Sinterklaas, Confederate Monuments, and False Dichotomies

When I arrived in the city of Heerlen, which is in the Netherlands, I experienced a tradition that illuminated the importance of understanding history, and how difficult it is for people all around the world to have open and honest dialogues about the implications and consequences of our historical perceptions.

Many of the people that I spoke with believe that, while Black Piet, (Zwarte Piet) does reinforce a racist stereotype, it is not racist to participate in the tradition. This line of reasoning maintains that the tradition is harmless fun geared for children who focus only on the fact that they are receiving gifts. Others feel that Zwarte Piet should be painted rainbow colors and children should be educated on the history of slavery as it applies to the tradition. Still others feel that the black should be removed completely from the equation, and Zwarte Piet should be a regular person without any makeup. Despite these different opinions, the news reports that I read or watched all seemed to be focused on two very uncompromising sides, the side that wants to get rid of Swarte Piet altogether and the side that wants to keep the tradition exactly the way it is. Buying in to this false dichotomy keeps people fighting and arguing rather than coming to common understandings.

The perpetuation of false dichotomies by the media occurs in the U.S. as well. If one receives their information exclusively from the major news outlets, one begins to believe that
America is a polarized country where one’s identity relies on adopting one of only two very rigid points of view; however, if we travel outside of our comfort zones and converse with people who have different points of view, we will see that we are not in a determinant ideological battle, and many more perceptions exist than the two uncompromising positions that receive all of the airtime.