In The Netherlands, Saint Nicholas (De Sint), is a more important cultural icon than his rebranded alter ego Santa Claus.
In mid November, a person dressed-up as Saint Nicholas ‘arrives’ in the Netherlands, on a steam boat, having ostensibly sailed from Spain. For many Dutch children it’s a celebration filled with wonder and excitement. De Sint is accompanied by helpers. They are called Zwarte Pieten, in English, Black Petes. The people dressed as Zwarte Pieten are usually pale-skinned, they wear boot polish to blacken their faces.
In the Netherlands there are strong conflicts of opinion about the appropriateness of the Zwarte Piet element of the celebration. Opponents of the tradition say that it’s racist. Here’s how one explains it:
A friendly white boss who has only jolly black slaves is no accident, but a consequence of historical events that were horrible and often deadly for people of African descent.
Supporters of the Zwarte Piet tradition say that it does no harm. That it should be maintained as part of Dutch cultural heritage. That their personal attitude towards people with dark skin has not been affected by the tradition. That as children they never even read the blackfaces as representing black people. One of the more naive sounding defences is that the black is actually chimney soot.
Bad Arguments From Both Camps
Some who want to see the tradition continue charge that their activist opponents are trying to 'destroy a children's celebration'. This is the appeal to emotion fallacy; I believe nostalgic adults are far more attached to the character of Zwarte Piet than children are. And the children's celebration would live on if the only alteration was the removal of the blackface.
In support of the pro-Pete camp on the other hand, I agree that the Zwarte Piet tradition isn’t inherently racist. At least if racism is taken to mean a belief that within humanity certain biological groups are inferior to others – the most defensible definition in my view. No image or performance can be inherently racist in this sense. Images or rituals don’t hold beliefs, only people do.
An alternative sense of racist could be something like ‘antagonistic towards members of a particular race’. But this definition doesn’t fit the reality of the Zwarte Piet ritual as currently practiced either. While many feel as though it’s offensive, even those do not claim (as far as I’ve seen) that participants in the ritual necessarily aim to cause upset.
Perhaps what the anti-Piet activists mean is that the Zwarte Piet tradition causes racism. I think that would be a very tough case to make, in my opinion implausible on its face. I don’t see anyone even starting to do the work to establish such a claim.
Here's my attempt to steel man the case for anti-Piet activism:
The Black Pete tradition is a painful reminder of the suffering of black people in the past. We find it distasteful that this symbol is now part of a celebratory ritual in the Netherlands.
In my opinion, the anti-Piet activists would serve their cause much more effectively if they would limit their propaganda efforts to emphasising how the ritual makes them feel, rather than making the highly contestable claim that Zwarte Piet is racist.
Neither Side Appreciates Value Subjectivity
Anti-Piet activists claim that the ritual is hurtful, and offensive – as though these were mind-independent qualities of the Zwarte Piet celebration. Of course some people are hurt and claim offence. But the same is true about the anti-Piet demonstrations. These also hurt and offend some people, including those who feel shamed by the demonstrations, and those who feel as though a beloved tradition is at risk of being banned. So if Zwarte Piet is hurtful and offensive (which I think is a misleading way of talking about it), so are the activities of the activists opposing it. This doesn't get us anywhere.
Similarly, members of the pro-Piet crowd have dismissed or diminished the hurt and anger felt by those opposed to the ritual. "You're getting worked up about this of all things?" As though there was a standard by which unwelcome emotions can be judged against to determine their validity – and these emotions have failed the test.
Worse Than It Needs To Be
We have two groups with opposing views about the appropriateness of this tradition. The stakes of the conflict are raised by the poisonous involvement of the state.
At least the main Saint Nicholas celebration – an event that's televised – is a state-subsidised event. If a private group expresses an opinion one finds distasteful it’s disturbing, but we at least know that we don’t have to associate with that group or person anymore. But when an entity that claims to represent you in some meaningful way compels you, under threat of force, to subsidise speech that you find distasteful in the extreme, hurtful and offensive it’s intolerable.
In 2011, a guy wearing a tee-shirt with words ‘Zwarte Piet is Racism’ was part of the crowd at the ceremonial arrival of Sint Nicholas in Dordrecht. A peaceful expression of opinion. He was subjected to police brutality and arrested.
So the state:
- Artificially amplifies and promotes a ritual by subsidising it, to an extent unrelated to the aggregate value the public places on having the ritual continue.
- Violently suppresses peaceful speech that opposes a hated ritual.
Prices and trading activity under freed market conditions embody, and are highly reactive to, information about what people value, and how much they value it. As far as matching resource use to people’s values, state subsidies are shots in the dark because of their isolation from market forces. In other words, we don’t know whether the state subsidy of the whole celebration represents a net gain or loss of subjective value to society.
A Partial Solution
What’s the solution? The logic of statism results in two equally unsatisfactory options:
- Use threats of force to fund the Zwarte Piet tradition, and suppress speech that opposes it.
- Use threats of force to prevent the practicing of the Zwarte Piet ritual itself.
I believe there's a third option which is simpler, saner, and – while not the definitive resolution some might hope for – a step towards deescalating this culture war:
Remove state funding of the Zwarte Piet ritual. Don’t force anyone to pay for speech they oppose. Let go of the harmful idea that 'we', as a nation, must at all costs come to agreement on matters like the acceptability of cultural expressions like this one.
Those groups who strongly want to see the Zwarte Piet ritual continue will fund local events on their own. Those who don’t much care either way will likely not see the ritual – and won’t miss it. And one less injustice will be foisted on those who would never voluntarily support the ritual and would be glad to see it die out.