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I Can't Get Behind My Adopted Country's Tradition

Expat Living 101: You don't criticize the customs of a country you choose to live in and where you have been so graciously welcomed.

That's an easy rule to follow, generally. Expats can observe without participating and without having an opinion.

Until they have kids.

It's holiday time in the Netherlands, which means my children are leaving shoes and carrots by the fireplace and singing songs up the chimney each evening, hoping that a former bishop of Turkey, now Sinterklaas, will leave them presents overnight.

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On a recent weekend, Sint arrived in the Netherlands, by steamboat, as he does every year. It's a wonderful spectacle. We watched as the boat came down the river that winds through our city, its whistle drawing crowds out on the streets. We watched as Sint rode his beautiful white horse to the town square, where he was greeted by the mayor.

He will be among us for about three weeks, ensuring that children are behaving nicely and sporadically leaving presents in their shoes. I love so much about this: the extended excitement, the idea that you may get a present one day but not the next. There is even a special Sinterklaas news journal on television for kids. It's an elaborate effort, and children understandably love it.

Although Santa Claus may cover more ground than Sint, his is still a one-night-a-year gig. It's understandable that Sinterklaas needs some help. Which he has. And that's where things get a bit hairy.

Sinterklaas' helpers are called Zwarte Piet, Black Pete, a character traditionally depicted by white people in blackface, wearing curly black wigs and exaggerated red lips and gold hoop earrings.

Last August, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination issued a report stating that "the character of Black Pete is sometimes portrayed in a manner that reflects negative stereotypes of people of African descent and is experienced by many people of African descent as a vestige of slavery." It urged the Netherlands to "actively promote the elimination" of the racial stereotyping.

Many Dutch people find the tradition outdated, but many others still find it harmless, good fun. Regardless, over the last years, there have been changes made in the way Black Pete looks. In 2014, the Dutch city of Gouda gave its Petes a makeover, giving them light gray faces depicting chimney soot, and introducing a yellow-faced "Cheese Pete." This year, my city of Haarlem added a "Flower Pete" to the mix.

Children—mine included—adore Zwarte Piet. Whereas Sint—tall, lanky, white-bearded, red-robed and more than a little stern—can be intimidating, the Petes are funny, silly, entertaining. All of which is great if they are clowns, which is what my daughter thinks. It all takes on a new meaning if they are in blackface.

People have strong opinions about this here, and I have to have one, too. Do I think we need to lose Zwarte Piet as a character? No. Do I mind my children dressing in Zwarte Piet costumes and feather hats? Not at all. Do I want my children in blackface? I don't. Do I mind a bit of "soot" on their face? Not if that becomes the actual, consistent story and not a loophole, and I'm not sure we're there yet.

But mostly, I don't understand clinging so strongly to something that takes a wonderful holiday celebration—family oriented and personal, over the top but not overly commercial, purely for children and not even pretending to be about religion—and turns it into such a divisive issue.

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My daughter, for what it's worth, spent the day in a chicken costume with a butterfly painted on her face. And she had a great time. The only thing I can imagine a blackface ban will take away from the Sinterklaas tradition is the debate about racism that overshadows it every year, and I, humble immigrant, think that can only be a good thing.

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PHOTOGRAPH BY: Tracy Brown Hamilton

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