Wednesday, December 28, 2011
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.