The debate around the Black Pete tradition in the Netherlands rages on: while many outspoken voices have presented different arguments on why the tradition should be at the very least severely modified (I recommend in particular the pieces by Asha ten Broeke), a very large portion of the population has expressed its support and fondness for the tradition as is, in particular by ‘liking’ a Facebook page, a ‘Pete-tion’, defending the continuation of the tradition. As of now, more than 2 million Facebook users have ‘liked’ this page, and last Saturday supporters gathered for a rally in The Hague.
Interestingly, in its most recent update, the Pete-tion FB page (Pietitie, in Dutch) proudly announces that it is ‘against racism, let us be clear on that’. Now, what they mean by ‘racism’ here must surely be different from what Black Pete critics mean when they describe the tradition as racist. More generally, and as often the case, it seems that those involved in the debate may at least to some extent be talking past each other because different meanings of ‘racism’ are floating around. (To be clear, I do not think this is a merely verbal dispute; there does seem to be a core of true disagreement.) Well, one of the skills we philosophers pride ourselves on is the skill of language precisification and conceptual analysis. So in what follows I’ll attempt to distinguish some of the different meanings of racism underpinning the debate, in the hope that such a clarification may somehow contribute to its advancement. (Full disclosure: what I really want to accomplish is to convince my many intelligent, well-meaning friends who do not see the racist component of the tradition that it is there, and that it is problematic.)
It may seem that this discussion will be of no interest to those with no connection with the Dutch context and this particular tradition, but it seems to me that it in fact provides an interesting case study for philosophical discussions of the concept of race. True enough, I have little familiarity with the literature on the philosophy of race, and I’ll be taking the SEP entry on race as my main guide; but I trust that more knowledgeable readers will further enlighten me in comments.
I want to distinguish three senses in which the Black Pete tradition could be said to be racist; the list is not meant to be exhaustive, but I believe it captures some of the core components of the debate.
1) Historical racism. One of the points discussed in these debates is the historical origin of the tradition. Some of its proponents argue that it is not racist because its true origin dates back to medieval legends of a ‘dark devil’ accompanying St. Nicholas. But the iconic representation of Black Pete currently used dates to the 19th century, and clearly refers to the appearance and attire of black servants as conceived at the time. Indeed, the book ‘St. Nicholas and his servant’ (1845, my emphasis) is the main source for much of the current mythology surrounding the tradition (that St. Nicholas and his servant come from Spain, that they arrive in the Netherlands by steamboat etc.)
While the ‘servant’ in question is perhaps not a slave, properly speaking, it is obvious that the ‘black servants’ tradition has its roots in practices of slavery, if nothing else because affranchised slaves often had nowhere to go but to stay with their former masters and continue to work for them. So I conclude (as has been concluded by more able historians before me) that there is an undeniable racist historical component in the tradition.
2) Explicit racism. This would correspond to the strong, KKK-style sense of racism, in which a given ‘race’ (obviously, a problematic concept) is seen as inherently inferior to another. According to the SEP entry, this is the meaning of racism countenanced by L. Blum (2002):
He argues that “racism” be restricted to two referents: inferiorization, or the denigration of a group due to its putative biological inferiority; and antipathy, or the “bigotry, hostility, and hatred” towards another group defined by its putatively inherited physical traits
It would seem that it is this sense that defenders of the Black Pete tradition have in mind when they take offense at what they perceive as personal accusations of racism. They retort that Black Pete is pictured as a highly likeable character, one who is adored by children of all ages – after all, he is the one who distributes candies and hands out presents! How could that be racist?*
Another piece of reasoning in the same vicinity is an example of non sequitur provided by this very informative illustration (in Dutch) of the different kinds of fallacies (as discussed within argumentation theory) being used by Black Pete defenders: “I am not a racist [not of the KKK-variety, in any case], and I enjoy the Black Pete tradition, thus the tradition is not racist.” Though at least some of the supporters of the tradition may be racists in this stronger sense, I am convinced that many, even the majority, are not (or so I like to think of my friends among those!). So in what sense is the tradition racist after all, and in what sense can it have negative consequences for the (presumed) targeted group? This takes me to the third and last sense of racism that I want to discuss here.
3) Implicit racism. Readers of this blog and of the philosophical blogosphere more generally (in particular the Feminist Philosophers blog) are most likely already familiar with the concept of implicit biases. Implicit bias occurs when someone consciously rejects stereotypes but also holds unconscious negative associations with certain groups of people, such as blacks, women, gay people and so forth. Extensive empirical research shows that we are all prone to the effects of implicit biases, which in turn significantly influence how we perceive and judge other people. The CV experiments have made it abundantly clear that a certain gender or racial association can lead to two otherwise identical CVs being evaluated in significantly different ways.
In this sense, everybody is a racist, i.e. in the sense that human cognition is extremely prone to the development of these implicit associations that are then called upon when we judge people. Given this propensity, it seems obvious that attempts to mitigate the effect of implicit biases are of the utmost importance. It is well known that implicit biases are established and reinforced by exposure to stereotypes, and mitigated by exposure to counter-stereotypical individuals.
Black Pete is a stereotype, in the same sense that e.g. the characters of Uncle Tom’s Cabin are stereotypes (and indeed, now there are different ‘Petes’ with different roles and personalities). Iconically, he represents the stereotype of what a black servant looked like in the 19th century. Behaviorally, until not so long ago, he was portrayed as someone slightly stupid, who spoke with a funny accent (often the accent associated with Suriname, a former colony of the Netherlands). So this is the very salient, perhaps the most salient, image of a black person that Dutch children are exposed to from a very young age: the not-very-bright (and yet highly likeable) servant of St. Nicholas. Now, it seems pretty obvious that the association between being black, fun-oriented, not very bright and being a servant is not likely to foster associations between being a black person and being a highly capable professional, for example. What effects will this have when these children grow up and become those in a position of power, e.g. in charge of hiring employees? There is the very palpable possibility that these associations established at an early age will influence negatively a person’s perception of black people for the rest of their lives – if not explicitly, at least implicitly.
This is indeed the likely negative effect of the tradition that worries me most: it establishes problematic associations at a very young age, which thus become deeply entrenched in people's minds. In other words, the Black Pete tradition accentuates the kind of implicit racism that we are all prone to, and as such is highly problematic – and racist.
* In fact, there has been an undeniable transformation of the tradition over the decades; originally, the bag that Black Pete carries was meant to bring presents to the well-behaved children, and to kidnap the ill-behaved children back to Spain. (A very effective approach to child discipline, back in the day…) This part of the tradition has now been abolished, and Black Pete is now the nice, funny character who brings sweets and presents.