Sunday, October 13, 2013

Zwarte Piet again

So it's that time of year when I bemoan the obsession foreigners have with the Dutch Zwarte Piet, and the Dutch stubborness for insisting that such a display of racism isn't actually racist.  In previous years, I've treated it with the distance that my expat status allows me--"let the peons have their gods, I will follow my reason" sort of thing.  And honestly, it was a stance I was more than happy to maintain, since the arguments for and against the Zwarte Piet are like the Titanic and the Carpathia--gliding past each other without ever hitting the real mark:  why do Dutch people care so much about him, anyway?

But now, that's all changed.  Because I'm a mom, now, and in a few years the kidlet will be old enough to want to partake in Sinterklaas, and frankly...well, this'll probably get me into some trouble with the IND, but I don't want him to.  Because it is racist. Say what you will about Santa and his helpers, everybody knows elves aren't real.

I've always maintained that there are better things to get your panties into a twist about, and I do stand by that.  See:  child marriage, modern slavery, Texas.  But here I am, getting my patnies into a knot about it, because on the one hand I don't want my kid to be the one kid who ruins Sinterklaas for everybody, but at the same time, it's not a celebration I would weep over if it were to disappear next year.  It's especially tricky, because his father loves Sinterklaas and genuinely isn't racist (hell, he married me) but Karel is perhaps the only person who still remembers that it's Sint Nicolaas who is the ultimate arbitrator of the presents, and one of the few who isn't pathologically attached to Piet.

What makes it even harder is that I kinda like the tradition of writing a little poem and reading it aloud before opening the little present.  Putting your shoe in front of the fireplace--in our case, leaving a "key" outside our apartment door (yes, they sell keys for Sint and Piet in case you don't have a chimney)--is quaint and devestatingly cute.

I wish there was a way to separate the celebration from the icons.  I don't see much wrong with celebrating a saint's death--it is a bit morbid for my tastes, but kids in Catholic countries seem to do all right.  But why does Sint need a Piet?  Why the silly Sint report on the nightly news, with the made up drama about lost packages and boats sinking?  (No, there is no Santa report in the US)  Why does it matter so much that the Sint has his Piet?  The way I see it, that's the real question that needs answering.  And until someone can point me in the direction of a good answer, Sinterklaas in our place will be devoid of both a Sint and a Piet.


  1. I wrote the same story in dutch to the newspaper, and I will post the same message here. As much as I love you Jules, I have to tell you that you're wrong. A little lecture in the history of Sinterklaas or St. Nicolaas.
    St. Nicolaas was the bishop of Mira, a harbor city in the south of Turkey. He had the strange idea of liberating child slaves from Africa to buy them from the slave traders in the mediteranean. Those children became paid helpers in his household, and by doing so, the children became free citizens. That's why his birthday is the day where children recieve presents and sweets from Sinterklaas. So... this icon is linked to the celebration, because it is a strong statement against slavery. I wished that all the people who have a opinion, would dive into the history of the tradition first. It has nothing to do with slavery. It is a celebration that is unique for this little part of Europe. (Belgium, Netherlands, and parts of northern Germany). A lot of people in this part of the world don't want to import the Coca Cola gnome, who enslaved his elves in a cold and gloomy place on the north pole...

    1. Evert: That may very well be true of St. Nicholas, but even if what you say is true, even if Zwarte Piet is a noble character, that DOES NOT make it okay to put on blackface and pretend it's an innocent character. It is extremely patronizing to pretend to be a slave--even a freed one, if your reading of the legend is correct--when, let's face it, the Dutch were part of the reason why slavery was an issue to begin with. It's sort of like Geert Wilders pretending to be a Morroccan for Halloween: It is condescending because you're effectively saying, "Look, it's not so hard to be black, I can do it too" when you've never experienced the discrimination that people of color do. Let me put it this way: if Zwarte Piet were, say, Jewish, would you put on a prosthetic nose, a beard, a Star of David? If he were Chinese, would you tape your eyes and talk in a "ching chang" manner? No? Then why is it okay to put on blackface and trivialize an entire continent of people and all of their diversity for the sake of a holiday? None of the Catholic countries need a Zwarte Piet to properly celebrate Saint Nicholas. Surely the Dutch can do without, too.

  2. Zwarte Piet never is pretended to be a slave. I, as a child saw Zwarte Piet never as a slave. For then, I didn't know the history, and I thought that he was black from going down the chimnees. The athletic power is still displayed on TV when Sinterklaas arives in the Netherlands.
    Maybe we're at the stage where we reach the end of the dutch tolerance in adding, reforming, and chanching our traditions.
    When I move to america, I can't send my kid on the street on the 6th of januari to gatter candy, because it is 'Driekoningen'. In America people do that on Halloween. It has to do with traditions. In a case of tradition I'm pretty conservative, because it is one of the things that make the dutch dutch. Like the midwinterhoorn in Twente, and Kaatsen in Friesland, or carrying cheese in Alkmaar en Gouda. Over 2 million dutch reacted on the facebook site, that says 'hands of of Zwarte Piet', and luckely the city council of Amsterdam, one of the most tolerant cities in the world, welcomes Sint ans Piet.
    About the slavetrade. Dutch are traders. When the english, French, Spanish and Portugese found out that indians were to weak of health to work on the plantations, they needed stronger workforces. So they created the market. When there is no market, the trade was not needed. And the dutch were in the minority as plantation keepers. So whose to blame? Ever since the 19th century all people are equal in The Netherlands. This land never knew segregation. There were no signes above public toilets saying, for blacks, for whites. This segragation existed in the US until the late sixties. The only time when this happened, was during ww 2, and at that moment we were occupied by Germany.

    Resuming. I'm against every form of slavery. I'm against chancing Dutch traditions, and trade them in fo foreign ones. Adding foreign ones is okay (Hell, lets have a party every month... week... whatever....) Zwarte Piet is part of a tradition, back to a time thay the word discrimination was not even invented. So no, the dutch can't do without. Like the U.S. can't do without Halloween, thanksgiving or the 4th of Juli.

    The slave is a part that's in the mind. To victimize yourselve, because one of your ancesters was a slave, is not done. Every man on this world has the power to become what he wants.So, no excuses. Enslave yourself from being a slave. The best example is the president of the US.
    No more excuses from the dutch for the slave trade. This generation can't be held responseable for the acts of former generations. (I can't keep the germans responsable for the second world war. I love them, doing my groceries there, even have german family)..
    I think the key to a peacefull colaberation lays in respecting each other. Traditions, nationality, colour of skin, even the colour of the skin of Zwarte Piet....

    1. You are not getting my point. My point is that it doesn't matter what the history behind Zwarte Piet is, it's insulting to black people. Zwarte Piet and Sinterklaas isn't that old--the holiday formally dates back to the 1840s. If you expect people to divorce themselves from the history of slavery, then you can't also expect them to take this "celebration" in the context with which it was meant. These are simply mutually incompatible ideas.

      As for respecting traditions: You know nothing about respecting traditions. I'm sorry, but you've never had to make a decision about what part of your identity to give up in order to blend in, what part of your identity to keep so that your parents won't disown you. You've never had to literally translate the doctor's orders for your mother while simultaneously negotiating how to merge her culture's with the doctor's, nor explain to your mother why her beliefs are incompatible with your life. Respecting traditions is PC bullshit for moral relativism. Why should anybody respect a practice that involves butchering animals alive, or sanctioned rape?

      Here's what I believe: I believe there is an absolute measure of what is good and what is bad. I believe that cultures all over the world have practices that can either increase the overall amount of good or bad in this world. As far as Zwarte Piet is concerned, as I've said before, it's something I've learned to accept as part of living here. It is not so bad as sanctioned rape, but it's *not* something that increases the amount of good in this world. And as such, we will not be celebrating Sinterklaas by dressing RijnRijns up as a Piet. We will be doing all of the other things, and Karel can tell the stories. But he is not going to participate in this racist madness. It's small, and petty, but it's my own little contribution to what is right.

    2. Hear fucking hear!! Standing ovation.

  3. For the sake friendship I rest my case. I think we're not going to agree on each others opinion. I know how it is to be an expad, lived a year in Switzerland. So please... I know what sacrifices I have to make to blend in... Even in Switzerland...

  4. Hi Jules,

    A few points.

    Your remark that Evert cannot possibly know about respecting traditions because he doesn’t have your life experience is an ad hominem argument and therefore not valid. Valid argumentation requires you to refute what someone says, not discard it because of his or her background. The latter could, in fact, be discriminatory (“no average white male can possibly understand what this is about”).

    Quite a few black Dutch people - descendants of slaves – actually don’t mind Zwarte Piet. Would it be OK if they rejected your reasoning because you’re Asian and know nothing about slavery or, for that matter, what the genuine Sinterklaas feeling is about? Surely not.

    I, myself, have to admit to being a white, middle aged man, but I hasten to add that I’m gay. Does that make me enough of a misfit to qualify as a partner in discussing this topic?

    I hope you see in what kind of mess such a line of reasoning gets you. People from all walks of life can display (un)sound reasoning and (lack of) empathy.

    On topic.

    Sinterklaas as a a festive occasion for spoiling kids is much, much older than you claim. See for instance this painting:

    No doubt there are racist elements in how Zwarte Piet came about and how he looks and I don’t defend them. At the same time, I believe present day Zwarte Piet can be devoid of racism. Let me explain. As a small boy, in the late ’60s, I was completely oblivious to any notion of race. To me, Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet were out-of-this-world magical beings – a category of their own and not connected to any ordinary people, of whichever colour.

    The whole racism debate tends to crush that kind of innocence – of which, among children up to the age of seven, there tends to be quite a lot.

    So to automatically assume there’s racism where there is Zwarte Piet, is kind of like assuming there’s a disrespect for the dead where people dress up as Zombies for Halloween. (Why do people actually, do that, I might ask.)

    Having said that, Sinterklaas has evolved through the centuries and continues to do so – hulpsinterklazen, for instance, are a recent innovation. And, in the Carribean, multi-coloured Pieten could already be seen in 2012 ( ) – which is most likely where we’re headed. Which I think is fine.

    Which brings me to the part of your post that I find the most difficult to stomach. That’s where you write that “[you] don't want [your] kid to be the one kid who ruins Sinterklaas for everybody”. Can we be clear about who’s responsible for what? It’s not your kid that’s making a choice here – it’s you.

    And are you aware that it will be neigh impossible for Rijntje to avoid Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet? For instance, you’ll be hard pushed to find a primary school for Rijntje where they won’t be visiting.

    Besides, The Netherlands are a country where change usually isn’t brought about by confrontation, but through engagement. So, why don’t you or Karel get yourself a silly Pietenpak and some brightly coloured make up and join in. You’ll get to find how racist those people who dress up as Pieten actually are (or not). You’ll be helping to bring about change, and you won’t be putting Rijntje in an awkward position. And, best of all, both Rijntje and you get to enjoy all the endearing and cute things that Sinterklaas is actually about.

    Just a thought.

    Best regards – Frank in Leiden

    1. Frank,

      First of all, I happen to know Evert personally, and my remarks to him about respecting traditions were meant to be take in light of the question of how much we should respect traditions just because they are tradition. It is my opinion, based on being an Asian woman who's lived in white society for my entire life, that traditions are overrated--but that's based on the fact that I've given up a lot of the cultural practices that my parents tried to instill in me, although I retain a lot of beliefs and ways of doing things that still flummox my husband. My point is: the sky didn't fall, I didn't wither and die, and if anything, I've become more empathetic to questions of identity and troubles regarding traditions.

      That being said, ZP simply doesn't hold up under scrutiny: the only defense for keeping the character around is the "it's traditional" argument. Nobody has ever explained how dressing up as a caricature of a black man (let's not kid ourselves about being covered in soot--I don't think even children buy that bs) isn't racist, which indicates--to me--that there really is no other argument for the character. That nobody can point out how being a caricature of a black person *isn't* racist indicates that it is racist.

      This does not mean that I think Dutch people are racist. I think that's an element that this whole debate has been missing: Dutch people, by and large, aren't racist (Geert Wilders excepting). They might be clumsy when it comes to matters of race (that horrible AH commercial from a couple years back featuring the martial arts master a la Kill Bill) but I have always felt that Dutch people are more egalitarian than Americans are, more willing to consider a person based on their own merits rather than the color of their skin. So I understand that there is a disconnect between the everyday, normal interactions with people, and the ZP character. But that, I think, is in part because everybody understands that ZP is a white person pretending to be a black one. You are not tied to the identity of ZP, and all of the caricatures embodied by the character.

      And make no mistake--it's a caricature. You admit this yourself--that the origins are racist. The "it's a tradition" argument ignores the fact that if you respect the tradition, you must also respect the racism that it grew out of. You can't say "it's a tradition" and "it's new and improved" at the same time.

      Secondly, while I can't see the picture you linked to (https = secure link), I'm going to hazard a guess that the person wearing blackface is supposed to represent one of the 3 kings. ZP and Sinterklaas as it's currently celebrated only goes back 150 years, although the tradition of celebrating Saint Nicholas goes back much further. (Which, if you're a real traditionalist, begs the question of why not just celebrate the saint, as other saints are celebrated?)

      Thirdly: when I say that my kid will "ruin Sinterklaas" for everyone, I simply mean that we'll make it clear that there is no magical dude with black helpers leaving him presents. I won't forbid him from celebrating it--even I buy chocolate letters and kruidnoten at this time of year. We'll simply explain that we do things differently. We will celebrate Koningsdag and Dodenherdenking and Bevrijdingsdag and Easter along with everybody else, so I don't think it's too much to ask that in November, rather than a wild lead-up to pakjesavond (I'm undecided about that--playing that part by ear), we celebrate Thanksgiving and our birthdays (both Rijn and I were born in Novemeber) instead.

    2. As for engagement vs. confrontation: a matter of semantics. You call it engagement when it leads to a conclusion you like, and confrontation when it leads to a conclusion you don't. ZP is racist, plain and simple. If you want to keep the character around, by all means do so--but that means you have to deal with the unpleasantness it comes with (contrary to this post and ensuing comments, I actually don't think very much on ZP at all, other than to find the character creepy as hell, like some people think of clowns). It is my assertion that the holidays are magical enough without such a controversial character.