“It’s for the children”, “We don’t see it that way”, and “It’s part of our culture”. There are just three of the excuses I have repeatedly heard during my 11 years living in Belgium. Voicing my opinion nearly always falls on deaf ears, and at times I have been made to feel like I am somehow a bad person just for bringing it up. And now that I have a daughter, the problem has reached a new level. But hold on, what is the problem? Racism. More specifically, racism in schools.
There is a tradition in Belgium and the Netherlands called Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas visits children with his helper called Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). His assistant is usually played by a white person in blackface. Yes, blackface. For those unaware, this is the term used when covering yourself in black makeup, donning an afro wig, wearing large earrings, and generously applying red lipstick. It’s a stereotype that is damaging to the black community and no longer accepted or justified (well, unless you live here). So you can think of the holiday of Sinterklaas to be like Christmas, but with a large serving of racism on the side. I can avoid my daughter coming in contact with such a ridiculous and harmful caricature while we are together, but at school that is a different story.
As mentioned, I have lived in Belgium for quite some time and well aware of the impending Sinterklaas visit on 6th December. This is why a month ago we made an appointment with the headteacher of her school. Schools are, in my opinion, the best place to break a tradition like this. If children don’t encounter it in books or the syllabus, then they won’t think that it is normal. There will then be less chance of them carrying the tradition over to their children. As there has been a fair deal of media attention around Zwarte Piet recently (both here in Belgium and the Netherlands), I was looking forward to having this meeting, expressing my concerns, and (hopefully) coming to a solution or compromise. If only.
Starting the appointment, we made it quite clear that we find it racist, and that it is not up for interpretation. A racist stereotype is a racist stereotype. And while I was more than willing to hear her counter-points, there was no argument to make. She kept repeating the statements present at the top of this article, like somehow we are not enlightened or understanding of Belgian culture. I think of myself as a calm and collected person, but some things bring my blood to the boil, and Zwarte Piet is one of them. I became frustrated, no matter how many times I reiterated how racism should not be present in schools, I received a reply inferring that it’s just us and we don’t get it. Suggestions of my own to simply remove the stereotypical parts of the character were answered with “We’ll try” and “It’s to hide the person playing as Zwarte Piet”. Utter rubbish and outrageous to hear from a person who should be teaching children about right and wrong.
What can a parent do if a school is fine with racism and fails to see reason? Well, the answer is, unfortunately, not a lot. Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are easy topics to have activities about in school, so there tend to be weeks of build-up to it. I can hardly take three weeks off work to pull my child out of school. But, as it is culminating in the characters visiting the school on the 6th December, I will make sure that she stays home that day.
I’m not for stopping the holiday of Sinterklaas, but Zwarte Piet needs to be adjusted for modern times. Action has already been taken by some provinces and companies by removing the big red lips and replacing the black face paint with patches of soot. But in many schools, like my daughter’s, they are yet to change. This could be either from being afraid of backlash (yes, this is a real thing), or just being complacent to racism. The only thing I can do as a parent is to keep pushing, not stay quiet, and more crucially ensure that my daughter doesn’t grow up seeing it as anything else than it is - racism.