoa, insolence and willful blindness has subjected Zwarte Piet for centuries of servitude. This proposal is my way of atoning for the guilt I felt upon taking a box of presents carried by a poor Zwarte Piet who had been sentenced to eternal servitude.
My proposal puts forward a three-pronged action plan with the aim of resolving the whole saga regarding the purported racial insensitivity of Sinterklaas while maintaining intact this much-celebrated Dutch culture.
* First, Sinterklaas should get a driving license. I know this will mean asking much from the good old saint, but this will take a lot of sh*t off the back of the Zwarte Pieten. If the Sinterklaas himself thinks he is too old, I kindly raise the option of retirement.
Children can then place their shoes next to the parking lot on the eve of Sinterklaas.
* Second, the Zwarte Pieten should serve only houses that keep their chimneys clean. That way, the Zwarte Pieten will be able to remain white, saving a lot of shampoo and gel.
If it is indeed true that Zwarte Piet is African, as some people claim, then I propose that Zwarte Piet be renamed simply Piet. I think this is more normal; when we refer to the President of the university, we do not say the White President Poppema. We simply say President Poppema since his whiteness is irrelevant. (Now I fancy some non-Zwarte Pieten scratching their heads, worrying of being mistaken for the Zwarte Pieten. Well, you can change your name, you know. I recommend Paul, an equally holy name.)
* Finally, I propose the introduction of a Zwarte Piet Dag. On this date, Zwarte Piet should be the boss, and he should get some white-painted assistants who will have to climb through chimneys.
This is not really meant to negate oppression by allowing the oppressed oppress their oppressors. Apparently, there is no oppression to be undone here. A Zwarte Piet Dag merely ensures a fair play wherein the opportunity to be painted is available for everyone.
If you think my proposal sounds rather far-fetched and childish, I will have to agree with you. It all began when some supposedly mature people marked their calendars on December 5; went to the supermarket the Saturday before that; bought skin paint and a wig; made sure that the paint is black and the wig afro; went home; got a mirror; painted their face and wore the wig; and then paraded the streets to play as servants of an old white man.
Of all the things in the world, they stole the black man’s face, and then gave it away for a servant of a holy man. Why didn’t they do that with their own face? If they had given away the face of their grandma for servitude, she would have probably laughed it off. But they did it with my face, and I am gonna ask why.
You may argue that, although Sinterklaas has the notion of servitude in it, no real injustice is done. What is the point of making a big deal out of a joke that contains merely an idea of servitude?
For which I answer, what is an idea anyway? Isn’t an idea a reality waiting to be born? Remember also that the best things in life are ideas. I have never met anyone who has ever seen love, for example. And so are the worst things in life ideas too; and I can only hope that Sinterklaas is not one of them.
Outsiders are often shocked by the degenerating portrayal of blacks as goofy and silly during Sinterklaas parades. On the contrary, most Dutch people who grew up within the culture find nothing offensive in it. This must be the outcome of the ad nauseam fallacy, whereby the strange and the absurd appears normal and reasonable merely out of repetition. As one famous person said: ‘A Lie told often enough becomes the truth.’
I thus kindly request you, dear reader, to sympathize with the measures contained in my proposal. While preserving the culture of Sinterklaas intact, they will certainly reduce the number of kids that call me from my back, inquiring what I am doing here since it is not yet Christmas season.
Addisu Lashitew is PhD at the Faculty of Economics and Business
Earlier international student Dan O’Neil wrote about Zwarte Piet in his article Institutionalised Racism.