Are We Ready to Forget About Black Pete?

by Abe Asher

Last fall, OES made a seminal decision a long time in coming: 2015 would be the last year the character Pete — formally known as Black Pete — would headline the annual St. Nick’s Chapel.

Pete’s removal was written into the skit performed by Peter Langley at the Chapel proceeding Winter Break in December, with an Upper School Chapel set for January meant to serve as a further chance for the school to explain its decision.

The reason that the skit was going away was, to many, understood: Pete is inextricably bound to racism.

Pete, or Black Pete, is a creation of Dutch folklore. There, Pete is known as “Zwarte Piet,” and appears in often appears in blackface. The story goes that Pete is a moor, or slave, of Santa Claus’, who kidnaps children if they have been bad that year.

For many, Pete is a beloved holiday tradition. But for many others, he is an incredibly hurtful and dehumanizing display of the racism that has dogged Europe and the greater world for hundreds of years.

Pete has been a part of OES’ holiday celebrations for generations as well. The character was already an institution when current Head of the US Jordan Elliott attended OES in the 90s.

Then, Jordan said, “We had an employee of the school go in blackface for Pete.”

When current Upper School Chaplain Jenny Cleveland arrived at OES seven years ago, she was told by certain community members, “Hey, we do this Pete skit at St. Nick’s Chapel, and it’s the most racist thing I’ve ever seen.”

In recent times, however, OES has tried to repackage Pete as a nonthreatening, cartoonish character — stripped of all racial overtones — to the point that a number of current OES students were not familiar with the character’s origins. Much of that work, and the credit for its relative success, fell to Langley as well.

Said Jenny, “There was a movement to make Pete our own. There was a conversation about whether that was enough to sever our ties with this larger tradition. If we just made a Pete a buffoon, was that enough?”

As Jenny and others discovered, it wasn’t. “People still often use the language Black Pete,” she told me. “So I think the realization was that you can’t just take away part of Pete’s name and then say, ‘now Pete isn’t connected [to its racist past].'”

Said Jordan, “It’s to our credit in some ways that we changed it, but it’s not getting at the heart of where it came from.”

Various attempts to end the character’s presence at OES stretch back almost a decade. But, along the way, there was pushback. “Not everybody would say that it was a manifestation of racism,” Jenny said.

Finally, this year, the school decided to pull the plug. Said Jordan, “It’s really important that we made the decision to confront the Pete skit in St. Nick and not do it anymore. That was not a small thing, and it was the right thing to do.”

But OES as an institution did not make a clean break.

The chapel announcing Pete’s removal and the reasons behind it, while informative, went to great lengths to avoid calling the character racist or apologizing for its usage.

What students got was a history lesson on the character, and an indirect and awkward explanation of why it was going away. It was, arguably an obfuscation of the school’s responsibility to stand up for what it purports to believe in.

At only one point during the entire Chapel — in response to a question from a member of the audience — did any of the Chaplains, in that case Jenny, acknowledge that the tradition was in fact “racist.”

Said Policy Board Chair Regina L., “I thought the chapel was underwhelming to say the least. The chapel was a lot of historical context and very little acknowledgement of our school’s role in perpetuating this awful, racist caricature.”

“Nobody apologized, nobody explicitly acknowledged that putting on the skit was racist, wrong, and directly conflicted with our school’s values.”

One of the promises coming out of that Chapel was that conversations about the skit, the character, its place in the school, and its greater meaning would continue.

But to this point, no such conversation has taken place amongst students in either the Middle or Upper School. Instead, the issue of Black Pete’s removal and the character’s significance to OES has faded into the background.

Why was it so hard for the school to openly admit fault, in both its own actions and the character’s past?

Said Jordan, who wasn’t directly involved with the Chapel, “Anytime a person or an organization is taking on questions about pain they’ve caused in the past, with respect to somebody’s identity, it’s extremely difficult.”

There are, Jordan mused, cultural barriers as well to straightforward communication. “I could speculate as to who we are as Northwesterners, and Portlanders, and people from Oregon Episcopal School, and our ways of addressing pain and conflict,” he said.

“I don’t fault us for struggling with it. I think it’s natural. But do we have the opportunity to be much better at it? Yes — I guess I struggle when we don’t do it.”

That frustration was echoed by many prominent members of both the OES faculty and high school student body.

Said Nathan C., Chair of Community Board, “I think it sets a good tone if the school is able to say, we had this tradition, we acknowledge that the history of the tradition was racist, and now we’re moving away from it.”

“I don’t think there’s any shame in that kind of an announcement. I just think it sets a tone of accountability that is important for a school.”

Is it enough for OES to pretend that its embracement of Pete never happened? Said Jordan, “I think this school has a huge question to face, and it’s, ‘are we going to acknowledge the historically racist background of this character?'”

“I’m not sure we want to take this topic on.”

Jordan himself has been involved in conversations about race throughout the last several years, adding, “I’m proud of students in the Class of 2016 for leading conversations about race in a way that we haven’t seen before.”

But clearly, there is work still to be done. Just several weeks ago, the school dealt with another incident at the EVARGLOW dance in which a number of students shouted the n-word during a song. Restarting the Pete conversation — with more clarity and intentionality — could help.

It’s fairly clear what Jordan would like to see. “Should there be an apology from the school to someone for St. Nick? I think the acknowledgment is more powerful,” he said.

Said Regina, “I’m incredibly disappointed by the whole situation. OES claims to want to engage in conversations regarding equity and inclusivity, but those conversations require courage, ownership, and sincere commitments to do better. With the Pete skit, I saw no courage, no ownership, no commitment.”

“I expect the school to set a better example.”