Ask ARP: Does “Black Pete” have a place in the classroom?

Dear Anti-Racist Parent:

Here’s the scenario: My husband and I are white. We have five kids, two of whom are black. When our first three kids went through kindergarten they took part in a unit about how different cultures celebrate Christmas. It was interesting and insightful but one thing didn’t sit well with me. I wasn’t sure why but I felt uncomfortable. In Holland, Sinterklaas is celebrated on December 5th. Sinterklaas is a Father Christmas-like figure who comes to children’s houses with his sidekick, Black Peter. So on Dec. 5, in the classroom, Sinterklaas came and visited the kids. One of the parents dressed up in the traditional Sinterklaas costume while another acted out Black Peter. In all three years that I had kids in kindergarten, the person who acted out Black Peter was a white person with black shoe polish on their face and hands. Apparently this is how it’s usually done. Now for my question…this year our kindergartener is one of our black kids. She happens to be the only black child in her class (although the school itself is very multi-cultural). She’s also the only one with glasses and she’s very aware of being, in her words, “different than everybody else.” Is this tradition going to be uncomfortable for her? Does it have racist undertones? Or am I merely being an over-protective parent? (I don’t think it’s the latter…I think just the fact of being a transracial parent automatically means questioning more than I ever did before.)

Denise

From the Editor:

I had only heard a little about Black Pete or Zwarte Piet and what I remembered wasn’t good. So, I checked out Wikipedia. Based on this description, I would say that this tradition is indeed race biased and would certainly make me uncomfortable as a person of color, especially one who is the “only” in my environment. But it’s not just about black children being hurt. Children of other races shouldn’t be exposed to this either. What does it teach them about their black schoolmates? Black Pete is alternately described as a devil, a slave, and a servant, a mean and mischievous mythical character. All these incarnations attach negative attributes to blackness. I won’t even get into the blackface, which adds a further element of offensiveness.
 
Frankly, I’m amazed that no other parent has complained and that this has continued for several years. Good for you for asking the question. I urge you to speak to your child’s teacher or the principal about this. This shouldn’t be happening in a kindergarten class.

Readers, what do you say? Denise adds: Black Pete is not portrayed in the classroom as a devil or a slave. He’s acted out as a silly, trouble-making character, meant for the kids to get a kick out of. So I guess I wouldn’t say Black Pete in this setting attaches negative attributes to blackness. But does that mean it’s okay to include him in the classroom? Are we at liberty to change negative traditions any old way we want just so we feel more comfortable with them? Personally I think not but I know others would disagree. Could you comment on that so I have an idea of what to lay on the table when I talk to the teacher and principal? To be honest, I’m most concerned about the black face. I too find it offensive…I wouldn’t want someone to portray me using white shoe polish.

Tami

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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