Potsdam is a city which declares to be dedicated to values like respect, tolerance and solidarity. According to the city’s edict of tolerance there is a corresponding agreement to act against violence and xenophobia. In Potsdam it appears to be a general concern to meet the influences of other cultures with a welcoming openness and to ensure a pleasant coexistence for all. Thus, the local newspapers announced praisingly that this year there will, once again, be a traditional Sinterklaas celebration in the Dutch Quarter.
Needless to say, we appreciate that there are intercultural festivities in Potsdam and active attempts to advance the valuable objective of intercultural dialogues. To ensure that this city can continue to be proud of its tolerant appearance it seems to be preferable to question and rethink the traditions which are implemented and held up. Our society constantly changes, therefore, it is necessary to take a second or third look at so-perceived static, true and especially loved customs to realize that some of their elements might not be timely anymore.
Traditionally, the Dutch Sinterklaas is accompanied by figures called Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) which are highly controversial. Zwarte Pieten are usually white people who apply black make up, paint big, red lips in their faces and wear curly, black wigs. Their job is not only to provide the children with sweets and candy but also to entertain the (in Potsdam probably mainly white) audience with jokes. This scenario – whether intended or not – evokes the tradition of stereotypical representations and stagings of Black people as funfair attractions, as dehumanized adornment at court as well as US-American Minstrel Shows. These shows which enjoyed huge popularity during the 1920s used the racist practice of blackfacing (i.e. white people represented Afro-Americans in a humiliating and degrading manner) to entertain a white audience. For these reasons, the traditional version of the Zwarte Pieten are clearly similarly racist which, in the Netherlands, has already led to various court hearings.
We would like to encourage to rethink the way in which Sinterklaas is celebrated in Potsdam keeping its very own edict of tolerance in mind which makes a plea for naming the not-tolerable. Sinterklaas might be an even more enjoyable celebration if it would not unwittingly reproduce racist representations.
In the Netherlands, some cities already changed the traditional practices and the Pieten now appear in different colors or only paint some black stripes on their faces. This allows for a truly tolerant celebration for all fellow citizens. It is a form of lived transcultural solidarity and respect, instead of only celebrating these values on paper – in official documents.