Thursday, December 6, 2007

Zwarte Piet Reconsidered



I think I can safely say I got more hits on the post about Zwarte Piet than any other on this blog so far. Thanks for all the comments everybody.

I can say that after polling about 50 Dutch people, I found only one who thought Zwarte Piet was racist. He was white, for what it's worth.

Also, I found a German, a Swiss, and a Spanish tourist, none of whom thought it was a big deal, so I guess I stand corrected about the rest of the world rejecting this.

However, (in my opinion) none were able to really answer any of the points I made, they just retorted with "it's a custom, and we don't mean any harm by it."

And it was fascinating the wild theories, many of them contradictory, that people have about Zwarte Piet.

Due to personal reasons (namely, me being sick as a dog) I wasn't able to get any of the Zwarte Piets in blackface on film. Here's this though: a film clip taken at Bijenkorf, the Dutch equivalent of Macy's.

video


My resolution is to do some deeper research into the exact origins of Zwarte Piet. I want to look specifically at how something the Dutch call "Old Sinterklaas" is celebrated in outlying places like URK and the island of Texel, which will preserve more of the pre-1800 ceremonies due to their linguistic and geographic isolation.
I also want to research a bit more about how Sinterklaas is celebrated in different countries.

And I'd like to do a more precise job of tracing the Netherlands'adoption of the Zwarte Piet image through the years.

Then I'm going to be back next year, making my argument with 10 times the rhetorical verve.

Well, trying to anyway.

If anyone out there hasn't listened to the hilarious clip that Derek recommended, I urge you to do so forthwith (yes D., I've heard 'em before but they're definitely classic). I love This American Life, it's one of the few things other than my family that keeps me bonded with my country of origin.



And what about me? Well, I celebrated Sinterklaas with my in-laws.

There was a Sint but no Zwarte Piet present. Here's a photo of my son playing with a _ well a racist balloon. I guess that captures the ridiculousness of it well.



My son wasn't impressed by Sinterklaas, nor did he notice the balloon, so I guess he's still pure. I'll face Laura's "Parent Dilemma" next year, if I'm still in the Netherlands...

My in-laws, who I think have no idea about the whole debate, gave me a book called "Sinterklaas," by Charlotte Dematons, which is apparently a big hit this year.

Ah, sweet irony.



Here we see Sint lives in a Spanish plantation mansion, while the Piets live out in the servants quarters.



They also do the cooking and cleaning.

Step 'n Fetch it? Or valued co-workers? You be the judge.

3 comments:

technicolorsarah said...

I can't imagine Zwarte Piet not being racist. Whether or not it's intended to be NOW doesn't make much of a difference to me because of its origins. Oh well.

(Oh, and I'm American. Also, my Dutch boyfriend absolutely thinks it's racist. He mentioned it the first time he ever explained it to me.)

Norma said...

When you're still in Holland when your eldest is going to school I hope you'll remember getting worked up about zwarte Piet being a racist stereotype when the nearest school turns out to be a 'black' (meaning more than 70% of the pupils are of non-western origin) school.....

Toby Sterling said...

@technicolorsarah:
yes and no. I mean, obviously it would be worse if they intended it to be racist...
@Norma:
Touche! We'll see. He's been going to a "black" creche near the Diamantenbuurt _ but now we're moving him to one closer to our house which is all-white. I have mixed feelings; nobody wants their child to have a bad education, but I also believe that it's very important for a kid to learn street smarts. I went public school in a rich (university) town, and I was a bit of a 'juvenile delinquent' teenager, I promise you that...