I was writing an article about the way the fictional character called ‘Black Pete’, part of Dutch winter festivities, is changing under pressure from anti-racism activists, and I came across a cartoon that illustrates the present challenges very well.
Briefly, Black Pete’s role is to assist Saint Nicholas on his annual visit to the children of the Netherlands and Belgium. Anyone who likes to know a little more about this character can find it in this earlier post.
The central problem with the character as he has been portrayed over the past hundred years, is the association of a particular group in society – in this case people with African roots – with a set of negatively valued characteristics – in this case: silliness, clumsiness, docility, and interchangeability. To explain this last point: hundreds of figures are all called ‘Pete’, and if one is absent, another simply takes his place.
The association that chains this group of people to this set of characteristics has been fabricated by European colonisers, European-American plantation owners, and similar ‘white’ groups around the world to help justify slavery, colonial exploitation, and paternalistic re-education. Obviously, this chain needed to be broken.
At the moment however, this oppressive chain is still personified in the figure of Pete. Yet many people are attached to Pete, and would like to keep him as part of their winter festivities. So the challenge is to create a new Pete – which may also entail creating a new Saint Nicholas – in which this racist chain is broken. Therefore, one of these two things needs to change: either Pete’s identity as someone with African roots, or Pete’s presentation as a silly, clumsy, docile and interchangeable person.
Most producers of Pete & Nicholas plays and images in the Netherlands so far, have been opting for the former: Pete has been growing increasingly pale.
Yet I think we should seriously consider the second option (this is what I argued in an article in Dutch newspaper Trouw).
I recently came across an image that supports my argument. The image forms part of a Flemish cartoon, popular in the Netherlands:
In this cartoon, the main characters fly to Africa where they find a lazy, dirty, and bickering population with a defective grasp of language. At first, the locals try to cook the European heroes in their pots. But after liberating themselves, the Europeans build proper houses and schools for them, thereby risking their own lives. By the end of the story, the locals are grateful for their intervention. In other words: every racial stereotype present in Europe at the time is depicted, and apparently without irony. (Note that at the time of the cartoon, Belgium and the USA were saving what they could from their power and revenue in the Congo, where independence had been declared in 1960.)
But, you might say: the locals in this cartoon are not Black, they are blue! Yet does that remove the racism from this cartoon? Does removing the Black from Black Pete really solve the issue?