Isabel Awad is a communication researcher at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC). Together with a number of colleagues, she wrote a glossy about Black Pete. The work will be presented at the university on 19 November. As an outsider – Awad was born in Chile – she was ‘shocked’ when she first experienced the event that marks the arrival of St Nicholas in 2007. Nevertheless: “In many respects, the St Nicholas celebration in the Netherlands is nicer than the Chilean Christmas celebration.”
Isabel Awad’s family did not celebrate a day dedicated to St Nicholas in Chile. “We only have Christmas in Chile. It’s like in the United States. There’s Santa Claus and there are many presents. I think that we adopted the style from the US. But Christmas in Chile is actually very different, because the country is in the Southern Hemisphere. Christmas therefore occurs in the middle of summer. Cotton is used to create the impression of snow and Santa goes around in his winter clothes while it’s 35 degrees Celsius.”
Children stay up until midnight on Christmas Eve, because that is when the big moment takes place. At that point, it is actually like St Nicholas in the Netherlands: parents distract their children and then – hey presto! – the presents are suddenly there. And there are many of them indeed. This was also the case when Awad was growing up. She can still remember the toy house she received when she was around six years old.
“It’s not actually a very nice way of celebrating. It’s mainly about presents. In Chile you have to give something to everyone – your colleagues, your adult friends, everyone. It’s very materialistic. The St Nicholas celebration in the Netherlands is very different, because it’s well and truly a celebration for children. I therefore think it’s a lot nicer than the Christmas celebration in Chile. It is more spiritual. It has more meaning. Many Dutch friends give a nice present and a poem to one specific person. Although Awad is critical of the Black Pete element, she values the St Nicholas celebration. “I don’t go to Chile for Christmas, I prefer the St Nicholas event.”
Awad never saw a Black Pete when she was growing up in Chile. She also never saw faces that had been painted black. “Chile has a lot of minorities. There is also racism, though not against black people, because there are hardly any black people in Chile. There was no slavery in Chile like there was in many other Latin American colonies. It is only in the past few years that an ‘Afro-Chilean’ group has emerged as a result of very recent immigration from the Caribbean region.” Awad is also a member of a minority group in Chile. “My family originally comes from Syria and Palestine. My great-grandparents immigrated to South America a hundred years ago.” In Chile her family is now regularly identified as ‘Turkish’, since, at the time that Awad’s great-grandparents made their journey, the Middle East was still part of the Ottoman Empire.
Born in Chile, Awad lived in the United States for six years, where she conducted her doctoral research into cultural diversity in the news media. “My research in the US was about the Latino community in San José. It covered issues of racism and the representation of the other.” Sometimes, though only rarely, she encountered references to the ‘blackface’ phenomenon. “But it was always in a context in which the phenomenon was being criticised.” She arrived in the Netherlands in 2007 to work at the University of Amsterdam and, from 2009, at the ESHCC.
Awad first saw Black Petes on yellowed postcards. “The postcards got my attention, but I had no idea how mainstream or popular Black Petes still were.” She found out during the arrival procession of St Nicholas in Amsterdam in November 2007. “A friend with two children invited me to the event. At the time I had no idea what the whole St Nicholas thing was about. I love kids, though, so I was more than happy to go and see the event for myself. I was therefore one of the many people standing on the side of the street waiting for St Nicholas. I was stunned when I saw the group, especially because of the way everyone in the crowd seemed to be thinking that it was all okay. I saw a white bishop on a horse. The contrast between this elderly white man seated high on his horse, this almost regal figure, and the comical, clown-like buffoons accompanying him on foot, their faces painted black, could not have been greater. It was truly shocking to me. There were also children that seemed to have shoe polish on their faces. I heard from my friends that children sometimes point at black people and say ‘Look! Black Pete!’”
Awad did not discuss the matter on the spot. She did so later, however. “I also discussed the matter with many Dutch people. It was nice to come across many Dutch people in Rotterdam who were also critical. A serious debate was going on in the city.”
Awad got involved in this debate. She said that when her daughter was born in 2011, she could no longer avoid the issue. “I would like my child to be able to participate in traditions like St Nicholas. She loves the celebration and the ‘spice nuts’. At first I thought that it was great that I could take her to the St Nicholas event here at Erasmus University.” Awad took her daughter for the first time when she was two years old. “She wasn’t really aware of what was going on because she was so young. But it wasn’t the kind of celebration that I wanted to be involved in. I was very disappointed when I learned that faces painted black were also part of the celebration on campus. I’d really like my daughter to absorb the Dutch tradition, because she’s growing up here. But I don’t want her to be part of the tradition’s racist element. Since she’s now four, she’s just starting to become aware of what it means. I’ve explained to her that there are more colours than black and that she should therefore no longer say Black Pete. She still says it sometimes. When she does, I say: ‘No, it’s just Pete’. She then remembers what I explained. The whole thing makes no difference to her in other respects.”
Before taking her daughter to the St Nicholas celebration at Erasmus University for the second time in 2014, Awad sent an e-mail message to the organisers. She asked what the party would be like that year. “I was informed that it would be like it had been every year and that there would be Brown Petes instead of Black Petes. I didn’t understand that at all. Together with my colleague Jiska Engelbert, I later wrote a letter to EM.” The two ESHCC academics are very clear in the letter: “We would like to express our deep disappointment about, and distance ourselves from, Erasmus University’s response to the current St Nicholas debate, particularly with respect to the racism underlying the Black Pete character.”
Ultimately, the party featured a few Chimney Sweep Petes in addition to Black and Brown Petes. “That wasn’t a real solution, obviously. I decided not to go in the end. It was a real shame. I may go this year. More discussion is possible now.”
The letter proved to be the starting shot of a year-long study into the Black Pete phenomenon. Together with her colleagues in Rotterdam Jiska Engelbert, Alex van Stipriaan and Jacco van Sterkenburg, as well as Chris Peters of the University of Groningen, Awad also wrote a letter on the subject, which was published in de Volkskrant, a Dutch daily newspaper. In addition, the Erasmus University scholars spent their free time working with their colleague Janelle Ward and research assistants on a plan to give the academic community a leading role in the Black Pete debate. Together with media and culture professionals based in Amsterdam, the Rotterdam researchers produced a glossy of over 200 pages. The purpose of this publication is to show how many different kinds of Black Pete there already are in the Netherlands.
Despite the experience that she now has in the subject, Awad is always surprised by the tone in which the Black Pete debate is conducted. In her view, a number of the replies to the letter that President Pauline van der Meer Mohr published in EM in an attempt to get the debate going at Erasmus University are striking examples of this tone. “The contents of the letter were hardly radical. Some of the replies were therefore mind-boggling. I simply didn’t expect that kind of thing.” She has no conclusive explanation for the vehemence. “I think it has something to do with the wish to defend a narrow, essentialist perception of Dutch identity against external influences, as if that identity is something immutable and incapable of change. My own view is that identities are always evolving and that the issue must be seen from different perspectives. I know people who say: ‘It’s only a children’s celebration, so what’s all the fuss about Black Pete?’ But I rarely encounter the people who are so uncompromising in their tone.”
Nevertheless, she believes that it is possible to involve everyone in the debate, also those who are in favour of retaining Black Pete. “I don’t think that the university is in an ivory tower. If anything, we’re doing our very best to engage everyone in the debate and we welcome participation. It’s in any case good that the academic community is trying to get involved in this debate. Doing nothing means failing as a university. It’s not possible to simply wash your hands, absolve yourself of any responsibility and sit on the fence to see how things pan out. That kind of indifference is inexcusable in relation to important social debates is inexcusable for an inistution which counts a legion of historians, sociologists, philosophers, communication experts and marketeers at its disposal, people who have something meaningful to contribute in this discussion.”
The group of ‘Black Pete scholars’ at the ESHCC is convinced of one thing: the debate should no longer be about whether Black Pete should change, it has to be about how Black Pete should change. “Pete has never stopped changing. My colleague Alex van Stipriaan prepared a historical overview for our glossy. The current Pete took shape after the Second World War. The character of course has a historical background, part of which dates back to the reality of slavery in the context of the Atlantic slave trade. That’s problematic. At the same time, however, the character has always changed and will continue to change. There is of course momentum for such changes right now. The Saint Nicholas tradition in itself is a beautiful one. It’s much more about family than Christmas in Chile, but without the Black of course.”