By João Rickli
I must honestly admit: I don’t like Sinterklaas. Being a Brazilian anthropologist studying (in) the Netherlands and living here for 4 years, every time I see the colourful decoration in the streets and hear the foolish songs being played in the supermarket, I think: “here he comes again, the annoying Sint with his Black Pieten. My dislike of the festival has one main reason: I can’t help seeing the racial aspect of its main characters.
When I talk about it with my Dutch friends, some of them tell me that for (white or black) Dutch people the racial content of the celebration is not visible and, therefore, has no meaning anymore. But the image of this powerful colonial master, wearing a bishop’s mitre, riding a horse called Americo (!) and followed by a crew of black tricksters is just too powerful for me to be convinced that “if people don’t see it, it’s not there”.
Some other people tried to justify the content of the festival playing the culture card: “It is part of Dutch culture; people don’t take it in a racial way, so it’s ok.” Culture here appears as a well defined package of “things” that apparently should be carefully maintained. It is not very convincing. Smoky bruin cafés could also be considered a “thing” in the Dutch culture bag, but the majority of people supported the government when it decided to blow away the smoke. Why then, should the racial component of this Dutch celebration remain?
The reaction to this question is, normally, the story about the failed attempt to create a politically correct version of the festival, disguising its racial content through the introduction of new colours for the Piet. Besides the Black Piet, there would be a Green Piet, Blue Piet, Pink Piet, and so on. Thus, the trick to neutralise the racial aspect was to move the blackness of the Piet from the category “race” to the category “colour”. The whiteness of the Sint, however, remained untouched, and the essential difference separating Sint and Piet became even more explicit. The attempt to remove the racial identity of the Piet ended up, instead of placing him closer to the Sint, throwing him outside the human species! Dehumanising the Piet through the introduction of unnatural colours radicalises his otherness. Piet ended up looking like an alien.
Another friend offered me a different opinion. She said: “You didn’t grow up here, you’ve never left your shoes by the door waiting for the Sint’s gift, you’ve never fed Americo with hay or carrots and you’ve never sung the foolish songs. You’ll never understand its enchantment.” This idea made me look to the Sint with new eyes. My friend is also talking about culture, but not as a closed list of “things”. Culture, here, is alive, is an experience that produces enchantment. Beautiful image! Experience points to openness and change: the same cultural “things” can be a bit different every time they are enacted again and they can be lived and interpreted differently by different people. Enchantment is not accessible to rational thinking but it has to do with shared feelings and memories. It goes far beyond ideas of what is right and wrong, correct and incorrect. Culture, in her view, is not a bag full of trash that we are condemned to carry for the rest of our lives, but a way of experiencing the world, with all its paradoxes, differences, incorrectness and embarrassing histories.
My friend’s opinion helped me to understand Sinterklaas a bit better and accept him as part of a specific experience of the world. Now I need to learn the songs.
João Rickli is a PhD candidate at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the VU University in Amsterdam. He is specialised in anthropology of mission and globalisation, doing his research about Dutch Protestant worldviews.