Sinterklaas: Now I’m Getting to the Point

My husband, Martijn, is Dutch… wait, that’s not quite true.  He was born in the Netherlands, lived there most of his life, and was educated there. But, he is an American too. He became a U.S. citizen in 2012. He has lived in this country since 2000.  He works and pays taxes here. We have two children that were born here. I was born here. He has strong ties to both places, to both cultures.

My in-laws don’t send us Sinterklaas packages anymore. They think we don’t appreciate them. We used to get a box each year filled with chocolate letters, pepernoten, poems, and other cadeautjes (small gifts) that typify the Dutch holiday.  It was fun!  My husband has fond memories of the Sinterklaas holiday, and when I lived in the Netherlands with him, I never thought much about it. But something changed for both of us. My in-laws are wrong in their assumption that we don’t appreciate their gift, but there was one aspect of the holiday that doesn’t sit right with us.

A few years ago, a postcard–without cover of envelope as postcards naturally are, and free for all to see–arrived in our post office box. It was from Martijn’s parents. The postcard depicted a man, face painted black as soot, with exaggerated lips of bright red. This was Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete. My immediate gut reaction was shame.  I felt ashamed that such a depiction was addressed to me.  I couldn’t help it, and I couldn’t shake it.  I was embarrassed, and I couldn’t help but wonder how many black people–real black people–had gazed upon this postcard with disgust during its journey through the postal service.  Perhaps I was overreacting, but I didn’t think so.

My husband was in general agreement with my feelings, and so he asked his mother not to send such images to us anymore.  As usual, she interpreted his concern as covering for his dreadful wife who, in their opinion, was the cause of any conflict between our family and theirs.  I could hear it in my mind, “Die Danielle, ik weet het niet hoor,”  which roughly translates as: “That Danielle, I don’t know about her.”  It isn’t so much the words spoken, but the tone used to speak them.  And I had heard it many times over in conversations about the other children-in-law.  As a result, they vowed to never send us anything Sinterklaas again… and they haven’t.

The Dutch holiday of Sinterklaas is making news right now.  There is a big debate on whether the persona of Zwarte Piet is indeed racist, or just a light-hearted fun character of Dutch culture.  Feelings are naturally heightened on both sides.  I won’t get into that in my post, but I invite you over to another blog for a thoughtful analysis of the Dutch Holiday.   Barbara Backer-Gray is a ‘Resident Alien’ and blogs about ‘Being Dutch in America.’ Her perspective as a Dutch person seems more valuable than mine. Her recent post, Sinterklaas: Now I’m Getting to the Point, is very insightful and tackles the subject eloquently. She brings up many points, but the most valuable is this:

White people don’t get to determine what black people find racist. It’s that simple.

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2 thoughts on “Sinterklaas: Now I’m Getting to the Point

  1. Well, depending on how far back you go, Zwarte Piet is either an educated Moor that Sinterklaas hired to manage his lists and gifts and such, or a slave that St. Nicolas freed who chose to help him out of gratitude for his emancipation.

    How that morphs in people’s deranged, grievance- or ethnogultism-ridden beggars credulity.

  2. Great post. Oh my gosh, I can just imagine how you felt getting that postcard. I don’t agree that my insights are more valuable than yours. I think the Dutch can do with some input from people who are perhaps more able to take a step back, like you and your husband.

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