December 5th is Sinterklaas for the Dutch. They still celebrate Christmas on the 25th, but the 5th is when they get the goods. So for the kids, that is the day. A local Dutch social organization was putting together a party for kids where Sinterklaas was going to show up and a good good friend of ours, Saskia's godfather, was going to be playing a very important role if you catch my drift (spoiler alert for small kids but look above for a hint).
Now, as anyone who's read David Sedaris knows, they have a little bit... different way of celebrating it. They still have the big man in a red suit and big white beard but instead of elves he is joined by his black helpers. Now of course there isn't anything inherently racist about a man having black employees. They may have a very good benefits package and their racial profile is simply an end product of an over eager HR person trying hard to conform to Affirmative Action. Oh did I mention that their job is to help Sinterklaas by not only keeping track of the information in his naughty and nice book, but also to punish the kids if they are bad. Lump of coal you say? No, one could burn coal for heat making that possibly a good gift in chilly Holland. Sorry kids, the Black Peters as they are called, will track you down and beat you with a bunch of sticks if you're naughty. So I'd stay on their good side.
Now, child abuse aside, the real problem arises when it is time to portray the Black Peters for festivities. In America if we need an elf we can throw Zoey Deschanel in a pointy green hat, with some funny ears, and call it a day. If we are really feeling authentic we can politely ask a little person if they would be so kind as to play the role. That is because we have little people to ask. In Holland they are short a few black people because about 200 years ago they were nice enough to sell us any that they had (or could find laying around Africa) and they charged very little for shipping because who knew if they'd still be alive when they got here. So, due to their rather alabaster personal landscape, when they want to dress up as Sinterklaas's helpers... that's right BLACKFACE!
I want to avoid entering into a very in-depth discussion about race but witnessing what I saw really made me quite uncomfortable. I had known about the tradition and seen photos before but seeing it in person truly brought it home. They don't just tint their skin like Snookie on the Jersey Shore they go full Jazz Singer and they do it having very little concept of what it means. I honestly don't think that they do it with any malice at all towards black people, it is just a longstanding inappropriate tradition that they carry on because in their country there is no one to say otherwise. Seeing the kind of thoughtless institutional racism that we in the states haven't seen in 40 years or so (unless you count truckstops in Tennessee) was a real shock to the system. Made me, who is no stranger to inappropriate jokes and behavior, take a couple of deep breaths and step back. The kids seemed to like it because shoe polish and lipstick aside it was a really fun day and tradition, so call me crazy but I'm pretty sure it's a terrific tradition that could carry on without the makeup. In any case Saskia didn't seem to care one way or the other.