Attendance at a Sinterklaas Party
December 2, 2009 10:59 PM   Subscribe

Should I go to a Sinterklaas party in the U.S. when its holiday tradition of black Peters makes me really uncomfortable?

Sinterklaas is on Sunday, and some Dutch friends of mine from work are having a party. One Dutch friend in particular is a very good friend of mine, and we have become very close over the past year. She is leaving to go back to the Netherlands in 3 weeks, so if I were to skip this party, it might hurt her feelings. (She has already asked me if I have been working on my Sinterklaas picture, and whether I'm bringing a traditional tangerine.)

There is a very long debate about whether the tradition of having black Peters is a racist one (here on the blue), and I don't want to rehash the debate. My particular difficulty here is that this is a party to be held in the U.S., where such a tradition can be perceived as racist, and I fear that such a party might turn sour.

When I have talked about this tradition with my various Dutch friends (none of whom strike me as racist people), what bothers me most is their staunch defense of the tradition, telling me that it was my problem and not theirs, that the Dutch never had slaves so it wasn't an issue, that these Peters have "soot" on their faces (but they also have painted red lips?), and on and on. I would feel much more at ease if they would simply recognize the possibility for the tradition to be perceived as racist by people from the U.S.

My question is whether I should go to this party, given that I am very, very uncomfortable with the idea of white people in blackface (although I do not know for sure if anyone would dres up), and that these friends of mine are also colleagues. I realize that this tradition is just a small part of this holiday, and I don't want to offend the hostesses (both of whom I consider my friends), but I feel very strongly that the party could become horribly offensive very quickly (only one invitee is black, not that I think that should necessarily make the difference). And if I choose not to attend, do I make up an excuse, or do I tell her simply that I am uncomfortable about the holiday tradition but I would be happy to do something next weekend?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (29 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Most of my Dutch friends grudgingly accept that zwarte piet can be perceived (and pretty much is) pretty racist but they will still defend to their last breath that it's alright to include him in a modern sinterklaas celebration. In the past I'd always end up arguing with them until I realized that Dutch people love to argue! Honestly. My advice would be to go and have a good time and just try not to engage them about the sensitive stuff. Besides, you can always make fun of them for their weird toilets.
posted by lazywhinerkid at 11:42 PM on December 2, 2009

"Should I go to a party, when something is going to happen at the party that I fear will turn sour, and that I am personally offended by?"

Black Peters, drugs, strippers, wife-swapping, bad karaoke -- doesn't matter what it is, you're not obligated to go to an event that makes you uncomfortable, and you don't owe anyone an explanation. Just briefly state that you're not going to be able to make it, but if she's available at [some other time/date] for [some small meeting so you can say goodbye] you'd love to see her before she leaves. Do this in an email or via phone message, so she can't press back in the moment to get details on why you can't go. And, of course, if she does confront you about it, there's nothing wrong with responding to her rudeness by saying that it's none of her business.

Oh, and if you're more comfortable with confrontation, you can also just say (again in email or phone message) "hey, not going to be able to make it; you can mock me if you want, but there are aspects to this kind of party that make me really uncomfortable for cultural reasons, but I'd love to have a drink with you before you go." Nothing wrong with honesty, really, and if they're insensitive enough to find this hilarious, they're really not very nice people anyway.

After all, consider: if you were living temporarily in India, and one of your co-workers were a Hindu, would you mock them for not showing up to your all-beef BBQ going away party? Of course not.
posted by davejay at 11:44 PM on December 2, 2009 [10 favorites]

Soot... Yeah, that's it. No racial overtones at all.

I say go, and if someone shows up in blackface, make snide comments, especially if the "chimney sweep" attire involves curly black hair, earrings, and crouching under a heavy bag being carried around for a white man.
posted by fleacircus at 11:59 PM on December 2, 2009

Sorry. Shouldn't have picked that one up.

What I should have said is that I agree that there is no requirement to go to any party of any kind - the hindu-to-a-barbeque point was good. You can always make it up to this person in another way. She'll have fun at the party anyway - just show maybe take her out for an incredibly good cup of gourmet coffee somewhere at a nice, charming coffee house. Or something.

I'd think that discussing the black-peter isn't really needed at this point in time, as the context is that you're saying goodbyes. Better take that one up with some longer-term Dutch friends when there's less time pressure and chances for misunderstandings.
posted by krilli at 12:34 AM on December 3, 2009

Oh HELL no. If I went to something like that and didn't say anything, it would make me hate myself a little. If I did say something, I'd feel horrible for ruining a party for people I like who just don't get it. Either way, you can't win. You don't have to explain anything to anybody, but seriously, it's just better to stay home and find some other way to bond with your friend before she leaves.
posted by aquafortis at 1:18 AM on December 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

Whether or not you go is entirely your call -- I am dutch, and just to let you know: the racist undertone in this tradition is not lost on everyone here. The thinking part of the nation exhibits a massive cognitive dissonance on this topic. Yes, it is a wonderful holiday for kids, and it is tradition, but I, for one, am uncomfortable with it. The similarity with blackface is uncanny (including explicit stupidity of the zwarte pieten) and reactions from the sizeable Surinam minority in the Netherlands has been very definitely mixed. Propositions have been made to make them different colors, which does not really make sense either. IMO, the dutch should come to terms with this, and I would say it would be a good thing if my children (firm SInterklaas believers) were the last generation to see zwarte pieten as part of this tradition.

And, no slaves? Pardon me? The dutch were the largest slave-trading nation; ask your friends to read up on the wikipedia page on "slavernij". There is a ton of literature on this subject.
posted by gijsvs at 2:05 AM on December 3, 2009 [7 favorites]

This discussion takes place every single year in the dutch press. To me, it's similar like watching the US celebrate thanksgiving without mentioning the native americans massacred later on.

It's just a party, dude. Yes, it has a history, and yes, there's no current racism in the celebration. However, if the history makes you that uncomfortable, don't go.

there are, however, always jokes about it. For example, this year there's a going-away-party for Sinterklaas, who leaves for his home in Spain on december the 6th. This is the first time a going-away party is being held, supposedly to give kids some closure after the celebration, but the jokes are that it is being sponsored by Geert Wilders' right-wing anti-immigrant party PVV to "make sure he takes all the black petes along back to where they came from"
posted by DreamerFi at 2:06 AM on December 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

The dutch were the largest slave-trading nation; ask your friends to read up on the wikipedia page on "slavernij". There is a ton of literature on this subject.

From you own source gijsvs: the Dutch were responsible for 5% of the slave trade. That doesn't make them the largest slave-trading nation by far; except for some political cirrect types who don't grasp the concept of what history is.

The Dutch had slaves, in Surinam, and were exceptionally cruel to the ones that didn't obey. Eduardo Galeano has gruesome examples of this, in his Memory of Fire.

That Americans are bothered by 'Black Pete' serves them right. Their country got rich by eliminating most of the natives, and on slave labour. If they can finally grow a conscious about that, by blackballing traditions from other countries, so be it.
posted by ijsbrand at 2:37 AM on December 3, 2009 [6 favorites]

Go to the party, Paint your face blue, Dress in silly clothes, and tell everyone you are a Blaue Pietje
posted by jannw at 2:40 AM on December 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Dutch had slaves, in Surinam, and were exceptionally cruel to the ones that didn't obey. Eduardo Galeano has gruesome examples of this, in his Memory of Fire.

Also worth a visit is the Kura Hulanda museum on CuraƧao in the Caribbean. It has a lot of details on the slave trade, and not just on the dutch 'contributions'. These are, indeed, black pages in the history of the Netherlands, and not enough of it is told in schools.

It's definitely worth remembering this part of history, but you should not let it stand in the way of enjoying a kids party. You may encourage your friend to highlight this controversy to his kids once they're old enough to comprehend it.
posted by DreamerFi at 3:04 AM on December 3, 2009

Apparently, you're not the only American who gets bewildered by the Sinterklaas phenomenon (MYTL, sound only). Also, at actual Sinterklaas parties there are much more things going on than just the unwrapping of presents. There is the singing of songs like Sinterklaas Kapoentje (a kapoen is a castrated rooster). There is the drinking of hot chocolate or bisschopswijn, there is the eating of speculaas, pepernoten, borstplaat and the ultimate treat for font geeks: chocoladeletters.

Then there is the beautiful tradition of surprises. A surprise consists of a handmade object that reflects a peculiarity or the personal interest of the receiver. The actual present is mostly hidden inside the object and all this comes with a lenghty poem, about the receivers behavior in the last year.

Of course this is the night where grandmothers receive paper pulp roses, or where dads receive giant cigar boxes (at least I hope so, this year). But I've also witnessed sessions where my friend (I swear) received a huge cardboard padlock, only to find out towards the end of the poem, that his mother caught him jerking off in his room, because he was unaware that he forgot to close the door. Just another night of harmless fun for the average nuclear family, but also an opportunity for personal rants and banter for the more revengeful family members. Then it's time for more singing, more rounds of presents and poems and more food: banketletters and if you're still hungry you can get some oliebollen. And genever, of course.

Personally, I think this is a wonderful party, especially if there are kids around, who either still believe, or even better, who just lost faith and still have trouble finding a subtle way to let their parents they are 'in' on it, without spoiling it for the younger believers who are around.

I can understand that if you've not been brought up in this tradition, you feel uncomfortable around a situation like this. Don't go, you will feel awkward, only go to parties if you really want to. I got serious problems with proposals from fellow dutchies like gijsvs, who like to abolish the Black Pete phenomenon.
When I was young, my friends from the Dutch Antilles and Surinam also blackened their faces with soot and they also dressed up as Black Petes. There was no such thing as a problem back then as Pete was considered to be some of imaginary ethnic descent anyway.
Also the regime used to be more strict. I was threatened to be taken away to Spain in the middle of night by the black petes, if I hadn't behaved well. I was scared shitless, when being called by Sinterklaas. Then he looked you up in his book, asked some awkward questions (I read that you tried to set the house on fire. What's up with that?) And then you trembled, you sweated and then he gave you a fantastic present. It was wonderful! You weren't even aware that your parents were still arguing about the surprises they made for each other.
posted by ouke at 3:25 AM on December 3, 2009 [6 favorites]

I think you have to decide whether you really think they will be doing Black Pete; if so, if it were me, I'd not be able to go. Earlier this year I ended up at what I can only say was an "accidentally" racist dinner theater and I was mortified. I can't imagine how uncomfortable I'd be with myself if I'd gone and actually expected it to be racist.

If this was my very good friend, I'd have to tell her that I was sorry, and I understand that many Dutch think that Black Pete is a harmless tradition, but in the US this kind of thing is very problematic, and I can't take part. If it was a less-good friend, I'd just make up an excuse and take her out for coffee or whatever as suggested above.
posted by Medieval Maven at 4:11 AM on December 3, 2009

I would try to get away as much as possible from considering or discussing ideology when solving this problem.

It seems that either your feelings will be hurt by going (for whichever reason), or you might hurt your friends' feelings by not going. Perhaps you can try to decide which of the two is more important for you and will have the most lasting effects, and go on from there.
posted by Namlit at 4:24 AM on December 3, 2009

@ouke -- sure, I agree it IS a colorful tradition, and that does not need to go. But scaring kids with a blackface guy has obviously racist roots, and the dutch rationalization explains them away with "but we all know it's just innocent child's play". Call me PC -- it is a racial caricature, and if we were making a caricature of jews as part of some tradition, no one would accept it.
I don't think the dutch are any more or less racist than others, but it would not hurt to acknowledge the source of the tradition and replace it with something more gracious.

ijsbrand on slave trade -- point taken, will do proper research next time.

on topic -- it should be possible to have a reasonable exchange with your dutch friends on this, honesty will be appreciated. and as ouke wrote, there are many elements to a sinterklaas party that are unsuspected downright great fun.
posted by gijsvs at 4:32 AM on December 3, 2009

DreamerFi is exactly right: if you object to US Thanksgiving and refuse to participate in that, then at least you're internally consistent objecting to / abstaining from Sinterklaas events.

I do also like Jannw's suggestion. Depending how late the party goes, your Blaue Pietje costume could start to become a joke about Blaue Vajcia, too.
posted by rokusan at 4:57 AM on December 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Skip the event and take your Dutch friend out to a dinner or something more personal than a party. That'll be a better send off than you feeling uncomfortable and out of place at a party.

Being part of the slave trade is being part of the slave trade. I don't think Holland can get off by saying, "We sold fewer people into bondage than most!"
posted by Atreides at 7:02 AM on December 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

@ DreamerFi: I thought Thanksgiving was all about celebrating that brief moment when different people were able to get along over a squash pie?

That our European ancestors went on to directly and indirectly kill our Native American ancestors after T-Day One isn't really relevant unless you feel the need to bring historic injustices into everything. I always find it a little weird when we're singled out as a nation of insensitive slobs. As a whole, we're better than most at coming to grips with the bad things that happened here, simply because we've got an awful lot of descendants of victims still here. We're more culturally aware than most countries, by necessity rather than because we're good people.

And anyway, go down that road and pretty soon you're going on about the Crusades in front of the Christmas tree, or you're blathering on about Palestine at the Seder table, or talking about all the evil things that the druids were doing during their reign of terror. Seems like a waste of a good time. Save the lectures for Columbus day.

Black Pete, on the other hand, is still a central character in the whole Sinterklaas thing. Celebrating it in the States with Black Pete intact is a little....awkward. It's like when you have guests over to your house. You look around and see things with their eyes and realize, damn, that couch has GOT to go.

I'd not feel too much guilt about the party. Ultimately it's just a crazy tradition that will slowly change on its own. In the meantime, it seems like kinda a pain to miss out on the surreal experience of seeing modern humans parade around in black face like it's no big deal. Feel free to give them a hard time. No one likes their culture getting a reputation for being racist. Embarrassment is a powerful force for change.
posted by paanta at 7:37 AM on December 3, 2009

In the eyes of the Dutch, black Pete is like Santa Claus' elves. They are helpers, making gifts and throwing candy. In the current Sinterklaas story, there is no stereotyping or racist remarks about black Pete. It wouldn't matter if black Pete was replaced by elves - except for tradition.

Sinterklaas and black Pete will probably not visit your party in person, that's only for the kids party. Guests will not dress up in blackface. But there will be references to Pete, in the rhymes that accompany the gifts, in the stories about naughty kids taken to Spain. That may be a problem to you. I can only suggest that you call your friend, and explain it to her. She might not understand, but being a friend, she will try to accommodate you.

Fijne Sinterklaas!
posted by Psychnic at 7:58 AM on December 3, 2009

Just because it's someone else's tradition doesn't mean that you're obligated to approve, and just because they swear up and down that it's not racist doesn't make it so. Explain your discomfort to your friends and work from there.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:04 AM on December 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

No, don't go. It makes you uncomfortable. There is absolutely no need whatsoever no matter who is inviting you for you to put yourself in a situation where you KNOW IN ADVANCE that you will be uncomfortable. Politely decline. Arrange for some other time to see your friend before she leaves. Explain your reasons if you want to, or just say that "something came up" and you can't make it.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 8:08 AM on December 3, 2009

Maybe compare the story of Santa Claus and his elves directly to the Sinterklaas tradition. They are both based on the same saint. How would you feel if the Dutch demanded elves are tall people instead of short people? Santa also may make you think all obese people must be jolly. Wrong generalization. It serves no purpose to be PC on this occasion. Actually I think it is better to have reminders of the past so we are able to ask questions and learn.
posted by Mrs Mutant at 8:44 AM on December 3, 2009

I think "reminders of the past" would be more like pictures in books and less like continuing to do it. It's only in the past if it stops, after all.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:45 AM on December 3, 2009 [2 favorites]

or you're blathering on about Palestine at the Seder table

My family does talk about Palestine at the Seder table. Of course, it's part of the Jewish faith to always remember the bad things along with the good, and to set aside a part of the celebration - drops of wine, pieces of challah, bitter herbs mixed in with sweet fruit - in order to honor past suffering and to remind ourselves that things are not always so good as they are now, for ourselves and for others.

I'm not very knowledgeable about dutch culture and history, or the origins or character of black Peters. Perhaps it is not so bad a history as white colonialists' massacres and betrayals of Native Indians, or our mass enslavement of Africans. But in the context of American culture and history, at least, it seems to show hurtful insensitivity. Part of me wants to say, "Go to the party, have fun, and if you see something that could be considered offensive, let it slide." Probably that would be the easiest way. But if something offensive does happen - speak up. Voice your concerns. Remind them of the bitterness mixed in with the sweet.
posted by shaun uh at 9:07 AM on December 3, 2009

If it really makes you uncomfortable don't go. But a little discomfort is a reasonable price to pay to experience foreign cultural traditions.

One of my most memorable Sinterklaas parties was watching de goede Sint riding around the streets of Kathmandu on an elephant.
posted by HFSH at 9:26 AM on December 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

I am Dutch, my family is "black" (second husband of my mother and therefor my brothers and sisters) and we all love Sinterklaas. Far as I know Piet is an Italian chimney cleaner, that is why his face is black, wears Italian clothes and why he has a rod.

I guess you can make every tradition as negative as you like. I think the racism point is a valid one because it has been spoken off so often. We did have slaves, so it very well could be. Piet was introduced by Jan Schenkman in 1850. We stopped with slavery in 1873 in Suriname, 1910 in Indonesia...

If you do not feel like going to the party, then do not go.
posted by kudzu at 10:28 AM on December 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

Don't violate you own ethics and values to go to a party.
posted by yohko at 11:12 AM on December 3, 2009

It's not only immigrants who are allowed to use the "It's against my culture" out. Just skip it, thank them for the invitation, and say you'll catch whatever the next celebration is.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:23 AM on December 4, 2009

I had the pleasure of playing Sinterklaas last Friday in New York City. My gf played Zwarte Piet, and she looked fabulous doing so. No need for blackface. (not that you would want to smack in the middle of Times Square anyway.)
posted by monospace at 10:20 AM on December 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

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