Sunday, November 30, 2008

Zwarte Piet 2008

I don't have so much to add to what I've said about Zwarte Piet in the past.

To me, Zwarte Piet is a racist anachronism and should be transformed into something a little less offensive.

It's not difficult to decipher that this 'servant' to a wise white man, with an impossibly black face, big red lips, and nappy hair, is a throwback to the colonial era.

Now, all that remains is convincing 16 million Dutch.

On a philosophical note, 'winning arguments' is not about proving people wrong. Trying to prove people wrong is only a recipe for making them defensive.

The most you can do in a discussion is try to introduce doubt into people's minds about something and perhaps show them that there are other ways of thinking that could also be attractive.

Easier said than done in real life! Anyhow, here's me playing Socrates. I plan to do this from time to time when I meet someone wearing blackface, as the opportunity presents itself.

I had the kid gloves on, and of course we reached no major epiphanies in a short conversation. But it was interesting how quickly everybody became nervous.

So, in the spirit of fair-mindedness, I want to ask myself where might I be wrong about Zwarte Piet and to try to see things more from a Dutch viewpoint.

I was recently talking about Zwarte Piet with one of my Dutch friends _ let's call him "Sander."

Sander repeated some arguments that I've heard in the past, about how he never perceived Zwarte Piet as a negative figure _ rather, Piet was likeable. While Sinterklaas was aloof and unapproachable, Piet was boisterous and friendly.

I guess I would say _ maybe. On the other hand, he's also dumb as a box of rocks; a subservient clown; and there's the danger he might stuff you into his bag.

Another hard-to-answer argument in favor of Zwarte Piet is: yes, it's racist, but so what? Is it really that bad an influence on children? Lighten up!

That's a hard one to answer. I don't believe violent video games hurt kids, so why should I think Piet is so important?
I would say, I don't think exposure to Zwarte Piet, by itself, makes people turn out racist. It's just one negative, offensive model. It's an embarrassment to the people who participate, like calling mentally disabled people "retards."
The world will not come to a halt if the Zwarte Piet tradition continues in its current form _ it would just be a better place without it.


My concern at the moment is what to do about my son (2.75 yrs old), and I have to say it's difficult to know what's the right thing.

I mean, demonstratively challenging all the Zwarte Piets around the country on their appearance in front of him is not a viable option _ let alone trying to keep him away from all the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of advertisements.

I don't think I could explain my distaste for Piet to him if I tried, so for now I'm just muddling through, avoiding Piet when I can and focusing on the Sinterklaas part of the story.


It seems the debate over Piet has gotten more venomous since last year.

I heard a pretty good analysis from one of Amsterdam's most powerful Surinamese politicians, Hannah Beliot. She said that what's happened lately is that Zwarte Piet has been adopted by the 'know-nothing' elements of Dutch society as a kind of prestige object.
This camp has decided that Piet is a vital symbol for all Dutch culture [even though the tradition is not as old as they like to think] and that they won't "lose" Piet to political correctness or any thing else.

Recently a pair of artists attempted to hold an anti-Zwarte Piet march in Eindhoven, but they were forced to cancel after receiving threats.

Most of the vitriol directed at them was because they were foreigners, deemed incapable of understanding Dutch tradition.

So much for tolerance and 'vrijheid van meningsuiting.' (Freedom of Speech), some other much-praised Dutch cultural virtues.

I hope the anti-Pieters push ahead with plans to make a film about the racism inherent in Zwarte Piet, a topic that in my view is on its way to becoming a taboo in this country.

For people who can't get enough of Piet, I recommend as a starting point for more reading.


Anonymous said...

Hi Toby,

I couldn't agree with you more -- "The world will not come to a halt if the Zwarte Piet tradition continues in its current form, it would just be a better place without it." I do think a day will come when he will just be a modified "Piet" without the blackface characterizations (blackface, afro, accent).

I also agree that 'winning arguments' is not the point, and will instantaneously make them defensive. If we can somehow plant that seed of doubt in their minds, I do believe that they will become aware of the negative racist connotations that they are participating in.

It's sad that the 'know-nothing' elements of Dutch society use "Piet" in this way. Why not Erasmus, Spinoza, etc? Unfortunately, I think the more they feel threatened, the more they will dig their heels in and put "Zwarte Piet" on a pedestal of Dutchness. Lame, but true.

Good luck with dealing with this topic with your son. I'm not sure how I would deal with that, except to only let him be a sooty or multi-coloured Piet if the need ever arises.

Nope it's okay I added your new entry and video to the

Anonymous said...

Oh Lord- I get sick to my stomach every year when the Piets come out to play...

The first time I saw them 7 years ago, I was dumbfounded and horrified. All I saw was 'blackface' and I haven't gotten over it. I don't think it's okay, they aren't cute and I really believe that they do nothing but perpetuate racism. I tend to avoid getting into conversations with Dutch people about it. Luckily my husband (he's Dutch), feels pretty much the same as me. How to deal with it in regard to our son? We will not allow him to paint his face black and we will gently explain as best we can why we don't like it. The outfit is fine, but not the paint. Also, our son is not white, so we can't let it go.
great post :)

Laura K. said...

This is the first year it didn't make me want to scream at everyone. My son who is 5.5 now really enjoyed it this year and during the week or so at school that it was being talked about, he would come home daily excited abour something. He'd see something funny on NED3 news about the piet or whatever and he used his imagination which he has issues with so I'm glad.

I still believe it to be extremely racist though and if questioned about something I will try and explain my position best I can. I will NEVER allow my son to paint his face or even wear the hat.. although the paper made ones in class I tolerated.

When Opa and Oma gave gifts Friday night I asked Sebastian who gave him the big train set. He didnt' answer and Oma said SINTERKLAAAAAAAAS did. And I said no, YOU did! I said it in front of my son of course. I don't want him to believe in American Santa either. Yeah call me Scrooge but if I buy him a huge gift, I want the credit and thank yous! I don't think it's fair to teach your children not to lie, and then lie to them either.

My husband who is Dutch is also against the black faces around this holiday... but he drove me nuts this year. Since I'll be in America for Christmas, I started things early this year. We put the tree up almost 2 weeks ago and we played Christmas music and made Christmas cupcakes. I was going to have my son share them at school on Dec 5. My husband was so shocked at me that it would be OFFENSIVE to serve Christmas items on Sinterklaas day because they are 2 separate holidays.

Isn't Santa Claus basically Sinterklaas? Whatever, it's all Christmas to me!