Opposing change based on ‘tradition’ isn’t enough. Just ask ‘Black Peter’

Chris Campbell

The past few weeks have been turbulent in New Westminster, but in a good way.

Sure, the debate about the removal of the Judge Begbie statue has brought out some racist trolls, but there has also been some thoughtful debate about the issue. I think council is right to remove the statue from its current position and move it somewhere else where the full story can be told.

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In this column, I want to address one common theme I’ve heard from people opposing the statue removal and other social changes that are going on in New West.

One reader actually wrote that council was elected to manage the city, not change it. Well, I think that person wasn’t paying attention to Team Cote’s campaign because its members definitely made it clear they wanted change.

Another letter writer drew a direct connection between the statue removal and people who are uncomfortable with some or all aspects of May Day. The letter to the editor references a school district task force document on May Day that includes this line: “...does not positively reflect the district’s values of inclusion and diversity.” 

“These two issues have polarized New Westminster, as traditionalists and reformers duke it out,” read the letter.

It’s that word – “traditionalist” – that is commonly heard from those who resist changes in New West.

They say “but it’s tradition” as a main reason for not changing things.

But saying something is “tradition” isn’t enough of a reason to keep things the same. There has to be more in order to maintain the status quo. If people have solid reasons for not changing something, I’m willing to listen, but simply keeping something because “that’s how we’ve always done it” is not a viable argument.

For example, look at what happened in 2011 with the annual Dutch Sinterklaas festival in New West. Organizers ended up cancelling the event after an exhausting controversy surrounding the “traditional” character Zwarte Piet or "Black Peter."

The character drew criticisms of racism from Metro Vancouver's black community over the fact Black Peter appears in blackface makeup and contains negative stereotypes.

Bernard Piprah, a graduate student and organizer of the annual Black History Month symposium at Douglas College, told the Record at the time that the Black Peter character was offensive to many in the black community.

"(The character) is degrading, and it's racist, and it's incredibly outdated," Piprah said. "You can't erase that. You can go to your local library and read that this Black Peter was a slave. He beat children. He was dumb, and he spoke buffoonish Dutch. There are just so many insulting aspects to that character, and I can't believe they're celebrating it in New Westminster."

black peter
Saint Nicolaas and Black Peter arrive during a past New Westminster Sinterklaas celebration. Photograph By FILE PHOTO

I can’t believe it either. I read past articles of people defending this and felt like I needed to be scrubbed down by a Hazmat team.

In reading past Record articles, I came across a letter to the editor that sounded eerily familiar to the arguments being used today.

The letter said that if only people did some research on the history of Black Peter, they would understand it wasn’t offensive.

“I am incredibly sad that I will not be able to let my son experience this tiny bit of Dutch tradition as a result of a few people who feel they have to be offended by a tradition that they do not have an understanding of,” read the letter.

See, it’s a “tradition” and people just don’t understand it.

This wasn’t the 1950s, it was less than 10 years ago that people were prancing around New West in blackface.

Incredible.

For the record, I’m not implying in any way that children dancing around a pole on May Day is equal to the racist practice of blackface.

I’m simply highlighting how the defence of “tradition” was used to try and maintain something in a New West event that clearly didn't fit with the times.

The same argument was used to oppose the cancellation of the “lancers’ dances” from the May Day banquet in 2015. This tradition involved older men dancing with young girls. Its defenders said this was a New West tradition and there was nothing creepy about it, but look at what’s going on in our society today. Women are smashing the patriarchy and this dance tradition definitely oozed with patriarchy.

People have to remember that this banquet was a city event and council has a duty to make such events as inclusive as possible.

I know people will just scream “political correctness,” but it’s really about our society evolving into something that is so much better than before.

Follow Chris Campbell on Twitter @shinebox44.

 

 

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