Opinion: The new Black Peter

POSTED: 06/13/14 11:16 AM

Once upon a time, in a country far from here, there was a children’s friend and his name was Black Peter. You never heard about this character, except during maybe the four weeks leading up to the Dutch Sinterklaas-celebration. These days, Black Peter is everywhere, partly due to the actions of St. Maarten’s Black Peter activist Quincy Gario. This week, a Dutch TV program presented the New Black Peter, based on a report (seriously!) from the Center for Pop Culture and Immaterial Heritage.

He dropped the earrings, straightened his hair and his lips are not all that red anymore – but he is still black. The Center interviewed thirty people (wow) and analyzed thousands of emails to arrive at recommendations designed to reconcile opponents and proponents of Black Peter. For now, the attempt seems to have failed miserably.

Quincy Gario: “I find this very sad. When I saw it on TV the only thing I thought was: I don’t get it. You have spoken with thirty people and then you come with something like this. The Center also asked my opinion but I find really nothing back of my criticism. This is not a minor adjustment, this is not an adjustment at all.”

Dario concedes that the Center that designed the New Black Peter probably has good intentions. “But I reproach them for leaving out the one thing this is all about – the skin color. That was the most important point of grievance. They guard the status quo and show no understanding whatsoever. Racism is prohibited by law here, but we live in a weird little country. We do everything to maintain a relic from 1851.”

Peter Jan Margry, an ethnologist at the Meertens Institute: “This Black Peter is a forced compromise that is destined for failure. I do not believe at all in an appearance that is imposed from the top down. Black Peter is what we call living culture, so this discussion has to take place in the community. The timing of the new design probably has everything to do with time pressure. The Sinterklaas newscast has to be recorded this summer and they have to make a dossier for UNESCO. But it is naïve to think that we are done with this issue this way. Chances are significant that we will keep having this discussion for years to come. This Center will not change anything about that.”

Arthur Schuitemaker, marketing director NTR and producer of the Sinterklaas newscast: “It is good that the Center has charted the problem. We do not want to take a position for or against Black Peter but we cannot stick our heads in the sand for this discussion. Our team is currently considering how we are going to use our Black Peters, but we will not make any statements about it until the Sinterklaas newscast begins on November 10. I am already able to say that it is not logical to expect that we will present a completely different Black Peter than the one we used in previous years. They already are not wearing large golden earrings anymore and they are not the servants of Sinterklaas. We are also not speaking of Black Peter but for instance of head-, house-, or packages-Peter.”

“Still, it remains complicated how to shape this further, especially because the contrasts are so large and because after the severe discussions of last year Black Peter is under a microscope. Our team is not only thinking about the way Black Peter should look, it is also thinking about the question whether the Sinterklaas newscast should devote time to the discussion about Black Peter. It is a creative challenge to do this without damaging the Sinterklaas-tradition our viewers believe in.”

Albert van der Zijden, policy advisor at the Dutch Center for Pop Culture and Immaterial Heritage: “Maybe it came across like that but actually this is also not our compromise-figure. We make all kinds of suggestions in our report but the TV-program that presented the New Black Peter has used some specific adjustments from it. On TV it was only about his appearance, while our research is also about behavior. About a friendly Peter, who is on the same level as Sinterklaas. We were not all that happy with the presentation on TV. That Black Peter walked around like a wooden statue and now the discussion is only about his appearance.”

“With our research we wanted to call for experimenting. All committees that organize Sinterklaas-arrivals are already busy with their preparations and they are struggling with last year’s severe discussion. How do they have to go about it with Black Peter? They come to us and we want to help them, by giving examples and making suggestions. But we are absolutely not presenting from top down one new compromise-Peter. We wanted to encourage debate in such a way that we are done with it by the time Sinterklaas arrives. With hindsight we should maybe have shown more Peters – including white ones and rainbow-colored ones. Or no Peter at all, but a completely new phantasy figure.”

Pieter van Langevelde, editor of the TV-program that presented the New Black Peter: “We have asked all our guests to present characteristics for their Peter, including Ineke Strouken of the Center for Pop Culture. She came with all kinds of suggestions from their research that you have seen in our Peter: straight hair, no earrings and lips that are less red. But she also said: for now he will remain black, or brown. So this Peter is the product of the Center for Pop Culture, not of our TV program.”


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