Few things shock American (in a continental sense--yes, that includes Canuks) expats more than the appearance of Zwarte Pieten in the Netherlands in November. I've been living here for three years and I'm still not entirely sure what to make of it.
For those of you who don't know the legend: Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands on November 5 every year with Zwarte Pieten to help him out. Together, the dynamic duo (technically dynamic multitude, as Sinterklaas has many Zwarte Pieten) compile a list of good kids and bad kids, and on December 5, the good kids are rewarded with a present in their shoe, while the bad ones are dragged off to Spain.
What makes the whole thing so surreal is that, in the Netherlands, the Zwarte Pieten are played entirely by white people putting on blackface, something that would get any Caucasian person anywhere else in the world hung, drawn, and quartered. In the US, where race is a hypersensitive issue--all you have to do to get kicked out of any prominent position is to make a remark that could be construed as racist--such a practice would border on suicidal lunacy. It still makes me a little afraid when I see a Zwarte Piet in full regalia, although for some reason I don't feel the same way when little kids (minus makeup) get dressed up in the funny hat and costume.
This is doubly odd, because I've only had a few encounters with racism in the Netherlands, and all by stupid young kids who don't know their asses from their elbows. Most people are merely surprised when I tell them I'm from the US, which is understandable. I've caught more flak for being Asian by taking a one-way trip in the subway in Philly than I have in three years of living here. And all of the incidents, in Philly and the Netherlands, have been from non-white people.
So call it karmic vengeance, or balancing the cosmic scales of small inequities, when I fail to get riled up over the Zwarte Pieten. It's a silly practice, I agree, and if Sinterklaas is as awesome as he is he can damn well do his job without helpers. But frankly, in terms of being offensive, few things are worse than failing to walk the talk.