In the coming weeks, the Black-Peter discussion will undoubtedly re-surface: its a Dutch tradition celebrating Saint Nicolas assisted by “black Peters’ coming from ‘Spain’ and distributing presents for children in shoes next to the fire place, by Black Peters climbing down the chimney. Hence the black color. Recently there has been a lot of public pressure to remove the black faces, seen as racist, and replace them with some black or colored brushes in the faces, as real chimney guys with soot on their faces. Its a highly relevant discussion, but not specifically from the racist point of view, even more so with regard to our climate problem…. Let me try to explain.
To start with, let’s be clear: I have nothing against a Black Peter or a White Peter or Yellow or those with soot brushes. This transition from exclusively Black Peter to partially black or colored ones is prompted by the racism debate, at least that’s how people frame it. But continuing that consistently, I would expect to see also some real Black Peters, I mean between the other colors of Saint Nicolas assistants: say a black Black Peter… A reflection of the diversity in society. Otherwise the whole debate is a farce of course. It’s only really racist if we only have white Pete’s with soot brushes. I also want to see a black Black peter with soot brushes, be it with white stucco, or white chalk paint or whatever color.
But there is something else that is always out of the discussion. Black Peter was black for a reason: it’s about the contrast: you had ‘the good and the bad guy’. One white, the other black. Which sometimes terrified the children. And threatened to take you back to Spain in a bag if you had been behaving badly. That had a function, the carrot and the stick so to speak. Presents or punishment. For the same reason, Saint Nicholas should be black if this tradition was applied in for instance large parts of Africa, and black peter should be white peter in that case. Like the bogeyman from far away. Which would in that case actually be true… (unlike here, a ‘Black Peter’ never threatened us in real..)
The point is , the Saint / Peter combination is the perfect example of a behavior campaign. However, despite the discussion on the black, the function of bogeyman has long since been diluted, sissies as we are, the threatening part has disappeared from the tradition, colored Peters now only distribute presents. So Black Peter has become completely redundant as Bogeyman, therefor the being black has no function anymore. What remains are only the ‘holy’ white man, Saint Nicholas, and his good-men, instead of bogeymen. Hence the adaptation of the color for the good-men, to keep them popular, in fact encouraging to buy gifts, which they as the ‘good men’ can hand out. Bad things no longer exist, as long as we buy and consume.
In fact, recent years we have now taken that one level further and institutionalized it: Look at the wish lists that are filled in on web stores, and the organized delivery service by (real mixed colored) good-men, although we now call them ‘self-employed…’. Acrobats on bicycles dropping the packages on the sidewalk. Put them on tights, puff pants and puff sleeves, and behold, the new reality, black/colored Peter is back, only now it is the adults who believe in Saint Nicholas… You fill in a wish list, and the next day it is in your shoe at the door.… “Hear who is knocking , and you just see someone running away and a package against the door” .
And commerce would like you to believe that this is normal, that it’s Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) all year round ( or a whole year Santa Claus in other countries) : There’s a whole pseudoscience set up for it, being economists, who are raving about the upcoming “zero marginal cost of production”, for example. So buy, buy buy, is what I hear, if our MP in Glasgow at COP26 calls for “Action Action, Action”.
The originally social function of the celebration taken over by capitalism. As well as the whole social structure has been eroded. You used to buy shoes when the old ones were beyond repair, now you buy shoes because the marketing demands it. Or the image of a minister. Or, as now in corona times, even to keep the shops afloat. Whether you really need shoes or not. In the past there were shops because people sometimes needed something, and then there was someone who supplied it. Not out of profit, but as a service, and made a living from it.
However, behavioral change is still necessary, its by far the most important thing in combating climate change. But how do we do that if no one wants to play the bogeyman? If we only have men putting on a good face? ‘Playing good weather’ as we say in The Netherlands. Except for the real weathermen themselves. In fact, they’re the only ones who want to play the bogeyman by also announcing bad weather, and even pointing out in broadcasted weather bulletins that it’s going to get a lot worse with that climate and all. “Get used to it,” said one recently. The weathermen, the new Black Peters: behave or you will get the rod, that is: storms, floods, heat waves, the seven plagues will come upon you if you don’t change your behavior.
But that’s about it. We’re in trouble, and what do we do? We now even throw out money a presents! We are ruled by only white saints, with the new grit: money…..
Just to make sure that you keep buying. If we didn’t need anything, society would collapse, is what those ‘Saints’ think. Imagine completely satisfied people, who don’t need much, that would then be the reason for society to collapse? If so, in that case it seems to me that we are doing something wrong after all. Nevertheless, most of us dutifully follow those ‘saints’, wanting ‘free money’. Borrowing doesn’t cost a thing, and saving makes no sense, so we call in Saint Nicholas again. We go to his webshop. And just in case everyone has everything, then we just come up with some new innovative products, right? Electric cars and electric bicycles, nobody has them yet…so buy. And everyone has a right to a camper… , and a robot vacuum cleaner and ditto solar-powered lawn mower. Buy! I already get weekly offers for video doorbells. In case I could miss Black Peter with a new present at the door… That implies another round of presents for the whole of the Netherlands: video doorbells. And we’ll build some extra windmills in your backyard to provide all of that with energy. Yes?
I wonder what Glasgow will bring: will it lead to behavior change, or will it be a big Saint Nicholas Conference, with new toys to fight climate change, to be delivered by good-men… ?