Rather than taking some cheap shots at the US about the NSA spying on basically the entire world, today I wanted to talk about something very different: the effect of ill-considered activism. Usually I don’t talk about things that are prevalent in the news in my own country, but since this has gone quite international and since there is an underlying message, today I would like to talk about the Dutch “Black Peter”, a character that is under heavy fire, even by the UN, because supposedly, it is racist.
First of all, some background: something the Dutch are very proud of is the fact that we “invented” Christmas as it is today. Unfortunately, nobody but the Dutch actually knows about this, but Santa Claus is derived from Sinterklaas, who in turn was based on Saint Nicholas and who is celebrated every year on the 5th or the 6th of December. However, unlike Santa, Sinterklaas doesn’t have little fairies to help him distribute all the presents: he has Black Peters (or “Zwarte Pieten”).
These men and women are a major part of the festivities, but for the past decade or so some voices have been raised: Black Peter is supposedly racist, because, not very surprisingly, they are black, and they even wear afro-wigs and have bright red lips. Although the official story is that they are black because they have to enter people’s houses through the chimneys, it has raised a lot of questions about Dutch involvement in slave trade and how a developed nation could possibly support a tradition in which a single white man rules over hundreds, if not thousands of black men and women, presumably without pay.
At least that’s what the UN seems to think right now. An “independent” team of representatives has done some “research” and concluded that the tradition is racist, and that Black Peter should be abolished. To this, they added that it was ridiculous that the Dutch felt like there was any need to have this festivity anyway, because after all, why don’t we just celebrate Christmas?
Especially that last point caused a lot of uproar, directed both at those who oppose the tradition and even more so at the failure of the UN to get a decent image of the country before drawing conclusions. Not only were the researchers incredibly biased, all of them being black activists and generally from countries where things still aren’t that great when it comes to equality, but they also have no clue about what Dutch society is like, or for that matter, any society the UN ever does its research in. Things are looked at from a US point of view, and issues that exist in the US are portrayed onto those other countries, suddenly causing issues where there were none, or at least where they weren’t that problematic.
After all, the US has a very different method of dealing with racism than any other country in the world does. In the US, race is a sensitive issue that is raised time and time again, while in Europe it is something that just isn’t talked about much because extreme racists are very rare. Basically, in the US efforts are made to convince children that being black is fine, while in the Netherlands, the suggestion that there is any difference between people from different races is just never suggested, so children have no clue about it.
Now, in this case, can you imagine what the debate has caused? Not only has it suddenly created a schism between those who support the tradition and those few who don’t, but it has also caused a lot of Dutch people to become angry at “those black people.” The debate has caused racism where there was none. Also, it has been front page news here for days, and already lots of angry parents have complained that their children have heard about all this. These children are asking their parents why people are saying that Black Peter is not allowed to be black anymore, because why would it be wrong to be black?
In the end, the debate has caused nothing but misery, and for what exactly? In the Dutch view, Black Peter is no different from those fairies: they are fictional characters and don’t have a race. Now that has changed. Black Peter has suddenly become “black-black”, and for some reason, despite the fact that his job is actually great fun and leisurely and despite the fact that Black Peter is adored by hundreds of thousands of children, that is an issue.
The only way to change anything would be by abolishing the tradition all together, but how do you think people would react to that? What would happen if people in the US were told that Christmas had to end because Santa is a white man with a white beard? Just think of your country’s most precious tradition and consider what people would do if it was abolished, and then consider that in this case, it is being abolished because immigrants don’t like it. It is no wonder that half the country has suddenly become racist again, and I’m sure our extreme-right party will be very happy about all of this, because they will gain a lot of voters. That’s a lesson many activists still have to learn: if you don’t think about your actions, you might end up making the issue even worse than it already was. Even activism needs rationality.
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