A Sinterklaas Celebration and Sensitivity

This blog is called “Culture War Reporters,” and by and large I think that my co-writer and I manage to cover topics that are about the culture we presently live in, whether it be about why we give or why we put up with watching Family Guy. Today I’m writing about an aspect of North American culture that clashes with a particular European tradition.

Last night a friend and I were talking about the social work program he’s currently taking, particularly about his fellow students and how seriously they take their course of study. The same friend I debated the usage of the word “rape” with, he stressed the importance of finding humour in everything. He recounted, with distaste, being snapped at for telling a racist joke.

Oversensitivity  runs rife in North America, for better or for worse. It’s the reason lines like this one in Modern Family exist, and why we find them so funny and relatable.  Political correctness and striving to not offend are held in high regard, and when comparing it to the opposite end of the spectrum, utter ignorance and obnoxiousness, it appears to be the reasonable choice.

However, and you knew that word was coming, when do we draw the line? It’s good to be sensitive of others, but at what point should they be the ones to rethink their positions and just let things slide? This year marks an end to  26 years of tradition in New Westminster, BC, and the reason for that many Dutch people would chalk up to oversensitivity.

The character Zwarte Piet, or “Black Peter,” is a part of Dutch and Belgian Christmas tradition, one that can only be described with a picture, seen on the left. His history can be traced to as far back as  1845, and acts as a companion to Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas.

Since 1985 New Westminster has held a Sinterklaas Celebration featuring Zwarte Piet, and it hasn’t been until this year that the black community found the character extremely offensive. Owner of the Holland Shopping Centre and organizer of the celebration, Tako Slump and others tried to find a way to make the celebration go on without Zwarte Piet, but couldn’t come up with a solution everyone accepted.

Upon engaging in conversation with many of his Dutch customers, he said that “it became pretty clear to us that we love Sinterklaas and we can’t have it without Black Peter. Those two go together.” Ultimately the strain of trying to plan the event without such a key component and striving to make up for it left the organizers drained and the event canceled.

Slump also mentioned that the issue is more a matter of perception than anything else. “Like I said before, I understand. I can see where [the black community is] coming from, but at the same time, the key issue is the history that is hurtful to them is totally different from what we are celebrating,” he said.

Do you agree with the decision of the organizers to cancel the event, or the offense taken by the New Westminster black community? This is hundreds of years of tradition worldwide and over 25 in this city, but is that any reason to continue to offend hundred of people? I don’t want to take the route of my post about the Lizard and leave this issue in ambivalence, so let me say this: as with most things, communication was needed, and it clearly wasn’t present. We have to come to some sort of middle ground, and we can only do this with respectful dialogue from both sides.

One response to “A Sinterklaas Celebration and Sensitivity

  1. Merry Christmas, everyone. And a Happy Sinterklaas.

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