A reader’s letter Young Green Zottegem addressed to the college of mayor and aldermen in Zottegem
Dear Board of Mayor and Aldermen,
For several years now, there has been a fierce social debate about decolonisation, discrimination and racism. Sinterklaas, and more specifically Zwarte Piet, is an important part of this.
Saturday afternoon it was up to Zottegem to celebrate the arrival of the great friend of children. Will he again be accompanied by the caricatured, stereotypical Black Pete as every year? Or will there be a helper in the procession this year where all children can feel equally good? Do children of color have to reflect again on their resemblance to the servant, and that of their white classmates to the master? Or may all children equally look forward to what really matters: the packages. For Zottegem alderman Leen Goossens, together with alderman of development cooperation Evert De Smet, already gave the answer: a Sinterklaas party for all children will not materialize.
Apparently there are still many Belgians and politicians who believe that Zwarte Piet is and should remain a tradition. Yet the number of Belgians who think that this figure is a racist caricature is growing. Whether unintentionally or on purpose: according to opponents, the figure contributes to discrimination and racism by stereotyping black people. Below we provide the reasons why it is discriminatory and racist:
- The story about the “white wise saint” and the “black strict helper” helps to shape how children think about people with a different house color. Children expect black and white people to have these characteristics in real life. The implicit message to youth of color is: you are subservient and inferior.
- Blackface, or white people who make themselves up as black, has a nasty history. In the 1900s, white actors often played the “lazy black” character. This while in America black people were second class citizens by law. The clownish image they portray of black people is still very much alive today. Walking around like a Black Pete without any awareness of the damage blackface has caused, shows little contact with the non-white population.
- The Pete suit corresponds to the slave suits of the Moorish page from the 16of century. These were enslaved people from North Africa
Be it laziness or a political choice; this year, the city council once again failed to take into account the questions and sensitivities of many people. We believe that Zwarte Piet should not be part of the Sinterklaas celebration because it has various stereotypical features (red lips, black frizzy hair, face painted in black, gold earrings, page suit). These external features are exactly the same as the ones that were laughed at in the days of slavery.
We want to create a Sinterklaas party for ALL Zottegem children where there is no room for offensive and discriminatory aspects.
That is why we want to draw attention to the themes of discrimination and racism with this open letter. We request the city council to:
- For the following Sinterklaas activities only to use soot sweepers.
- To admit that stereotypical appearances (red lips, black frizzy hair, face painted in black, gold earrings, page suit) have no place at children’s parties.
- To enter into a dialogue with Zottegem residents who have a migration background to organize an inclusive Sinterklaas party
Martin Luther King once said that the biggest stumbling block to racial equality is not members of the KKK, but moderate white people. It is they who prefer to keep the peace, rather than to fight for what is right and just. Just is a party for all children, without stereotypical and caricatured figures. It’s easy to organize the same party we’ve known for years and sweep its uncomfortable racial overtones under the rug. We are sorry to recognize in the city government the “white moderate people” that MLK spoke of.
The mayor and aldermen have the executive power to combat discrimination and racism in the public space. Therefore, we hope that our requests will not fall on a cold stone in the future.
We hope that real work will be done on an inclusive Sinterklaas party and want to contribute to this so that we do not experience this again in the future. That is why we always want to discuss this with the city council and all organizations involved. How can we ensure that Sinterklaas becomes a celebration for all Zottegem residents?
We look forward to your reply.
Young Green Zottegem