Opinion: The Black Peter fraud

POSTED: 10/25/13 12:05 PM

Now it turns out that Verene Shepherd, a Jamaican Professor in Social History, has spoken on behalf of the United Nations while she has no right to do so. She is a volunteer who does not get paid by the UN and she speaks for her own account, United Nations spokesman Xabier Celaya said yesterday in the Belgian newspaper De Morgen.

“These are independent experts, elected by member states, that do independent research in certain countries,” Celaya said. Shepherd leads a four-strong UN-study group that tackles human rights abuse worldwide. The group’s name is Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent.

Already in January, the group sent a letter to the Dutch government asking for clarification about the Sinterklaas celebration. According to this letter, the UN had received information “that Black Peter preserves a stereotype image of Africans and of people of African descent as second class citizens. It feeds the underlying idea of inferiority within the Dutch society and it triggers racial differences and racism.”

They also wrote that they “had heard” that the Netherlands wanted to submit Sinterklaas and Black Peter as immaterial World Intangible Heritage item. The Dutch ambassador to the UN in Geneva, contested this notion already in July. Marc Jabobs, the Belgian representative for Unesco, wrote yesterday in an opinion piece on deredactie.be that the working group of Shepherd does not represent Unesco with its criticism of Black Peter.

The four signatories do not belong at all to the competent parts of Unesco, but they used correspondence paper with the letterhead of the United Nations, Jacobs noted. If that is true, Shepherd c.s. are guilty of forgery.

Jacobs has not a single good word for Shepherd and her experts and shoves her unceremoniously aside as incompetent. He furthermore wrote that activists like Shepherd abuse the Unesco-instrument of intangible heritage items

Now that Shepherd has been caught as a fraud and a liar, the Netherlands is heading for another Sinterklaas celebration – with Black Peters.

The Dutch got support from Bonaire, where journalist Boi Antoin has played the part of Sinterklaas for more than twenty years. For the occasion, Antoin makes up his coffee-brown face with white makeup. He is surprised about the ruckus in the Netherlands about Black Peter. “I see no problems at all. This is a nice celebration for children.”

Bonaire has an ambivalent relationship with the Netherlands since it became a Dutch public entity in 2010. But during the entry parade of Sinterklaas the Dutch makambas and the Bonaireans stand together singing on the quay.

The Dutch daily Trouw quotes Shaedra Boromeo of the Center for Youth and Family in Bonaire. “Black Peter racism? Not at all. Youngsters find it an honor to be Black Peter. We hold an audition every year and everybody moves to take part. As Peter, you must be able to deal with children – do tricks and act. Of course they are made up. Pretu Pretu. Blacker than black.”

The story from Bonaire puts the Black Peter discussion in a different perspective. Activists that have a problem with Black Peter, like Curacaolenean Quinsy Gario, seems to keep the discussion alive for the sake of having an argument.

Curacao has yielded a bit with the introduction of Rainbow Peters –probably to the delight of the gay community – but the Bonairean Peters stick to black. “Of course we paint ourselves black,” said 19-year old Kelvin Thielman. “Boys, girls, light brown, dark brown. Why not? That is the soot from the chimney. Sinterklaas is an old story. He is a friendly fellow and he needs Peters a his adjutants, his helpers.”

Boi Antoin has no idea why the Black Peter debate does not appeal to Bonaireans, but he has an educated guess: “Many Bonaireans do not like to be called on the slavery history. They prefer to see themselves as the descendants of Indians.”

Antoin notes however that there is some racism in the /Sinterklaas-songs. “We have some of them in Papiamento. Possible hurtful lines do not occur in those songs.”

The Black Peter debate will probably rage on until December 5 – but given the sentiment in the Netherlands – and in Bonaire – there is little chance that Black Peter will be taken out of the equation. The chance that Verene Shepherd will be kicked out of her Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent on the other hand seems considerable higher.


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