Radical empathy: understanding the similarities in the Black Pete debate & the rise of Trump

Like many others with me, I am still processing the news of a Trump presidency – and I wonder if I ever truly will. I wasn’t so much surprised of the outcome, but I wasn’t ready for the intense sadness and grieve coming with it. I can’t even imagine what it must be like for people of colour, the LGBT+ community, Muslims,  – basically anyone who isn’t a straight white male living in America and therefore fearing for their safety, health and even life.

However, after thinking a million different thoughts and feeling like someone had shoved a heavy rock into my stomach, it wasn’t until last Sunday evening that I wholly broke down – while reading a completely different discussion. Since a few years, every mid-November the discussion starts again in Belgium and the Netherlands: “should Black Pete be black?” Now, before I get into this, let me just say: no, he doesn’t.

Image found at historum.com

Best day of the year

‘Sinterklaas’ (Saint Nicholas), a mythical old white man with a white beard and weird clothes, is celebrated every year on the 6th of December in Belgium, when he brings presents to all children that have been good that year. Forget birthdays, Christmas and Santa Claus, Sinterklaas is the day you crave for when you are a kid in Belgium – the best day of the year. Like Santa, Sinterklaas has helpers but, unfortunately, they are not elves. They are called ‘Zwarte Piet’ (Black Pete), and, as the name might suggest, they are black. In practice, they are (overwhelmingly) white men in blackface. The precise root of this is not entirely clear to me and the story has changed significantly over the years. However, whether he is black because of the soot of the chimney he goes through, or whether – more significantly – this (probably) has links to slavery is not even so much the point.

The facts are that: as a child, you are taught that Zwarte Piet is Sinterklaas’ helper, that he is not that smart but more kind of the funny sidekick, and – that he punishes you if you haven’t been good. There are many children’s songs about Piet’s ‘roe’, a bundle of twigs he carries with him with which he will hit you if you have been naughty. I can still remember the nights where my siblings or I were too scared to sleep because of the thought of Zwarte Piet coming through the chimney to punish us.

It is not that big of a leap to imagine children mistrusting people resembling Piet.

Brave new world

However, any kind of discussion about the fact that – possibly – Piet could be seen as racist or, at the very least, an uncomfortable figure for people of colour, has been met with outrage and the kind of anger that I didn’t think possible when discussing a made-up celebration of a made-up man with funny clothes and a bag of sweets.

I am the first one to acknowledge that challenging one’s ideas and childhood traditions can be hard. Even I was dismissive when I first heard about the controversy – being after three university degrees and while working as a human rights lawyer. So yes, I do get it, it’s hard to have something that you never questioned before challenged. But then you think about it, you read, you listen, and you try to understand why your previously held ideas were wrong. Right?

It seems to not be the case for the majority of people, and the extreme anger (and xenophobia!) that the discussion of Piet’s blackness and the difficulties surrounding it invoke in people made me feel sad and hopeless, especially a few days after the election of Trump. Because, believe it or not, in  a way both events are connected.

Both are grounded in a lack of empathy, and the need to call changes to culture, tradition or society for the good of others “political correctness”. There is no other term I loathe quite so much as this one. It seems to be used whenever someone tries to change society for the better, by those who are unaffected by the change but still seem to be somehow inconvenienced. Political correctness, social justice warrior, feminazi, … give it a bit more time and normal respectful human being who gives a f*ck about others will be in the list as well.

Radical thought

This brave new world of apathy and selfishness makes me sick. When affected groups (or their allies) speak out about their struggles, be it about the problems surrounding the figure of Zwarte Piet or about the entrenched racism in American society (to name only two on the Great Big List of Problems), we should listen and try to understand their point of view, without immediately being alerted and shouting “let’s take back our country” in blind rage.

This is not radical thought.

Empathy, or the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is what it means to be human. We listen, we understand, we change, we grow. This is what humanity should be about – listening to and caring for each other.

This should not be radical but it is so important to be reminded of. Especially when we now apparently live in an era where it is OK for an openly racist, misogynistic, inexperienced irrational middle-aged man whose entire campaign was based on hatred of ‘the other’ to be elected president. Likewise with Brexit and the recent wave of extreme right-wing politics.

Perhaps, people should re-learn how to empathize instead of taking offence in changing Piet’s colour. Does it change anything to the best day of the year to have Piets in different colours? And even if it does, isn’t that worth the trouble when it stops the hurting for others?

I hope the answer to this is a resounding yes. And I hope people will remember and, some day, re-learn this approach when they react to positive change in society for others. When something doesn’t seem like a problem to you personally, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be one to others. When you have privilege, you should use it to support others who don’t, rather than building walls.

Empathy is not the enemy, but the solution to our self-destruction.


One thought on “Radical empathy: understanding the similarities in the Black Pete debate & the rise of Trump

  1. To be honest, I don’t have a strong opinion about whether Black Pete should stay or not; I think either way, discarding him or keeping him will not solve any problem. The basis is that people should have respect for one another and that one should treat their peers like they would like to be treated. And this should be thought from childhood. Whether people are discriminated because of skin color, glasses, the clothes they wear, the funny surname they have, obesity, sexual orientation, hair in the armpits (remember the student who got bashed on internet for having armpit hair) or any other reason people may find to discriminate another, it’s a matter of good sense that this is not okay. People that act this way should be taught better; but will they behave better when Black Pete is gone? Should we also ban Hollebollegijs from the Efteling because people who are obese are called after him? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem to discard black Pete or to change traditions for the sake of society… I just do not see how it will change anything for the better. People’s attitude towards each other should change. A state of mutual tolerance. And I don’t have any answer on how this should be reached, but if I see al energy that I put in debates such as a burqa-ban or a black Pete, I have the feeling that this energy could be used better. Maybe we need new, mixed traditions. Santa Claus attending Hannukah. Halal lamb for Easter. Belgian chocolates to celebrate the end of Ramadan?

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