‘Woker than woke’: Ghent cancels event with black, female Sinterklaas

‘Woker than woke’: Ghent cancels event with black, female Sinterklaas

Ghent City Council has cancelled a Christmas event where children would have met a black, female version of Sinterklaas, the Belgian Santa Claus.

The event was due to take place in the town hall on 6 December. It was cancelled at the request of Ghent mayor Mathias de Clercq, a member of the Flemish liberal party Open VLD.

"There is nothing wrong with Sinterklaas as we know him,” De Clercq told Belga. “We shouldn't try to turn him into something else."

‘Queen Nikkolah’ is the black female alternative to Sinterklaas, who traditionally brings presents to well-behaved children in Belgium on 6 December.

A character created by artist Laura Nsengiyumva, Queen Nikkolah had intended to answer children’s questions about Sinterklaas at the event. She also would have provided reworked versions of traditional Christmas stories about Sinterklaas for which children could have exchanged their more stereotypical storybooks.

Members of the right-wing Flemish party N-VA, took to social media to denounce the event as "woker than woke". Party member Anneleen Van Bossuyt compared attempts to modernise Sinterklaas as “censorship” and said that the planned book exchanges amounted to book burning.

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Despite being cancelled in the town hall, a separate Queen Nikkolah event will go ahead in Cultuurhuis Viernulvier on the same day. Viernulvier's general coordinator Franky Devos expressed disappointment at the council’s actions and believes that diversifying Sinterklaas can contribute positively to cultural debate.

"It is now a black woman, but it may as well be an Asian man," he told De Morgen. "Artists should not confirm the status quo, but question it, without detracting from what already exists.:

Contentious customs

Sinterklaas (known as Saint-Nicholas in French-speaking regions) is no stranger to controversy owing to society’s increasingly critical stance toward outdated stereotypes.

Instead of Santa Claus’ reindeer and elves, Sinterklaas relies on the help of a horse named ‘Slechtweervandaag’ (meaning ‘Bad Weather Today’) and the ‘Zwarte Pieten’, or ‘Black Petes.’

Zwarte Piet has sparked outrage given that the traditional dress-up costume involves blackface. Many now view the tradition as racist and inappropriate, especially given Belgium’s own violent colonial history.

Zwarte Pieten are increasingly viewed as inappropriate and racist. Credit: Belga/Jorge Dirkx

Nsengiyumva’s response to the cancellation of her Queen Nikkolah event referenced Zwarte Piet’s outdated character.

"It's not just that he is black, it's that he is Sinterklaas' slave," she told Sud Info. "This power dynamic makes a big impression on children. My artistic project aims for inclusion and celebrates diversity, all in coexistence with Sinterklaas."

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