Wednesday, December 28, 2011

...Number Fifty-One

First of all: thanks for all the good wishes for my back. For the first few days it felt so terrible that I was almost certain it was a herniated disc, but after a while it became clear that it was a very bad episode of sciatica. Which is also not-fun, but also a lot less serious.

Secondly: a while ago I posted a list called, approximately, "You know you've been living in the Netherlands for too long when..." My boyfriend, upon reading that post, had a few laughs, and then began suggesting other ways to know that you've gone native: random cravings for kroketten; loving patat oorlog; and getting annoyed when people confuse Sinterklaas with Christmas.

I realize that I'm a little late to this fight--the article was posted about a day after I realized that I could no longer sit down. But any expat should have been thoroughly schooled in the difference between Sinterklaas (presents for being good) with Christmas (supposed birth of Jesus Christ--he was, I've heard, actually born in March; the bit about angels singing, though, is absolutely true), especially if you've been living in the Netherlands for as long as Ms. Olien has. Come to think on it, Americans longing to de-commercialize Christmas might take a page from the Dutch (or Spanish and/or Catholic countries) and separate the gift-giving extravaganza from the religious aspect of the holidays. Sinterklaas is shamelessly commercialized; Christmas is a night for fancy foods and family. While gifts are exchanged on Christmas, retailers don't make a big fuss about impending Christmas doom (the Dutch do that to themselves--a weird sort of conformist guilt).

But what I really wanted to write about was the irritating business of calling Holland's Zwarte Piet a racist construction. Which it is, but in the grand scheme of things, it ranks (in my mind) as a relatively mild offense, somwhere along the lines of Prince Willem-Alexander unwittingly swearing to his Mexican audience. Why is this? Because NOBODY (except maybe small children) believes that Sint en Piet are real. They are no longer caricatures--they are characters in a nice little story line that gets told to kids every year. Zwarte Piet, it is true, began as a bumbling servant to Saint Nicholas--if you go back to the original-original story, he was a Moorish convert to Christianity who elected to serve the saint out of gratitude for having a shot at obtaining Grace. But Saint Nicholas has also gone through his own rebranding: Sint, in days of old, ran what was essentially a labor camp for bad children in Spain, and would literally beat the bad ones (try getting that one into a PC-classroom these days). These days, Piet is the one with all the awesome magical powers, and Sint just leaves a lump of coal in your shoe.

"Yes, the story changes, but that doesn't make it any less bad," some people might say. "It's still wrong to put on blackface. Intents don't matter."

I would argue, however, that intention matters every bit as much as the act itself. If not, then movies such as Ghandi, Memoirs of a Geisha, The House of Sand and Fog, and The Good Earth would be deemed terribly offensive (and maybe they were, by some, but I think it's safe to say that, since these are all mainstream movies, they're probably well-acclaimed in most circles). In two of them, the venerable Ben Kingsley gets a tan and magically becomes India's greatest 20th-century hero, or an Arab-American trying to scrape by. Memoirs of a Geisha was noticeably devoid of any lead character who was actually Japanese, while The Good Earth cast Paul Muni (Eastern European, and Jewish to boot) as a Chinese farmer. The outrage at Zwarte Piet and lack of outrage over these characters is, I would argue, also a form of racism: what is it that makes black people exempt from being portrayed by people of other races, but perfectly okay for people of other races to portray people of other races?

Suffice it to say, I stand by my original assertion that as far as racist imagery is concerned, the US has a lot more to answer for than just a bunch of silly white people putting on makeup and handing out kruidnoten to the kids. And that, as far as discrimination and race go, it's not all black-and-white. Literally.


  1. Thank you for explaining the background to "Sinterklaas" since I've always been curious....especially after friends talked about it after moving to the Netherlands.

  2. I would like to share my opinion about the "zwarte piet". I'm a man whom mother came from Surinam "Suriname" and my father is dutch. And i'm born and raised in The Netherlands. I perceived never as racist nor as such. Basically because people from The Netherland never experieced the blackface like the english people folk because in the past nobody spoke english. So basically the first dutch reaction is racist? what are you talking about ? Because he isnt displayed as a bad man or doing bad things and also they dont really make fun of him. His rather endored by many. So when the discussing roses if he would better be censored or not. Some parts of the land censored him and many dont. If I think about the past and in which ways people did get prejudice of black people in general the anser is no. I've never experieced that people in my class started to think that i have candy or something or that i should go with Sinterklaas to spain. So i wonder why that was and basicly fall on the conclusion that people see the differce between me,my mother and "zwarte piet" making him more a different kind of person. Also childeren dont see that hes a slave or something else. So actually it may come from a bad history but he made my life i think a little better. Because of 2 reasons 1 of it is childeren actually want to be like him go ask any dutch person if they want to "zwarte piet" some may even pull out a old VHS of a white dutch boy wanting to be a zwarte piet. That's the stuff dutch people grew up with. Second of it is i expierence racism a couple of times in my life. First one that i'm aware off was on elementary school groep 1. When a boy called me a Ape. That's actually also the last time on elementarty school. 2 be continued.

    1. @ Bear: I do think most Americans' reactions to Zwarte Piet is a carry over of the contentious history of race in the US. That being said, I still find the complete chracter a bit creepy (as in, "I'm scared of clowns and that guy looks like a clown").

  3. I think it has something to do with "zwarte piet". Also I have seen documentaries on american rappers and the ghettos and such. Where many afro-americans said that they didnt have any idol which they could look up too. Because superman,batman,spiderman,santa all the superheroes were white. Which i found strange , and something i could not identify with myself. Because even if they were white my brain couldnt wrap this idea that they didnt identify me. I think that it also have to do with "zwarte piet" other people i know werent struggeling with it. Also I asked my mother about if she saw sinterklaas and zwarte piet as racist, my mother also grew up with sinterklaas said. Achh nee, ik ben niet gek. maybe its that surinam pride i dont know but she never minded. I know off people who find it offensive, but to be honest they started to find it offensive when they start adoring BET so... I understand that some people find it offensive, when i watched the sarah silverman show the other day they had like black face which i found offensive and started to get why the culture never could be exported to america lol.
    Also some americans find the little helpers of santa offensive because they could be displaying irish heriatage like "elves are lampricons and where green" so santa is also not clean either :D lol. I think film that show fake heriatage like assassin ninja or some other movies dont show asian culuture correcly and i mean that were most people get opnions. I think fairytails are easy targets. And dont let us get to the real issues people have like if you get discriminated on the workplace you will lose your job and you dont get that promotion even if you can prove that you are being discriminated against. Because your employer will say i didnt mean it that way and the relationship been us isnt distroyed. So some things arent black and white even if the history is bad.

  4. Did my second reply didnt get through ?

  5. Sorry, it came "bundled" together with your first, and I didn't see it....