The Thanksgiving and Black Pete rituals: examples of Cultural Colonialism
By Oriana P.
Thanksgiving and Black Pete, two different traditions from two different continents with seemingly nothing in common. Yet, upon closer look, the similarities are striking and their purpose and intentions are the same.
Both are rituals that have their roots in a colonial past and both have the goal to emphasize white dominance. In an ever-recurring play, the colonial and imperialist past is constantly relived taking the position that the impact and consequences of that past can still be felt and are still desired. With this, the beneficiaries of this imperialist society declare they want the situation to continue by honoring the past.
However, the defenders of both traditions unequivocally claim their celebrations have got nothing to do with imperialism and its inherent racism.
Thanksgiving, they say, is just a family event. An excuse to stuff yourself. From the viewpoint of the privileged this is indeed the case. No one would consciously be celebrating genocide, murder and torture unless they’re a degenerate. But is the denial of facts less embarrassing?
Of course we all pretty much know the story of the mythical first Thanksgiving in Plymouth in 1621. The Wampanoag Indians had helped the starving pilgrims with the planting and harvesting of the strange food. The first harvest was a success and out of gratitude they enjoyed a shared a meal. That’s already a lie. The whole shared-meal-thing had been fabricated by Abraham Lincoln who needed a PR stunt to calm down the people who were divided during the Civil War. Indeed, it was a beautiful symbolic story of unity but unfortunately not true. A feast had indeed been arranged in honor of the good harvest but the "savages" had not been invited. They were eating right outside the settlement, keeping an eye on the new people and protecting them since those newbies were reacting very nervous to their strange new surroundings.
The Sinterklaas/ Black Pete ritual, a festival that takes place on Dec. 5th in the Netherlands and Dec. 6th in Belgium, is in the eyes of the rest of the world undeniably racist. However it is perceived as completely harmless by the Belgians and by the Dutch. Just like their American counterparts perceive Thanksgiving as completely harmless they claim Sinterklaas/Black Pete is just a children's party. They say their intent is not racist although it's undeniable the original intent, when Black Pete was added, definitely was.
Sinterklaas , Black Pete's boss, was a patron saint of children and first worked alone. No talk of servants. He was a Greek Bishop from Myra, who had been declared holy because of his good deeds. How on earth could this possibly have anything to do with racism? But this jolly old fellow eventually acquired a bunch of servants, read slaves. The Black Petes first emerged in the 19th century, during Europe’s colonial heyday, in a book by Jan Schenkman. Black Pete started out as a devilish character, which was based on Krampus, who beat naughty kids with his rod and then put them in his burlap bag. What happened to those kids in the bag was left to the imagination. Later the image of Black Pete changed and he became the funny, clumsy and simple minded helper of Sinterklaas. The black stereotypes of Devil and Dumb are abundantly present. The poem of Rudyard Kipling ((1865-1936) “White Man’s Burden” comes to mind, in which he describes the Master-Servant relationship and the “savages” as half devil half child. In the Netherlands Black Pete even used to talk with a Surinamese accent. Suriname is the former colony of the Netherlands.
The use of racism is of the utmost importance if you want to have a fighting chance selling the concepts of colonialism and imperialism to the people at home. The trick is to create “the other” and then dehumanize that creation. In the United States black slaves were even officially registered as 4/5th human. Once your “other” is no longer fully human, apparently the door is open to genocide, exploitation, slavery, rape, and torture.
White King, Red Rubber, Black Death (2004). Documentary of the story of King Leopold II of Belgium's brutal colonisation of central Africa, turning it into a vast rubber-harvesting labour camp in which millions died.
In our recent past, ideas of colonization and imperialism had been commonplace because of clever propaganda campaigns such as the Orientalist schools. They simply were part of cultural life. Nowadays we realize that those concepts are unacceptable and therefore we desperately deny our colonial past in so many of its aspects. The fact that Leopold II killed between 10 and 15 million Congolese and was one of the most gruesome and bloodthirsty rulers of all time is not being taught in Belgian schools. Black Pete looks black because he crawls through the chimney. We cannot and will not have our precious childhood memories be tainted by racist accusations so we vehemently deny that the ritual itself is racist and we want the discussion to go away altogether.
However, while we are busy denying these racist and colonial aspects in our rituals we are forced to ignore the objections of the descendants of the African diaspora and the people of the First Nation. And ironically, in the process of ignoring and denying we once again become racist. When you ignore the criticism of large groups of the population and tenaciously hold on to your own vision and your own privileged point of view you emphasize white supremacy, which is a structural system of lending dominance to white people politically, culturally, economically, and socially. In other words, racism is institutionalized and it is the norm. From a privileged position it is easy to be in favor of racist rituals and traditions. We are just blind to the racism in our culture and hide behind a veil of innocence. However, when non-privileged people point out the racist elements in our traditions we're just gonna have to accept this as truth. After all, they are the experts. Holding on to imperial ritual is a form of cultural colonization. If we do this even after we have been given the heads up then we are no better than our ancestors.
A ritual is meant to imprint a certain value or belief into our psyche. These colonial rituals have the intent to imprint our place in society so we never forget it and that place has been dictated by the white dominant class. The white man is the boss, the black man the slave. Know your place.
The importance of pointing out the racial stereotypes in society becomes clear when we see black people getting shot by police with impunity as is the case in the US. If we don't recognize the symbols of institutionalized racism then it can spread and grow like cancer and it will kill like cancer. The riots in Ferguson, MI are not caused by an isolated incident but are the righteous anger towards an unjust and racist society that systematically murders people from one particular group.
Our rituals are not innocent. They are meant to make us accept a colonial and racist reality and to keep the existing power structures in place.
White people especially need to look inward and be brave. We need to acknowledge we all carry a piece of the oppressor in us. We need to realize we were all raised in a racist society and have been influenced by it. If we truly are fighting towards a more just and equal society then we need to start with ourselves and subject our rituals and festivals to a close examination. It is hard to see racism when you are white and it is even harder to acknowledge we have been an active participant in perpetuating racist traditions. The answer is not denial but to take responsibilty and work towards change. Self-transformation takes courage but that is exactly what is needed here.