(This essay is a work in progress)
To the good people of the Netherlands, who believe that they are not racist, wrongly, and believe that Zwarte Piet is a harmless, innocent tradition, wrongly, I want to say:
Thank you! I'm American, and I recognize that we owe Santa Claus, the main figure in our primary children's fantasy holiday, directly to the Dutch Sinterklaas. Santa turned Nordic in America, he got fat in America (like so many Americans), and we gave him elves as "helpers" ourselves. But credit for the basic idea goes to the Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam.
In return, we have given you one of our smash-hit cultural exports to use during Sinterklaas: "blackface" and "darky iconography," a racist genre of theater and art that portrays black people as idiots, with exaggerated big lips, woolly hair, and of course, pitch black faces.
You use it on Sint's friend, "Black Pete."
No, Zwarte Piet wasn't always part of your Dec. 5 Sinterklaas tradition, which itself has changed dramatically over the years. Store that fact for later reference.
Zwarte Piet is a mishmash of ideas, but the red lips, woolly hair and blackface part of his "look" was copied directly and indirectly from artistic traditions from the U.S. in the century before World War II.
It was a time when few white people anywhere took black people's feelings very seriously, when colonialism and racial superiority were still credible ideas, and most Dutch people had never even seen a black person.
In the past 50 years, however, thanks to the civil rights movement in the United States and anti-colonial movements everywhere, blackface and darky iconography have become taboo, the visual equivalent of screaming the word "nigger." That's known from San Francisco to Tokyo. But not in poor Holland.
I say poor Holland, because in some ways, it really is too bad for you. You didn't create the problem of racism against black people (though you played your role), and now you've been left holding the bag: black racist iconography caught up right at the heart of one of your most beloved holiday traditions.
But racist it is, racist on its face and racist in its derivation.
On its face: a white man serves as overlord to a group of stupid servants with big lips, woolly hair, and black skin.
The derivation question is more complicated, and I'll return to it.
Simply put, because millions of black people were killed or enslaved by white people in the past four centuries, and millions more continue to suffer discrimination (in the United States AND the Netherlands), putting on blackface, wearing woolly wigs and red lipstick is about as funny as wearing a swastika.
Maybe you wouldn't blame a remote tribe somewhere in the Amazon forest for using the swastika unwittingly.
But the Netherlands is an industrialized, trading nation, not so isolated as to be able to plead mere ignorance.
Don't believe it that the rest of the world feels this way? Ask anybody not Dutch. Read up a bit.
It's the same as portraying Asian people as giggling with slanty eyes, or Native Americans as having buck teeth and wearing feathers.
(popular when I was young, no longer in U.S. stores)
(The Cleveland Indians baseball team is still fighting lawsuits about their racist caricature mascot "Chief Wahoo")
Actually, the reality is that you do know Zwarte Piet is a racist caricature, but you're experiencing a psychological phenomenon known as "cognitive dissonance" : the brain filters out new information (Zwarte Piet is a racist caricature) that conflicts with what one already believes (I love Zwarte Piet and I am not a racist).
In other words, even though you accept intellectually that racism is wrong, when you are confronted with evidence that Zwarte Piet is a racist tradition, your brain automatically starts looking for ways to reconcile the conflict.
Because it's socially impossible to let go of the belief that racism is wrong, the brain instead attempts to undermine or avoid the idea that Zwarte Piet is a racist tradition.
Here's some examples of how this kind of rationalizing works:
1) Zwarte Piet may be a little bit racist, but it doesn't matter much. After all, comedians make racist jokes sometimes, and that's okay.
2) I'm not racist, and I prove it in cases where it really matters. But Zwarte Piet is harmless fun.
3) Just because Zwarte Piet happens to be black, that doesn't make him a racist caricature.
That last one is correct. If Zwarte Piet were just black, he wouldn't be a racist caricature. It's that he's black, stupid, with woolly hair and big red lips _ that makes him a caricature.
The hardest rationalizations for me to answer are the first two, of the "So What?" variety, which assume that Zwarte Piet is mostly harmless. These often include a counterattack, saying "lighten up" and "stop being so politically correct."
I admit it's impossible to measure how much exposure to a negative stereotype will influence kids. Some exposure is inevitable and probably acceptable, like background radiation, I suppose. Zwarte Piet seems pretty bad, since it comes back every year and you can't avoid it. But maybe racist caricatures like Zwarte Piet are like video game violence _ kids look at them, but they're immune to the message.
Maybe. I say, why take the chance? Are we really so lazy when it comes to an ethical question like this? Are the Dutch tolerant, or just indifferent?
When in defensive mode, Dutch people often say, it's only adults who have a problem with Zwarte Piet. That always makes me laugh. That's right, it's the adults who don't want to change. The kids don't care, and would never notice the difference.
To me, the "So What?" argument is a lot weaker in the face of people who say they feel real emotional pain due to the lingering aftereffects of the slave trade. I'm not one of them, but I believe them, and it seems needlessly mean, in my opinion, to throw "So What?" in their faces, in the name of a tradition that's not so old or so strong as some people seem to believe (below). But again, I suppose that's a matter of taste.
You often hear Dutch people argue that foreigners just don't 'get' Zwarte Piet, as if there were mysterious depths to the tradition that we're missing. After nine years here, I think it's the Dutch who don't get it.
Typical foreigner question: Why would an enlightened, tolerant country like the Netherlands indulge in a ceremony that's so insulting to black people?
Typical Dutch Answer: Zwarte Piet isn't even from "black" (sub-Saharan) Africa, he's from Morocco. Or Spain.
Q: Then why is his skin so black, just like in all the "darky" figurines, rather than olive-colored?
A: Because he went down a chimney.
Q: Then why aren't there just smudges on his cheeks to show that he's been down a chimney?
Q: Why are his lips so big and red?
Q: Why is his hair so nappy?
A: Because he's black (after all) and that's how black people really look! (!!) or, Because he's a clown!
Then the Dutch get defensive, attack the foreign questioner on his own national disgraces (Americans are an easy target) and will point out some other irrelevant detail, such as that Piet is actually rich, as evidenced by his clothes, so he can't be a slave or a servant.
What a lot of excuses there are for Zwarte Piet's racist appearance!
It's true there are a lot of traditions mixed together in Zwarte Piet _ just as there are a lot of traditions mixed together in Sinterklaas. The fact that they have changed so much over time should give us hope that Zwarte Piet will gradually be given the makeover he needs.
Sinterklaas wasn't always on Dec. 5 (see: The Reformation) nor is it wholly based on the the Greek Orthodox Άγιος Νικόλαος, but also other, less Christian tales, in which the white horse the Saint rides wasn't called "Amerigo"...
The legend of St. Nicholas (from Lycia, then-Greek, now Turkey) has merged with heathen ceremonies around Europe in countless variations.
But the general picture is: nice rich guy gives presents to kids, accompanied by one of two types of sidekicks: a poor servant (the clown), or a sinister figure (the devil).
The Dutch tradition happens to mix the good cop/bad cop elements, but the Sint either had no servant or a white servant until Jan Schenkman published a book called "Saint Nicholas and his Servant" in 1850. Schenkman dreamed up the idea that Sinterklaas arrives by steamboat (invented 1801) from Spain with a black servant (who isn't even called 'Piet' yet, the name first appears in a book in 1891).
Here are some Dutch images before and after Schenkman.
(Schenkman book illustrations circa 1885 _ see the servant walking behind him?)
(1928 _ a full fledged 'darky' Piet)
As the end of World War II, the one Zwarte Piet was multiplied to become many Piets _ I've heard varying explanations, but the basic idea appears to be that the Canadian soldiers who liberated the Netherlands wanted more manpower to give out all the gifts, and you could hardly multiply a saint.
So much for the ancient, immutable tradition of Zwarte Piet.
Now, thinking toward a resolution:
What should the Dutch do about Zwarte Piet? After all, the apologists argue, it's part of our history now. We can't whitewash "Black Pete."
I think the answer should be obvious from all that I've written above. You don't need to purge all mention of Zwarte Piet. What you need to do is, unwind the things about him that are most objectionable, the same way that Sinterklaas dropped his stick over the years as beating children became unacceptable.
Focus on his "Piet-ness" rather than his "Zwart-ness," as the NOS once put it.
No red lipstick. What does it add?
Use black smudges on the face (for the 'chimney ashes') instead of blackface "schmink."
Replace nappy black wigs with any other kind of hair you like. Dare I ask why does he even need the hair when he's got a feathered cap?
The multiplicity of Piets makes your job that much easier. Rainbow Piets? Why not. Throw in crafty Piets instead of dumb Piets. The cunning servant and jester characters have as long if not longer a tradition in Sinterklaas than that of the dumb slave.
"Teach your children well."
Thursday, November 22, 2007