By Emma Cottenie
To not be judged politically incorrect, people often start off with a disclaimer that is supposed to give them a free pass to say something they really shouldn’t. “I’m not a racist, I just like the Black Pete tradition. I think he’s a funny figure” is one of the most recurring arguments of Dutch and Belgian people to defend their Sinterklaastradition. “It’s a children’s event. It’s not supposed to be racist.” Right there, that’s the moment when we –white people- get it wrong.
Last week, someone told me that my white privilege guards me from ever having to deal with racism and unfortunately, he was right. No one has ever insulted me for my skin colour (to be fair, they have, but only because I stay ridiculously white during summer). I don’t know what racism is and I’m fairly certain that most white people don’t. Yes, we can give you the Merriam-Webster definition of racism and yes, we know that it’s supposed to be a bad thing and we mustn’t be it, but what does it really mean?
It means being called ape. It means being a kid in elementary school, getting told that your skin is dirty. It means being called Black Pete because hey, your skin has the same colour and hey, your hair is black and curly, and hey, where are my pepernoten? How do I know that? Because people of colour told me their experiences. And I was shocked by them. I never would have guessed that those were actual things people actually say to other human beings.
So when do ‘jokes’ stop being funny and become racist comments? I don’t consider myself a racist –there we go- but I do laugh at stupid cliché jokes that I judge funny. By doing research on the Black Pete discussion, however, my views on what’s funny have thoroughly changed. The other day, Facebook showed me a memory of a few years ago, when I posted a status on how I was baking chocolate chip cookies but didn’t take them out of the oven in time. My dad commented with ‘so they’re African cookies now’. Then, I probably laughed. Now, I’m kind of embarassed by that joke.
I was one of many people rolling their eyes when the controversy around Black Pete started. “Is this really necessary? Do we really need to make a children’s tradition politically correct? Do the kids even care?” The truth is, the kids don’t care, as long as they get some toys and pepernoten. One little girl told me during the Sinterklaas parade that she didn’t like the Petes this year: their outfits weren’t pink enough. But people of colour care, because it hurts them to see that their dark, bad history –that we, white people inflicted on them- is being ridiculed. Now that I understand that, I have changed my opinion and I am glad I did.
My point is, one’s perception of what is racist changes with education on the topic. And let that be the hiatus in our Belgian and Dutch society: we know way too little about our colonial histories and what that did to families of black people in our midsts today. Sure, Black Pete is supposed to be funny and we don’t intend for him to come off as racist, but who are we –white people- to decide for people of colour what should or shouldn’t offend them? Educate us about the topic of racism and maybe then, only then, ask us for our opinion.