Letter: Stigma not attached to tradition



The Nov. 10 story “St. Nick’s blackface helpers ignite racism debate in Netherlands” illustrates the danger of jumping to conclusions about foreign cultures. The fact that Dutch Black Petes use blackface doesn’t mean they have the same racist background as blackface artists in this country. The Netherlands never had the negative-stereotype reinforcing tradition of blackface as in American black-and-white minstrel shows so Dutchmen don’t feel the stigma attached to it.

Dutch “Sinterklaas” is a variant of St. Nicholas folklore. In most countries that folklore contains a bogeyman figure (often black-faced) originating from Germanic mythology. According to modern research, the Dutch “Black Pete” figure doesn’t have those Germanic roots, but was inspired by depictions of black pages (blackamoors) in 17th-century European art. Blackamoors were pages kept in the households of rich people as a token of their opulence. They have become a cultural archetype without the negative connotations of black slavery. Black Pete is also an archetype and Dutch authorities take pains to counteract attempts at racist re-interpretations.

The fact that more than 2 million people “liked” a Facebook page supporting the traditional Black Pete against attempts to abolish him doesn’t signify that they support racism, but simply that they refuse to be stampeded into giving up a nice tradition for their kids.

Joe Kooijman