Not your typical Zwarte Piet Debate article – this one isn’t opinionated, but written from a Nonviolent Communication-based mediator’s—Cara Crisler—point of view with a call to action for mutual understanding and compassion.
The debate is still going strong concerning the old Dutch tradition of Sinterklaas and his “Zwarte Pieten” (Black Petes). As it doesn’t appear to disappear anytime soon, I’d love to see the growing polarization turn into a more healthy discussion in which the opportunity is seized for understanding and growth.
There are different stories that explain the origin and appearance of Zwarte Pieten, ranging from former North African slaves to it’s-the-smudge-from-the-chimneys-that-make-them-black. At first glance they might be perceived as fun-loving, acrobatic, candy-tossing, child-pleasing “helpers” of the long-loved traditional hero, called Saint Nicholas, a.k.a. Sinterklaas. Yet perception is in the eye of the beholder. Those of us from North America know “black face” within a specific historical context. It was used by white actors (before African Americans could be paid for the job) to play the role of dark skinned people, and there was a visible “dumbing down” within these roles. This practice ended decades ago in the U.S. as it was perceived by a majority to be a racist act. And thus ever since, the mere sight of “black face” is directly correlated to racism.
Racism isn’t a word or act most Dutch people I know associate with directly. Yes, their ancestors engaged in slave trade and the Dutch word “apartheid” is a well understood concept by all. But in general, on Dutch soil, tolerance has been by far more dominant than outward racism. So it’s not hard for me to imagine that the mere reference to a beloved tradition as being racist has led to many Dutch finding themselves defensive. And a strategy used to defend themselves against this accusation is to dig the heels in and fight very hard to protect the tradition just as it is. After all, in their mind, there’s never been anything “wrong” with it to begin with! Giving in now would be something like admitting wrongdoing.
I think it’s fair to say that the concept of “right vs. wrong” gets us into a lot conflict. Nonviolent Communication training has taught me that it’s a framework for thinking, and that no one has the full and ultimate truth about either. I’ve learned that underneath all of our thoughts about “good vs. bad” lie the things that are really important to us—natural, universal needs. Things like love, acceptance, safety – all of which are easy to understand and experience compassion.
If both sides of this polarized issue were to listen to each other with empathic ears, it could lead to amazing cultural understanding and a coming together as one in this country. I imagine it could look something like this:
To those upholding the tradition as it is: “Is it that you really love this tradition and you hold it close to your heart as an important part of children’s early years? Is it perhaps difficult to hear or even remotely understand that what is so fun and meaningful to you is painful and alienating for some others? Is it that you interpret the accusation as a personal attack that you are racist yourself, and that doesn’t sit well with you? Because you don’t relate to ‘being racist’ at all – instead you relate to celebrating, fun, and togetherness?”
To those opposing the Zwarte Piet appearance: “Do you experience pain when you see the Zwarte Pieten, or anytime you see ‘black face’? Does it bring up memories or thoughts that people with dark skin are being made fun of or undervalued? Is it that you so long to be taken seriously, seen for who YOU are today, valued as a human being equal to every other human being?”
If “yes!” rings out from both sides, then we’re one step closer to mutual understanding. That’s the first critical step to take before new strategies can be considered. Are there perhaps ways to move forward so that all needs are met? Can the tradition in the Netherlands continue in a way that fun celebration is had, special childhood memories created AND that “the Zwarte Piet opposers” feel welcome to participate in ways in which they are honored and valued for who they are?
I believe very strongly that if both sides feel truly heard and understood, then it doesn’t have to be a choice about one way or the other – but that all needs can be met through creativity. My call to action is to help move the discussion in that direction! In your communication with others, on FB, in letters to the editors, try to stay away from labels and judgments of what you think the other party is doing wrong. Get in touch with what’s motivating / really important for both sides, and express at that level. Long live the power of compassion and empathy!
The first version of this article “The Zwarte Piet Debate” was posted by Amsterdam Mamas on 29 October, 2013.