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No, most Dutch people have no clue how this looks
November 13, 2012 12:35 PM   Subscribe

"You know it’s that time of the year again in Holland, when you are greeted by some Dutch person on the street, whose face is painted completely black and is sporting an afro wig, bright red lips and a ridiculous clown-like costume. What is possibly more strange than this very sight, is the fact that many Dutch person finds it a completely normal and acceptable occurrence. Yes, Dutch people love their Zwarte Pieten." (previously, previously) Now combine them with Gangnam parodies and you have the latest Sinterklaas trend.
posted by MartinWisse (162 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
I worked for a Dutch company that put Zwarte Pieten pictures on their internal, global webpage, as part of their "holidays around the world" page decoration. My boss & I were together when we accessed the page, and immediately sent the web manager a warning that such an image could actually open the US division to lawsuits.

Happily, the image was gone in minutes, never to return.

International business is sometimes a weird interlacing of expectations and perceptions.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:46 PM on November 13, 2012 [5 favorites]


is this the proper place to mention six to eight black men?
posted by xbonesgt at 12:48 PM on November 13, 2012 [17 favorites]


Yes, because it's brilliant.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:53 PM on November 13, 2012


This was a bizarre thing to see in Holland when we went about ten years ago and had no idea what was happening. Suddenly all these people in black face were rappelling down buildings! It was pretty awesome, truth be told.
posted by josher71 at 12:58 PM on November 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


The comments in that first link are full of self-delusion and baffling attempts at trying to excuse this practice. Excuses range from them really being chimney sweeps (ignoring the afros and huge lips) to an especially headache inducing comment that tries to use the fact that Zwarte Piet tends to be portrayed as a bumbling idiot as evidence that it isn't racist.

I find it strange that nobody seems to know where the custom comes from. Maybe a weird double-racist jab at their former Spanish overlords who had not much earlier finished pushing the Moors out of Iberia?
posted by thecjm at 1:01 PM on November 13, 2012 [6 favorites]


You can't just skip the beginning, otherwise the blind hunter bit at the end doesn't make sense!
posted by theodolite at 1:02 PM on November 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


Casual unexamined racism in Europe? What are the odds?
posted by leotrotsky at 1:06 PM on November 13, 2012 [37 favorites]


If the internet has taught me anything, it's that folk from the US are incredibly neurotic about shit like this due to their deeply shameful history of slavery. I think the Netherlanders should keep it up just for the sake of fucking with them.
posted by Jehan at 1:10 PM on November 13, 2012 [35 favorites]


The surprise rappelling, not the black face, to clarify.
posted by josher71 at 1:11 PM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes, because the Dutch have clean hands when it comes to slavery.
posted by leotrotsky at 1:16 PM on November 13, 2012 [32 favorites]


Jehan: If the internet has taught me anything, it's that folk from the US are incredibly neurotic about shit like this due to their deeply shameful history of slavery.
"The Atlantic slave traders, ordered by trade volume, were: the Portuguese, the British, the French, the Spanish, the Dutch, and the Americans."

Yes, we're ashamed, but we shouldn't be the only ones.
posted by gilrain at 1:17 PM on November 13, 2012 [86 favorites]


Jehan - the Dutch were important players in the slave trade. Many of the slaves who came to America began their journey on Dutch West India Company ships coming from Africa. They even called their colony there the Slavenkust.
posted by thecjm at 1:19 PM on November 13, 2012 [7 favorites]


If the internet has taught me anything, it's that some people will always show up with the same ancient arguments for accepting offensive traditions, no matter how many times their fellow citizens say "Well because I'm hurt by it, that's why."
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:24 PM on November 13, 2012 [34 favorites]


The comments in that first link are full of self-delusion and baffling attempts at trying to excuse this practice.

Absolutely this.

Granted, blackface has a meaning in North America which it doesn't have over there, so there's some cultural values being imported which perhaps isn't contextually fair. But even though that cultural baggage isn't shared doesn't mean that the act itself isn't racist. It is. It really, really is.

The excuse that Zwarte Piet is black because of soot from the chimney is fairly recent, as far as I can tell. That wasn't the story told to my parents when they were kids -- Zwarte Piet was black simply because he was a Moor, and that's what Moors look like. Hell, that's the story I was told too.

Heaven forbid that Zwarte Piet be black because he's dressed in black, has a black sense of humour, or eats too much drop. Jeebus.

Regardless of whether Zwarte Piet actually is or is intended as a racist portrayal or not is irrelevant anyway. It's hurtful to a great number of people, and should be dropped on that basis alone. Just because something is traditional doesn't mean it's only good. You can tweak traditions sometimes, and it'll be just fine. A bit of imagination and willingness to cooperate, and there'll be no problem whatsoever.
posted by Capt. Renault at 1:31 PM on November 13, 2012 [10 favorites]


Does this tradition have anything to do with "the leader of the free world" actively persecuting there black citizens until the 1960's? And there hispanic ones to a lesser extent today?? Is that the lens we are looking through at this?
Why don't we ask some dutch black people how they feel about it? The dutch in general don't seem to have a problem with it.
posted by sety at 1:37 PM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


The problem is that there really is no desire in the Netherlands (other than, you know, the people who are hurt by it) to change this tradition. In fact, we've been going backwards since the eighties, when there were attempts to replace the zwarte pieten with multicoloured pieten (as in crayon colours rather than actually existing skintones). Nobody can be bothered.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:38 PM on November 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


Of course, there are many countries that don't quite "get" why "doing blackface" (for wont of a better phrase) is offensive.

Witness what happened in Australia a couple of years back when a blackface act found its way onto our TV screens, and Harry Connick Jr got (quite rightly) offended - here and the Metafilter debate here.
posted by chris88 at 1:41 PM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


It seems one solution would be to continue to paint their faces but in different colors (as was tried a few years ago apparently, unsuccessfully.) I don't see how that would harm this ultra-precious tradition... I guess because the whole point of tradition is that it never ever changes for any reason.

By the way I don't get this "Let's only ask the people perpetuating the racist tradition whether it's racist" meme. I certainly would understand if people of any nationality pointed out how crazy racist, say, my American hometown football team's name is. If anything they'd probably have a better perspective!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:43 PM on November 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


sety - Why don't we ask some dutch black people how they feel about it?

Okay. From the comments in the first link. Choice quote - "There are many Black people who don’t love Zwarte Piet but are too afraid to speak out against it, because of the violent reactions."
posted by thecjm at 1:48 PM on November 13, 2012 [13 favorites]


If Zwarte Piet were black due to coal, his hair would not also be styled as African hair.
posted by jb at 2:01 PM on November 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


If Zwarte Piet were black due to coal, his hair would not also be styled as African hair.

And his clothes would be dirty. Especially his white gloves. But somehow, he goes down the chimney and gets sooty in only the pattern of a racist stereotype.
posted by Capt. Renault at 2:05 PM on November 13, 2012 [45 favorites]


By the way I don't get this "Let's only ask the people perpetuating the racist tradition whether it's racist" meme. I certainly would understand if people of any nationality pointed out how crazy racist, say, my American hometown football team's name is. If anything they'd probably have a better perspective!
It's more of a question of:

1) Do they have a concept of racism? Yes, Netherlands folk, and European ones in a wider sense, very much understand racism. Millions of people in Europe, this century alone, died because of, and also working to stop, racism. This is not something Europe is unaware of.

2) Do they have an internal debate about this?
Yes, there has been debate about Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands for many years, as shown by former attempts to change the tradition. Whether the debate is going one way or another, there is reflection and self-criticism about the tradition.

3) Will folk from the US sticking their noses in help matters? Ha, ha, ha, ha. My word, no. Neurotic US folk screaming "blackface!" from the sidelines is not going to help anybody. Unless you've been living in a cave, you should be aware that US input is not exactly welcome in other countries. Saying, "Zwarte Piet should be changed because people from the US say so", is just about the best way to strengthen the tradition for another generation.

As always, it is almost never the outcome which counts, but the process people go through to get there. Netherlands has its own discussion on racism, so let them have it, after all they're grownups, and very sensible people to boot.
posted by Jehan at 2:06 PM on November 13, 2012 [32 favorites]


From the first link: American Blackface: a theatrical practice of the 19th century which propagated racist stereotypes and the mockery of African slaves, and which, appropriately ceased to exist once the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s came into play.

Yep, American blackface has APPROPRIATELY CEASED TO EXIST. Hahahahahahahahahaha.

Sorry Dutch folks, but dressing up like a "Moor" using blackface is super fucking racist.
posted by medusa at 2:10 PM on November 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Granted, blackface has a meaning in North America which it doesn't have over there, so there's some cultural values being imported which perhaps isn't contextually fair.

I wouldn't feel too bad about it. The Dutch were trading in African slaves long before North America was colonized by Europeans, let alone doing blackface as entertainment.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:11 PM on November 13, 2012 [5 favorites]


Hmmmm.....
posted by telstar at 2:15 PM on November 13, 2012


Saying, "Zwarte Piet should be changed because people from the US say so", is just about the best way to strengthen the tradition for another generation.

Well, whatever you say. But also saying "Nobody cares about it here" is the other way to strengthen a tradition. And ignoring all criticism as if it comes from the outside. Who cares who is doing the criticism?

And finally, if I was a black american, whose history has been pretty well shit on by the Dutch nation at some point back there in the not-too distant past, I wouldn't give a flying fuck if a Dutch person didn't want me "screaming blackface" I'd do it until they couldn't enjoy their holiday if I was anywhere near it. Cuz, like, this is blackface, and I think everyone has the right to point that out.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:16 PM on November 13, 2012 [9 favorites]


Meanwhile, in Suriname, Zwarte Pieter is blue, super-black, white or just colourful.
posted by elgilito at 2:18 PM on November 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


While on the subject of "Moors":

Reverse Othello.
posted by thewalrus at 2:25 PM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


3) Will folk from the US sticking their noses in help matters? Ha, ha, ha, ha. My word, no. Neurotic US folk screaming "blackface!" from the sidelines is not going to help anybody. Unless you've been living in a cave, you should be aware that US input is not exactly welcome in other countries. Saying, "Zwarte Piet should be changed because people from the US say so", is just about the best way to strengthen the tradition for another generation.

Noting on MetaFilter that it's racist isn't "sticking our noses in" anymore than a Dutch commenter in a thread on Iraq or drone strikes saying that that's wrong is "sticking their nose in" US matters.

Do you want to us to say, "hey, that's cool, man" just in case Dutch movers and shakers are watching?
posted by ignignokt at 2:45 PM on November 13, 2012 [18 favorites]


Sinterklaas should ditch Zwarte Piet and embrace Krampus instead.

Except maybe don't embrace him for reals because claws and horns, etc.
posted by elsietheeel at 2:54 PM on November 13, 2012 [9 favorites]


If the internet has taught me anything, it's that folk from the US are incredibly neurotic about shit like this due to their deeply shameful history of slavery.

Neurotic US folk screaming "blackface!" from the sidelines is not going to help anybody.

Dismissing Americans who are concerned about offensive stereotypes as "neurotic" is pretty weak.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:55 PM on November 13, 2012 [24 favorites]


Potomac Avenue, we don't have this concept of 'blackface' over here in Belgium (where Sinterklaas is also a big thing). No one I know has ever associated this with racism. It's just dressing up, acting.

I understand that it can be offensive to someone with a different upbringing, but luckily not all culture worldwide has been homogenized, right?

Anyway, you should see Aalst carnival, because that's actually meant to be offensive, in a jesting way, and nothing much is sacred there.
posted by LucVdB at 2:55 PM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


The upsetting thing for us is that Sint Nicolaas essentially arrives in Amsterdam right outside our house. It's extremely disconcerting to wake up on the appropriate Sunday morning, and see the streets filled with capering Zwarte Pieten. Not the best start to the day.
posted by daveje at 2:58 PM on November 13, 2012


LucVdB , we don't have this concept of 'redskins' anymore here in Washington DC. No one I know has ever associated this with racism. It's just the name of the team. And when fans dress up like stereotypes, it's just acting.

I understand that it can be offensive to someone with a different upbringing, like someone from the pacific northwest where they have native americans, but luckily not all culture nationwide have been homogenized, right?

Anyway, you should see my frat's halloween party, because that's actually meant to be offensive, in a jesting way, and nothing much is sacred there.!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 3:14 PM on November 13, 2012 [16 favorites]


Yes, it is crazy racist. Yes, the Dutch have a long history of racial oppression and subjugation. No, fighting the Nazis doesn't clean the slate. No, enough people over there don't give a shit about being racist because it doesn't hurt them. Yes, the irony of claiming "internal matter!" on a stereotype built on going to other countries and stealing people is hilarious. No, they still won't give a shit, it's their tradition, how dare anyone else interfere. Yes, they still want to be part of the global community. Just, y'know, not during Christmas, that's a time to celebrate human fellowship all by oneself.

I think that about covers it, see you next year.
posted by Errant at 3:15 PM on November 13, 2012 [31 favorites]


Can't the Black Dutch wear whiteface and pretend to be vampires who feed upon the Zwarte Pieten? It won't make the world a better place, but it would entertain me.
posted by Renoroc at 3:24 PM on November 13, 2012 [14 favorites]


Potomac Avenue, we don't have this concept of 'blackface' over here in Belgium (where Sinterklaas is also a big thing). No one I know has ever associated this with racism. It's just dressing up, acting.

God, it's about 1000x more obnoxious for a Belgian to be blithely dismissing racism than it is for a Netherlander to do so. No European country has a more despicable, bloody history in Africa than Belgium.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:26 PM on November 13, 2012 [12 favorites]


Well, I don't have any illusions about convincing anyone about this. These kinds of cultural misunderstandings are just part of the human condition.

At least I hope that you'll accept that it's not seen as racist by those participating in it. It never crossed my mind as a child that the way the Pieten behave might in some way generalize to a view on all black people. Especially since they're awesome and something to look forward to.
posted by LucVdB at 3:28 PM on November 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


At least I hope that you'll accept that it's not seen as racist by those participating in it.

Why would this matter to anyone in the least? If anything, this just makes it more nefarious, more of an indicator that the society overall is racist to its very core.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:31 PM on November 13, 2012 [13 favorites]


God, it's about 1000x more obnoxious for a Belgian to be blithely dismissing racism than it is for a Netherlander to do so. No European country has a more despicable, bloody history in Africa than Belgium.

*Sigh* You realize this has nothing to do with me, right? Is this going to be the standard of discourse here, slinging mud like we're drunk at the bar? Then tell me your country, I'll make you a list of topics to avoid based on atrocities perpetrated by generations gone by.
posted by LucVdB at 3:33 PM on November 13, 2012 [9 favorites]


You know what? I am sick and tired of white people telling me that the racist things that they do and accept are not racist. That I am just too sensitive. That I am obsessed with race. Do you know why I am obsessed with race? Because white people have made it the defining characteristic of me and mine for the last 400 years.

But its not just race. It's every oppressed group. Men tell women that sexism is just in their minds. Straights tell gay folk that their "agenda" is too demanding and damaging too society. For real, it is difficult as hell to be one of the "minorities" and not hate with every fiber of your being those who continue to oppress you and tell you to "move on."

Fuck this. If you find yourself involved in apologetics for oppressive behavior, you really need to rethink your outlook on life.
posted by anansi at 3:33 PM on November 13, 2012 [96 favorites]


At least this discussion now comes forward on a yearly basis. Maybe even twice a year, come Eurovision.
posted by Capt. Renault at 3:45 PM on November 13, 2012


Why would this matter to anyone in the least? If anything, this just makes it more nefarious, more of an indicator that the society overall is racist to its very core.

Intent matters, doesn't it? A surgeon's hand slips holding his scalpel - it's murder or a tragic accident based on intent, since the act is the same.

And no, our society is not 'racist to its very core'. My city has more nationalities living in it than New York, and while it's not always smooth sailing, it's not like we are white country bumpkins who have never had to reflect on race.
posted by LucVdB at 3:58 PM on November 13, 2012


So, LucVdB . . . what exactly is the intent behind Europeans dressing up as a caricature of black people? And don't give me any of this, "we don't have a legacy of racism here", as Europeans started the whole thing and then compounded it with colonialism. Racism is as endemic to Europe as it is to the US. The only difference is that those of us on the bottom of the heap in the US have become empowered enough to say something about it.
posted by anansi at 4:16 PM on November 13, 2012 [11 favorites]


The current particularly strong negative feelings in the US about blackface relate to its own particular history and cultural associations, and, for all their association with the colonialism and the African slave trade, European cultural and historical associations cannot be expected to exactly match those in the US.

That doesn't mean that Zwarte Piete isn't racist, but it does mean that you can't just transpose US feeling about how bad it is and what it means to other cultures and expect the locals to see it exactly the same way.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 4:25 PM on November 13, 2012 [8 favorites]


I propose a new metric for these nationalistic pissing contests that we have here everytime we talk about what is and is not racist in other countries.

How much a country does NOW for equality counters how evil it was in the past.

How good a minority person has it in a country NOW counters how bad they had it in the past.

How long the good things have been going on counters how long they were bad in the past.

I am sure most of Europe and the US are still in the red, and plenty other countries are still getting worse.

If a genie told me that I would reincarnate with a randomly assigned race and social status, but I get to pick the country, the USA is not on my top ten, Holland may be.
posted by Doroteo Arango II at 4:27 PM on November 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


I know of literally nobody - including my great-grandfather, who was a black slave on a Dutch plantation until he became a slave owner himself - who viewed this as anything other than a childish pastime until it suddenly became A Thing somewhere in the eighties and early nineties, when the issue was frequently brought up in commentary relating to the talks between the Netherlands and former colony Suriname regarding outstanding development aid. But whatever. I suppose the consciousness of Man expands as time progresses, like a river, and that Zwarte Piet, too, must be taken out to sea. I would certainly support any action to remove the Zwarte Pieten from public view if that means we can put this highly conditioned point of contention to rest.
posted by deo rei at 4:39 PM on November 13, 2012 [5 favorites]


I went christmas shopping the first year I lived in Amsterdam, and remember how I was shocked at the giant doll Zwarte Pietes that climbed ropes in the major shopping center mall as christmas decoration. "What is that? WTH?" I had this reaction to dolls, not humans in blackface, I was still wondering wth some black guy in 1700 shorts and a funky hat had to do with Xmas.
Years later, after attending too many christmas parties and seeing kids go apeshit over Zwarte Piete and his (or hers) crazy funny antics , I didn't quite see the same thing anymore. It's more like a jester, or a santa-helper mixed with a clown.
But yeah. Black face.
posted by dabitch at 4:44 PM on November 13, 2012


So, LucVdB . . . what exactly is the intent behind Europeans dressing up as a caricature of black people?

I don't think I can do that question justice, but I'll try, from my own point of view. I have never seen it as a caricature of black people, it's just people dressed up, just like the Gilles of Binche are dressed up in garish clothes. Since the Pieten are portraying black people, that's the make-up they wear. The Gilles wear pink masks instead, but they're both dressed silly.

I guess I see this as having been started by some local theatre group (hence, white people) dressing up as black jesters, some time in the Middle Ages. Now, I very much doubt there was no racism involved in this for hundreds of years, up to a few generations ago, but our society has changed a lot since then, and new generations have taken the tradition and given it their own interpretation.

I can certainly understand where you are coming from, though. In fact, reading about Sinterklaas on Wikipedia, it seems to have had some pretty racist overtones for a long time.

But, well, it's just a fact that the tradition is not going away anytime soon - it's just not an issue among politicians or the voting public, and it's such a big deal every year (on par with Christmas) that I don't see it fading out soon. Whether the Pieten are black or white or green doesn't matter much to me, though.

Isn't this what progress is? That these issues fade to being non-issues, to the point where the idea that this would somehow reflect badly on black people is nonsense? Just like I don't think Alan Rickman is an evil person, even though he plays one in many movies...

By the way, we now have an openly gay (and single) atheist Prime Minister. He managed to get a PhD in Chemistry despite being raised by an illiterate, widowed, immigrant mother so poor that she had to put several of her children in an orphanage. While that says nothing about race, I think it at least shows that we're not completely backwards and there is some upward mobility in our society.
posted by LucVdB at 5:09 PM on November 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


The trouble is that no matter how racist it is, no non-American is interested in getting a lecture from Americans about it. This has nothing to do with relative track records about racism, and everything to do with wanting the drone of exported American culture to shut the fuck up from time to time.
posted by mobunited at 5:11 PM on November 13, 2012 [14 favorites]


Seriously, the notion that anti-racist dialogue is solely an American cultural export is more depressing and disparaging to Europe than anything else in this thread.
posted by Errant at 5:32 PM on November 13, 2012 [47 favorites]


I hear this argument much more often in sexism threads. "Yes yes, maybe it's something-ist, maybe, whatever, but sort of not really... but let's address the much more immediate and pressing issue: it's unconscionable that you bring up this something-ism in the way that you have. You need to stop bringing it up like that!"
posted by gilrain at 5:39 PM on November 13, 2012 [10 favorites]


At least I hope that you'll accept that it's not seen as racist by those participating in it.

When Ann Coulter was taken down for calling John Edwards a "faggot", her reply was that it was just a thing kids called each other on the playground, it had nothing to do with homophobia. Bigotry can often be so casual among bigots that they can't even see it.
posted by scalefree at 6:48 PM on November 13, 2012 [13 favorites]


thecjm : point taken.

Just to be clear for my own understanding:
In the rest of the world dressing up as a black person is fine and not racist. Dressing up as a black person and acting silly and/or stupid is racist.
In america simply dressing up as a black person is racist (for historical reasons).
Is that metafilter approved?
posted by sety at 7:24 PM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


What I find offensive is the cultural imperialism that's informed by this idea that "Europeans and Australians don't understand that blackface is offensive". No, it's not "offensive". It's offensive to Americans.

If America can't escape from its history of blackface as a tool of mocking and derision then that's their own lookout. Why not let the rest of the world enjoy harmless pursuits where no one, of any skin colour, feels bad about them?

Where would you prefer to live? A place where harmless activities have to be suppressed because of connotations derived from a dubious past, or a place where blackface is just people with black faces and no more offensive than a street mime in whiteface?

You're telling people who aren't offended to be offended - attempting to attack your own cultural hang-ups to cultures where they do not exist.
posted by nemspyda at 7:53 PM on November 13, 2012 [7 favorites]


If Europeans aren't offended by "harmless" blackface then why are golliwogs and the Black and White Minstrel Show no longer popular in the UK?
posted by elsietheeel at 8:06 PM on November 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


In the rest of the world dressing up as a black person is fine and not racist. Dressing up as a black person and acting silly and/or stupid is racist.

Isn't Zwarte Pieten a buffoon? I don't think he's some kind of deep thinker.

As for blackface, we are not talking about some sort of artful effort to portray Othello here. Painting your face black and putting on makeup to give yourself exaggerated lips and an afro-style wig: That in itself is dehumanizing. Black people do not really look like that - those are just the features Dutch white guys find "wacky" and hilarious or maybe even frightening about them. I've seen Europeans do the same when "dressing up like" Asian people - jaundice yellow skin, buck teeth, chinky slit eyes.

It is demeaning to the members of a race of real human people to "dress up like them" the way you'd dress up like a goblin or some other inhuman creature.
posted by ignignokt at 8:14 PM on November 13, 2012 [26 favorites]


I happened to be in Venice during the 2007 Biennale (summary: international art exhibition where various countries have pavilions, like a World's Fair for art). Rounding a corner on a water taxi, there was suddenly this giant, 3m-tall KKK hood on the shore ahead. Yet apparently I was the only one shocked and disturbed by this.

It turns out that it referenced something else, according to the info that I found at the time. For some reason, I am remembering it as the Albanian pavilion, but it doesn't seem like Albania had a pavilion in 2007 from what I can now find on the internet. But it was something similar. There were tears coming out of the eye holes that were the only feature on this white, fabric-covered, conical-topped giant head, and it was something about remembering or commemorating a past ill in the country of origin. There's probably some common sartorial ancestor between that pavilion's habit and the hoods donned by KKK members whilst committing horrible hate crimes, but it truly was one of those instances where my US-centric interpretation of "holy shit that's fucked up!" failed, at least in part. One could reasonably argue that in a setting with such an international focus, there's a heightened responsibility for awareness of when your thing might come across as truly hurtful to someone from another culture, and I still found it a bit disturbing on those grounds at least.

Such is not the case with Zwarte Piet. The arguments in defense of the tradition that I keep reading are,
(1) "but we don't have the same tradition of blackface as a hurtful, racist practice as you have in the US, so it's not so bad," and
(2) "yeah, okay, maybe it started out that way, but children don't know that history and don't see it as racist."

Re (1): the thing is, the blackface component of the Zwarte Piet character is a tradition of racist blackface performance, that (following the links above) apparently started during the era when the Dutch were heavily involved in the African slave trade (it sounds like elements of the character go back much further than the current blackface depictions), and that local blacks (not just US commenters!) have expressed hurt from, so yeah, it's kind of exactly the same. It's not ironic hipster racism when folks in a country with a history of enslaving black people engage in an ongoing tradition of blackface that began with definitely racist overtones, and sure doesn't sound like it's been set aside for a while and then somehow reclaimed by the population originally harmed. This one thing doesn't cancel out the fact that the Dutch as a whole have made a lot of positive contributions to human rights in their post-colonial days. Just means that, hey, that thing that you do? That's kind of a racist thing to do. And maybe it was a fun thing to do in private at home when it was just your homogeneous family, but you're not that country anymore, so you have to take a little more responsibility to be sure that your sister's new husband feels included at the family holiday dinner, you know? Please just stop that one thing and get back to your regular more recent program of doing decent things.

Re (2): this reminds me a lot of discussions around Columbus Day in the US. Columbus Day falls between larger holidays at a time in the school year when it's really nice to have a long weekend. I remember there used to be Columbus Day parades when I was a kid, and parades are fun for kids. And as a white kid, I didn't learn about the terrible things Columbus did to Native Americans until a little bit later. So hey, it wasn't racist, just parades and fun and an extra day off of school, right? But not all US kids are white and of European ancestry, and celebrating Columbus did cause some harm to my Native American classmates: whether they spoke out about it or not; and whether they knew about Columbus and and found it intimidating at the time, or just learned their history later and got a sick feeling in their stomach knowing that they grew up celebrating this guy who was responsible for the deaths of many of their specific ancestors and/or genocidal policies that continue to have harmful effects to Native Americans today. So:

(a) Claiming that "kids" don't see it as racist ignores the black kids who do see that quite clearly, either at the time or later in life; not to mention all the comments in the originally linked article telling anecdotes about how black folks they know got called Zwarte Piet by Dutch kids, and thought it was cute and funny -- the point hiding in those anecdotes is that Dutch kids most certainly are making the racial association.

(b) Many schools in the US changed the fall holiday from Columbus Day to something else, Generic Fall Holiday or whatever. Kids by and large didn't care: it was still a long weekend. A lot of the Dutch commenters in the original link were claiming that the overall tradition was a valued part of their childhood and that they personally didn't see Zwarte Piet as representing a black person. Ok, so it shouldn't make a difference to Dutch kids if Zwarte Piet is, say, green or purple and with different facial features than the exaggerated features associated with blackface, right? If you can change this one supposedly little detail of your tradition to avoid hurting a bunch of people, and maintain all the parts that you remembered as being fun and enjoyable for you as a kid, why not do it? What does not doing so, once you've been informed that this particular supposedly small detail is hurtful to some, say about your intent?
posted by eviemath at 8:40 PM on November 13, 2012 [23 favorites]


But you still don't get it. Europe doesn't have these simmering racial tensions and, even if Zwarte Piet began life as something of a caricature, his existence today is more of a charming tradition - a holdover from the old ways that people enjoy. Noting the evolution of the character is a lesson about our transition into more enlightened times. To try to erase Zwarte Piet is to attempt to pretend things were ever thus.

How would Americans feel if the Dutch came out all outraged about Rankin & Bass because Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Year Without a Santa Claus depict elves who are "clearly midgets". Hoho, yes "helpers" indeed. . A weaker group kept down and pressed into labour by the man! What about those distorted huge heads compared to the rest of their bodies they have? Clearly a way of mocking the way dwarves aren't proportioned the same way as those without dwarfism. And that clothing? Jingly bell hats and curled-up shoes? They are made to look like buffoons. You see? You could make the same argument here, but in the USA you know that no one cares or is hurt by this depiction.

It's all well and good to claim that "black kids definitely WOULD see this as racist" etc, but I think you need to trust the Dutch who, let's face it, are operating from a political discourse that is lightyears to the progressive side of the US -- where Obama would be considered a middle-of-the-road conservative -- to know what is harmful and what isn't in their own particular context.
posted by nemspyda at 9:05 PM on November 13, 2012 [5 favorites]


Eviemath,

The "heightened responsibility to be aware of other cultures" can only be rightfully applied if it cuts all ways and that's just never going to happen. I prefer to suggest the responsibility to not be offended by other cultures until you understand the context.

It's very easy to sit in another country and think "well, they should know a hood of this particular configuration is going to offend people from America etc", but you then have to ask yourself, are you personally au fait with every signifier that might be deemed offensive to everyone across the globe.

I recall the KFC "Cricket survival guide" commercial campaign in Australia that caused such an uproar as "racist in the US" and seeing the same "there's a responsibility to understand how this may be viewed around the world" being trundled out as a reason why the ad was "racist".

Here's the ad for anyone who was living in a cave at the time - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FftZt-Dw_hQ

It was deemed racist by the US masses because a negative (is it even really negative?) stereotype exists in the USA that black people love fried chicken. I was somewhat aware of this, having spent six years living in the USA, but my fellow Australians were largely unaware. Americans watched the commercial and saw black people being placated with fried chicken. Even though the black people were not African Americans, they kind of looked like them, so that was enough. No one cared at all that KFC was the sponsor of the West Indies team who were touring Australia at the time, that West Indians didn't find it offensive, or any of the other context behind the commercial. Even so, Americans justified their outrage on the grounds that people "should know" that it would be viewed as racist in another country. I countered this by asking how much they knew about what might be offensive in Australia. For instance, Aboriginal people have had serious problems with substance abuse - drugs, glue and petrol sniffing, alcoholism. Should Hollywood be careful about depicting African Americans, who look superficially like Aboriginals, in situations where they are drunk or high? What about if in Luxembourg there's a stereotype that black people love playing ball sports. Ban the NBA? The "You should be aware of how other cultures might react" just doesn't cut it because you can point to a million things from within every culture that might be interpreted differently in another and another and another. It's just not possible. The best thing you can do is grow a thicker skin when travelling or surfing the web and take measures to educate yourself about other parts of the world.
posted by nemspyda at 9:21 PM on November 13, 2012 [7 favorites]


Europe doesn't have these simmering racial tensions

Edgar Davids says hi.
posted by asterix at 9:25 PM on November 13, 2012


Ok, so (setting aside Germany and its Turkish immigrant population, Britain and its various immigrant populations, France and its suburbs, Switzerland and its anti-mosque legislation, Greece and its Golden Dawn, etc.) let's work with this hypothesis that Europe doesn't have these simmering racial tensions. Zwarte Piet has evolved in the past; why can't he evolve again just on this one issue of his blackface appearance? Dutch people, including black Dutch people, have expressed hurt, discomfort, or unhappiness with this one aspect of Zwarte Piet. What's so hard about changing that one aspect? Let me repeat that, Dutch people have expressed hurt, discomfort, or unhappiness with this one aspect of Zwarte Piet.

Personally, I'd have no problem with taller elves. But then, I don't go in for that whole jingoey Christmas celebration in the first place, so maybe asking me that would be the equivalent of asking a Dutch person who does see Zwarte Piet as racist my question in the preceeding paragraph. (Which brings up the perhaps useful point that no country has a population with homogeneous political beliefs. Yes, the US has some shockingly conservative people. But, perhaps relatedly, it also has a not insignificant population of very radically left-wing people. Kind of like Greece in that respect, it seems. A bit unlike, say, Canada, where I live, which seems to have less divergence from the mean political viewpoint (though one arguably has to consider Quebec and the rest of Canada separately when determining what the mean political viewpoint is). Local context matters (as I pointed out in my story about the pavilion at the Venice Biennale), but to some extent there's more commonality between viewpoints at different ends of the political spectrum across countries, that a purely nationalist analysis misses.)
posted by eviemath at 9:26 PM on November 13, 2012 [5 favorites]


Seriously, the notion that anti-racist dialogue is solely an American cultural export is more depressing and disparaging to Europe than anything else in this thread.

Well, it isn't, really, but the problem with Americans, even Black Americans coming over to the Netherlands to campaign against Zwarte Piet is the same as any other "what these people need is a honky yankee to tell them what they're doing wrong" situation. It assumes that the priorities and cultural sensibilities of America are the only ones that matters, ignores the input of the people (both white and Black) on the ground and/or insists that the groups that should be/are offended by Zwarte Piet have their priorities wrong. Furthermore, as the Dutch are uniquelly prone to not receiving well outsiders criticising well loved cutlural practises even witht he best of intentions.

Which of course doesn't mean that it can't be shocking or offending to you personally when you first encounter it. Or that it wouldn't be a good idea to remove the racist elements from Sinterklaas.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:33 PM on November 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


My understanding though is that unlike, say, the French anti-hijab law supposedly enacted out of concern for the women wearing them despite the fact that no Muslim French women were calling for such a law (and were in fact strongly opposed to it), the Zwarte Piet issue comes up annually because Dutch folks in the Netherlands are upset by it, as well as folks in the former Dutch colony of Suriname, who while not being Dutch themselves, perhaps have a pretty good basis to comment on the tradition?
posted by eviemath at 11:40 PM on November 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


But you still don't get it. Europe doesn't have these simmering racial tensions and

Wat.
posted by atrazine at 12:51 AM on November 14, 2012 [25 favorites]


Wikipedia has a short discussion on the possible origins.

In the searching, I came across Amu Naruz and his sidekick Haji Farooz, neither of whom I had never heard of before. Insight on the latter would be most welcome.
posted by BWA at 5:00 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Europe doesn't have these simmering racial tensions

Explain this.
posted by Partario at 5:22 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


And no, our society is not 'racist to its very core'. My city has more nationalities living in it than New York

Is this the national equivalent of "some of my best friends..."? Do the visible minorities in your city enjoy the same social status and privileges as the white ethnic majority? If not, then it's racist to its very core.

but I think you need to trust the Dutch who, let's face it, are operating from a political discourse that is lightyears to the progressive side of the US

So is Canada, and this Canadian sees it as blatantly racist. In fact, a bunch of commenters in this thread on the "it's racist" side are from outside the US. This isn't about meddling Americans with white guilt pushing their hangups on you.
posted by rocket88 at 5:32 AM on November 14, 2012 [12 favorites]


Racism in football is mainly concentrated in East and Southern Europe and really, what can you expect of those people?
posted by MartinWisse at 5:45 AM on November 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


I will say, as an American it's refreshing to be berated for being too concerned with social justice.
posted by bitterpants at 5:48 AM on November 14, 2012 [20 favorites]


I will say, as an American it's refreshing to be berated for being too concerned with social justice.

It's almost like "I can't be racist, I'm [liberal/progressive/leftist/antiracist/anarchist/communist]!" is a cliche because it's been said so many times by so many people.
posted by Pope Guilty at 5:50 AM on November 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


Racism in football is mainly concentrated in East and Southern Europe and really, what can you expect of those people?

That gave me a sorely needed laugh!
posted by LucVdB at 6:04 AM on November 14, 2012


How would Americans feel if the Dutch came out all outraged about Rankin & Bass because Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Year Without a Santa Claus depict elves who are "clearly midgets".

Elves are imaginary made-up humanoid creatures. Black people are actual human beings. One party cannot be offended because it does not exist. The other party exists in the real world and has actual feelings. Why is this so fucking hard to understand? Actual real life black people are telling you that yes, this shit is fucking offensive to them, but no, hahaha it is not really offensive in the real world because white people say so and that is all that fucking matters, right? OF COURSE.
posted by elizardbits at 6:31 AM on November 14, 2012 [27 favorites]


I don't have much to add to this, other than every year I'm staggered by my friends and neighbours obstinate refusal to acknowledge how bad this makes them look to the rest of the world. I've sort of reached the conclusion that it's their problem, and I dearly hope they'll sort it out eventually. Meanwhile, this from a Dutch colleague on another channel, which I thought was quite insightful, and I repost with kind permission:
I think the problem has a fair two sides and it is all about perspective.

it's a kids event, never intended to be racist in any way. Historic heritage might be a bit dodgy but so it the history of santa claus. But like santa claus the thing is intended to be just fun. not a racist, massocistic, murdering or any of the many other bad things that are in the history of both traditions.

On the other hand Sinterklaas is different because it has similarities with black-face. This was a very racist practice where it was not allowed for black actors to play on a stage, therefor white actors would paint their faces black to represent black people. I completely agree that this was a very racist thing to do. The similarity is also striking with what is happening with sinterklaas, white people painting their faces black to represent a historic black slave.

The difference in this case would be that I've seen black actors play a zwarte piet. the act of segrigation that is core to black-face is not part of what is going on here, but still the connection between the two is there.

the thing we have to considers here is this. If we make zwarte piet whatever race the person is we want it will be hard to disquize the piet from the person he/she is. The black paint makes for a good cover and children will fall for it every time. another side effect is that on a boat with pieten the sint will stand out, as he is the main guest in this party it is only natural to give him this kind of position. the same is used by pop stars to stand out among their dancers on stage. So my question is, would sinterklaas work without piet being black? would a multi-color version work or is there a solution the the main anonimity problem we get from not applying face paint?

I don't think banning the tradition is an option also changing it rapidly will destroy the magic for the children who still believe. I hate seeing children cry, let alone hear it ;-). So what to do? Well like blokker, hema and many other companies that have sinterklaas things pieten are slowly been taken out of the picture. slowly transforming the image of the piet and focussing on other things than the black face paint. I don't know if a piet without the paint will work but we'll see.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 6:38 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


You know, just because it's Americans are pointing it out to you doesn't mean it's NOT racist.

They don't have a corner on that market.

I get that it's "just dressing up". It is offensive to me. I say that as a non-white European.
posted by Omnomnom at 6:41 AM on November 14, 2012 [9 favorites]


I get that some people are offended by it. That's totally their right. But it's not racist. That's a much bigger accusation that would warrant legal action by the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism.

Learning to live with people who hold views that are offensive to you isn't easy, that's for sure.
posted by LucVdB at 6:55 AM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Comically depicting a member of another race as a grotesque stereotype is, in fact, racist.
posted by elizardbits at 6:57 AM on November 14, 2012 [19 favorites]


How weird. I never have gotten any impression that Black Peter is very central to St. Nick. Most of the time, I see Nick with his bishop's hook and robes without the sidekick. But that's mostly from photos. Never been in Belgium or the Netherlands around Dec. 6. (which I usually forget about, to the disappointment of my partner. LOL)

Surprised no one mentions that the naughty kids are the ones for whom Peter is of greater concern. He'll stuff you in his bag and carry you off! Not sure where or why. Just what I've been told. Beats that Kachina guy from the Navajo, that saws his way right through your wall to grab you!
posted by Goofyy at 7:04 AM on November 14, 2012


You're telling people who aren't offended to be offended - attempting to attack your own cultural hang-ups to cultures where they do not exist.

How fortunate that you are able to speak for the entire (homogeneous!) group of dark-skinned Europeans who are being caricatured here! Is there anything else you'd like to say on their behalf, while you have our attention?

Europe doesn't have these simmering racial tensions

Oh. It's one of those, then.
posted by Mayor West at 7:12 AM on November 14, 2012


What, do you think, is going on in the mind of black actors playing Zwarte Piet? Perhaps they have some insight into the situation that defuses it for them?
posted by LucVdB at 7:19 AM on November 14, 2012


Racism

Additional definitions.
posted by eviemath at 7:19 AM on November 14, 2012


What, do you think, is going on in the mind of black actors playing Zwarte Piet? Perhaps they have some insight into the situation that defuses it for them?

What do you think was going through the minds of Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll (Amos and Andy), or how about Hattie McDaniels? Saying that black people participate is not a "get out of jail free" card.

Anyway, I'm done with this. I have a class full of students that are actually capable of self-reflection and analytical thought waiting on me. Kudos to those who keep trying to reiterate the point that racism is not solely defined by those who perpetuate it. But, as I sit here on the campus of the University of Mississippi, I despair that those on top will ever completely feel that the thoughts and feelings of those on the bottom are in any way relevant or important.
posted by anansi at 7:38 AM on November 14, 2012 [16 favorites]


It seems 'racism' is not properly definable. That certainly doesn't help quantifying things, but I guess it does help me to better understand people's reactions here. Given an appropriate definition of racism (not the one I would regularly use), I can agree that yes, de Zwarte Pieten are racist.
posted by LucVdB at 7:42 AM on November 14, 2012


another side effect is that on a boat with pieten the sint will stand out, as he is the main guest in this party it is only natural to give him this kind of position

He's on a horse. On a boat. With a big red hat. He is the only one on that boat on a horse with a big red hat. Even if he's not on the horse, it's pretty clear which one Sinterklaas is. He's the one in the big red hat.

So my question is, would sinterklaas work without piet being black?

Sure.

changing it rapidly will destroy the magic for the children who still believe.

Changing Piet's appearance only changes the margins of the Sinterklaas story, and not the essential story itself. We can lose this offensive part, and everyone still have a good time. Kids are supremely creative when it comes to what's a make-believe story anyway, and resilient if they know that presents are on the line.
posted by Capt. Renault at 7:43 AM on November 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


Anyway, I'm done with this. I have a class full of students that are actually capable of self-reflection and analytical thought waiting on me.

That's terribly sad and ironic. I have tried to engage people on this thread, to offer a bit of insight, to be open to dialogue, while you've reverted to emotionality and shouting 'fucks'. I was hoping for a bit more empathy and willingness to see things from our point of view. Whatever background in race troubles you have, I doubt it carries over well to Holland and some guys wearing makeup.

Next year, though, I won't bother with this either.
posted by LucVdB at 8:07 AM on November 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'd just like to make very clear that I don't share the views of my associate, which I reposted above as representative of the more nuanced end of the internal Zwarte Piet debate. In no way do I feel moved to defend them.*

Also, this week we have as our guest here in Amsterdam a valued colleague from Kenya, and I am hoping beyond hope that he gets to the end of his visit without witnessing any of this embarrassing travesty. If he does, I hope he gives his Dutch boss hell for it when he returns to Nairobi.

* although, to his credit, at least he's admitted that it's racist, which is more than most Dutch people will.
posted by Elizabeth the Thirteenth at 8:08 AM on November 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


Whatever background in race troubles you have, I doubt it carries over well to Holland and some guys wearing makeup.

My background is actually being a minority. I realize that's not good enough for you, though.
posted by elizardbits at 8:21 AM on November 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


My background is actually being a minority. I realize that's not good enough for you, though.

Kind of. Surely that doesn't automatically give you insight into Dutch culture?
posted by LucVdB at 8:30 AM on November 14, 2012


Surely that doesn't automatically give you insight into Dutch culture?

Well, I'm a dual citizen of Canada and the Netherlands. (Canadian, so not American.) I was born in Canada to Dutch parents who emigrated in '69 -- fairly late in that game. I was raised in a Dutch household in Canada, if that makes sense. My relatives are all still in Holland, and I am in regular contact with them. I speak the language. I have lived and worked in Holland for extended periods of time. I would say that I am quite familiar with Dutch culture, but I consider Canada my home.

Am I allowed to speak on this, then? Are my credentials sufficient to consider whether this is an offensive tradition which should be altered?

Or do I just need to be a rational human being who can see that people are needlessly hurt by this?
posted by Capt. Renault at 8:42 AM on November 14, 2012 [23 favorites]


No True Dutchman
posted by gilrain at 8:44 AM on November 14, 2012 [6 favorites]


Am I allowed to speak on this, then? Are my credentials sufficient to consider whether this is an offensive tradition which should be altered?

Outside of the pub, people had better have some knowledge of what they're speaking about if they want to be taking seriously, right? Obviously you do have some understanding, and earlier I favorited one of your comments. In fact, all your comments make perfect sense to me.

Should I accept comments about my culture from people who saw a Youtube video and don't make any effort to go beyond their kneejerk reaction? Context matters.

Or do I just need to be a rational human being who can see that people are needlessly hurt by this?

I think you're right, but it seems to be mainly people who don't know the tradition that are offended by it. Even among those offended locally, I don't think it's a major issue. There's plenty of offence to be felt by all groups in a multi-cultural society. In addition, practically, I don't see this going away anytime soon (since it's simply not on the political or cultural agenda), so I hope that at least there can be a 'modus vivendi' born out of mutual understanding, until we, perhaps, modify the tradition enough to no longer cause offence. It seems unlikely to happen soon, in view of all the failed attempts in previous decennia.

gilrain: No True Dutchman
That's absolutely not what I meant.
posted by LucVdB at 9:09 AM on November 14, 2012


[I totally get where you're coming from but a demonstrative "here is why I am literally saying 'fuck you' to you" thing is still kind of not okay.]
posted by cortex at 9:23 AM on November 14, 2012


Even among those offended locally, I don't think it's a major issue.

I'm not sure. Though things have been getting somewhat better the past two years, the last decade we haven't really had a political or cultural climate that would encourage such complains, what with the rise of the extreme rightwing PVV, the immigration backlash and general increased hatred and suspicion of "allochtonen".

Though Black/Surinam Dutch people have not been at the centre of this, but have slowly moved into the "good immigrant" category of yer average white cloggie, it would not surprise me if a lot of Black people were wary of bringing up the subject, knowing how deep in denial most of us are about it.

I think quite a few people just grin and bear it instead.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:59 AM on November 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


It's always been less of an issue in Flanders, I think. Maybe because de Pieten here tend to be less outrageous and more according to tradition. We also had the rise and subsequent fizzling out of the Vlaams Blok and its racist viewpoints in Antwerp, but in reaction the traditional parties really improved the city for everyone (after years of neglect).

So, in this context where race and religion and cultural backgrounds where very important in politics, we still had the mayor receive the Sint & Zwarte Pieten at the Town Hall.

There's much more important race issues to resolve, I think, than fabricated ones like this. Like the research that shows résumé's with foreign names on them get less invitations to jobs interviews, or the fact that less children of immigrants make it through school, let alone higher education.
posted by LucVdB at 10:41 AM on November 14, 2012


Country with a history of anti-black activity defends racist tradition. The past is in the past, dutch blacks are largely pacified, those that aren't don't matter. US whites-guilty, US blacks-angry.
posted by yonega at 12:17 PM on November 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's not racist, it's traditional, you don't understand us, you're the one that's wrong, you're oversensitive, blah blah blah pannekoeken.
posted by elsietheeel at 12:30 PM on November 14, 2012 [6 favorites]


whoa there now, pannekoeken is awesome.
posted by elizardbits at 12:37 PM on November 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


There's much more important race issues to resolve, I think, than fabricated ones like this. Like the research that shows résumé's with foreign names on them get less invitations to jobs interviews, or the fact that less children of immigrants make it through school, let alone higher education.

Could it possibly be that harmful stereotypes about people of color are major factors in society's biases about them?

A: Yes, that is very possible.

I am involved with anti-racist activist work in the real world, including work that pertains to schools and prisons, heavy duty stuff, and I'm still capable of looking at racism on this scale and thinking, "god, how terrible," and empathizing with people who feel offended by it, and realizing that people internalize stereotypes and they can make a "minority's" life quite hellish. This is not fabricated in any way-- I wish people would quit blaming women and people of color and gay people &c. &c. for "fabricating" discrimination that exists because privileged people throughout history have created it. We're not "fabricating" it.
posted by stoneandstar at 12:41 PM on November 14, 2012 [8 favorites]


Poffertjes are better!
posted by elsietheeel at 12:41 PM on November 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


And this is exactly why I do not like it when the US gets accused of having much more of a race problem then much of the world. What the US does is try to deal with race. Sometimes unsuccessfully. But we are trying and not just sweeping the whole thing under the rug like much of the rest of the world while wondering why people are causing such a ruckus.
posted by Justinian at 12:47 PM on November 14, 2012 [6 favorites]


Could it possibly be that harmful stereotypes about people of color are major factors in society's biases about them?

A: Yes, that is very possible.


B: No, we've been hashing this through decades ago, we have a minimum of sophistication and can tell the difference between Zwarte Pieten and black people.
posted by LucVdB at 12:58 PM on November 14, 2012


MeTa.
posted by lalex at 1:03 PM on November 14, 2012


You're telling people who aren't offended to be offended

You're telling people with legitimate reasons to be offended that they are wrong to be offended and that you, a non-minority, are better equipped to identify racism than they, the actual minorities, are.
posted by elizardbits at 1:06 PM on November 14, 2012 [10 favorites]


Whitesplaining
posted by lordaych at 1:14 PM on November 14, 2012 [10 favorites]


There's much more important race issues to resolve, I think, than fabricated ones like this. Like the research that shows résumé's with foreign names on them get less invitations to jobs interviews, or the fact that less children of immigrants make it through school, let alone higher education.

Wait, I thought y'all didn't have any racial tensions?
posted by kmz at 1:17 PM on November 14, 2012


From where I sit, it seems the comparison to the Redskins is very apt. The Redskins are the American-football team of Washington DC. Their name is a racial slur. Their logo is a caricatured "noble Indian chief".

I grew up near DC and they were my team, and it literally never occurred to me as a kid that the name is anything about race. That term is an obsolete racial slur, no longer used as far as I know, and I literally thought it referred to their red uniforms. I never took anything about the team to be a reflection on real Native Americans, and I didn't hold any negative views about Native Americans. I think for most fans of the team, the name does not have any connotation beyond being the name of the team.

But now that I'm an adult, and I know that it's a racial slur, I acknowledge that it's indefensibly offensive that this name is carried on as if it's no big deal. I don't think a practice can be defended just because kids don't realize something is a callback to a racist past.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:20 PM on November 14, 2012 [29 favorites]


Wait, I thought y'all didn't have any racial tensions?

kmz, I never said that, someone else did and I wouldn't agree with that. Tensions are more along ethnic and religious lines, though, than white vs black.
posted by LucVdB at 1:23 PM on November 14, 2012


Every country and culture has problems. I'm a dual US-NL citizen, and I got to chose which problems I preferred.

The prison-industrial complex, gerrymandering and drone warfare aren't our problems. I prefer ours; they may be bad, but they are not killing people or denying them basic human rights.

Make you a deal: you work on the not-killing people thing, and we'll work on the blackface thing, OK?
posted by digitalprimate at 1:56 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


From where I sit, it seems the comparison to the Redskins is very apt. The Redskins are the American-football team of Washington DC. Their name is a racial slur. Their logo is a caricatured "noble Indian chief".

Okay, I think that might actually be kind of a similar situation. Isn't their some controversy around Thanksgiving, too, with some seeing it as a whitewashing of the massacre of Native Americans?
posted by LucVdB at 1:58 PM on November 14, 2012


I don't get how Nederlanders are able to ignore:

1) Violence against people who have spoken up about feeling this is racist. Including black people living in and familiar with the Netherlands.

2) Repeated requests by other Nederlanders - particularly those of colour - to stop the Zwarte Pieten thing.

3) Their essential, lasting role in slavery and how that changed not just the pocketbooks of their ancestors, but the perceptions of all involved cultures by each other and the shape of the world as a whole.
posted by batmonkey at 1:59 PM on November 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


Isn't their some controversy around Thanksgiving, too, with some seeing it as a whitewashing of the massacre of Native Americans?

Yes. And instead of clinging to outmoded traditional thinking, Christopher Columbus and his contemporaries are no longer discussed in schools as "discoverers" of America, but are now presented accurately as invaders of an already occupied land.
posted by elizardbits at 2:04 PM on November 14, 2012 [10 favorites]


We don't dress up as Indians for Thanksgiving.
posted by elsietheeel at 2:10 PM on November 14, 2012 [8 favorites]


Yes. And instead of clinging to outmoded traditional thinking, Christopher Columbus and his contemporaries are no longer discussed in schools as "discoverers" of America, but now presented accurately as invaders of an already occupied land.

Well, good.
But, you still celebrate Thanksgiving, though? Even though there's a minority seeing it as shameful? Perhaps it's gained a different meaning over the years?

I don't know if it's straining the analogy or if there even is one, but you can see where I'm going with this.
posted by LucVdB at 2:11 PM on November 14, 2012


What the US does is try to deal with race. Sometimes unsuccessfully. But we are trying and not just sweeping the whole thing under the rug like much of the rest of the world while wondering why people are causing such a ruckus.

Good point, somewhat overstated. One of the things that may sound strange if you're in the middle of it is that the US on the whole is better at actually talking about race and racism, as is the UK, compared to at least the Netherlands, where a lot of it is just not mentioned at all. Parts of the population are just not interested, while the more liberal part of the population often is bit too much of the "wouldn't it be nice if everybody was nice" variety.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:13 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


We don't dress up as Indians for Thanksgiving.

Well, we did when I was a preschooler (half the class as stereotyped native americans, half as "pilgrims"), but that no longer happens to my knowledge, and for good reason.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:19 PM on November 14, 2012 [6 favorites]


"If one man calls you a donkey, ignore him. If two men call you a donkey, think about it. If three men call you a donkey, buy a saddle." -- Yiddish proverb
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 2:35 PM on November 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


But, you still celebrate Thanksgiving, though? Even though there's a minority seeing it as shameful? Perhaps it's gained a different meaning over the years?

Dude, I appreciate that you are attempting to find common ground in what has become an endlessly circular argument. But if you are trying to establish some kind of congruency between these two situations, please realize that you are aligning the beliefs of people who see nothing wrong with the blackface in Dutch Christmas traditions with the beliefs of people who willfully minimize the genocide of Native Americans in favour of celebrating the achievements of privileged white men.
posted by elizardbits at 2:38 PM on November 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


from 2011:
A Very Racist Christmas?
Zwarte Piet is Racisme -- or "Black Peter is Racism" -- might as well be Dutch for "shots fired."

Activist Quinsy Gario was recently beaten and arrested for publicly protesting -- and using that highly charged slogan -- at a Dutch Christmas celebration in an attempt to call attention to a very simple fact: The depiction of Zwarte Piet, a beloved Santa's-helper folk character in the Netherlands, is racist
Holland's Favorite Racist Christmas Tradition
Gario came to the Netherlands with his mother for the first time in 1987. He says he never really noticed the Zwarte Piets during his first few years in the country, but one day his mother came home from work in shock because the receptionist had called her the office’s own “Zwarte Piet” as she entered the building. Ever since, the character has appeared throughout his poetry and artwork.
If you protest racism during Black Face season in The Netherlands, you will be beaten up and arrested
Ah, my home, The Netherlands. Tourists from all over the world wax lyrical about the tulips, the windmills and the widely available weed. What these tourists hardly ever get to see is how institutionalized racism works in this country and the lengths the State will go to in order to protect it. Or how, if you are personally affected by this racism and you summon the strength to protest it, you will be brutally beaten up and arrested.

Now, here is the thing: this is a small country. All matters of racism happen here but they go unreported in international mainstream media because the Dutch language is mostly inaccessible to the world at large. So, these matters remain untold, underreported, downplayed or just ignored.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:44 PM on November 14, 2012 [9 favorites]


Please realize that you are aligning the beliefs of people who see nothing wrong with the blackface in Dutch Christmas traditions with the beliefs of people who willfully minimize the genocide of Native Americans in favour of celebrating the achievements of privileged white men.

No, I'm trying to find a analogy between:

- a majority of people in the Low Lands celebrating Sinterklaas without attaching racist meaning to the Zwarte Pieten
- a majority of people in the US celebrating Thanksgiving without seeing it as a celebration of genocide

Does that compute?
posted by LucVdB at 2:44 PM on November 14, 2012


What we are saying is the exact same thing.
posted by elizardbits at 2:50 PM on November 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think we understand that (most?) people in the Netherlands don't really think about the racial implications of the character. Just as I didn't think of the racial implications of the Redskins' name.

But when it is pointed out, a reasonable response would be: "Oh! Wow, I hadn't thought of it that way. When it's pointed out, I can see that it is a pretty offensive caricature, and I can understand why people would be offended by it. Given that we don't endorse the racial stereotypes that gave rise to this, maybe we should think about changing it after all."
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:58 PM on November 14, 2012 [11 favorites]


What we are saying is the exact same thing.

Oh, right! Good :) Though I wouldn't use the term 'blackface', since that's a term referring to a racist depiction, while I think that the makeup of the Zwarte Pieten isn't intended to be racist.

So you think the majority of Americans is willing to get on with the party, having infused it with a new meaning or simply ignoring the unpleasant history, despite a minority appealing for change? Isn't Thanksgiving a wholesome family gathering now, pregnant with positive emotions? (that's how I've always seen it depicted in movies etc., anyway).

If so, I think that's about as good an analogy I'm going to find.
posted by LucVdB at 3:01 PM on November 14, 2012


If you don't mind, I would like to point out where your analogy breaks down.

In your first example, you describe a group of people celebrating a holiday by engaging in a very specific activity.

In the second example, you try to make the case that Thanksgiving itself is inherently a celebration of genocide. It isn't Thanksgiving is a pretty old holiday, dating back to the English Reformation and imported to America by the Pilgrims. And while the American version of this holiday certainly can be criticized for having whitewashed the genocide of the Indians in the past, it is not inherent in the meaning of the holiday. In the same way that Christmas is not an inherently racist holiday.

Now, there are behaviors that Americans can engage in on Thanksgiving that are, at best, racially insensitive -- dressing as Native Americans can push well into questionable territory. And it is possible to celebrate Thanksgiving and continue to use images and narratives that minimize America's genocidal relationship with its indigenous population.

But I have not been to a Thanksgiving holiday in decades that uses Native American or Pilgrim imagery. It has, instead, become a secular American holiday that's mostly devoted to food and sporting events, which is sort of the basis of most contemporary secular American holidays. We also shoot fireworks sometimes, depending on the holiday.

If I were to participate in activities on a holiday that were insensitive to Native Americans, I would hope that this would be pointed out to me were I oblivious, and I would seek to change it. But it would be very hard to make a case that Thanksgiving itself, which dates back to the 16th century, is inherently a celebration of genocide.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 3:05 PM on November 14, 2012 [7 favorites]


Besides that, you guys do it too doesn't address the primary criticism. I understand that you don't like to think of Zwarte Pieten as being racist, but it must be clear that it is, at best, tremendously insensitive. And many of this "minority" who are complaining about it are the very people who are hurt by it, and one would hope that people would stop and consider who they are hurting, and why, even when they don't intend and are oblivious to that hurt.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 3:09 PM on November 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


But when it is pointed out, a reasonable response would be: "Oh! Wow, I hadn't thought of it that way. When it's pointed out, I can see that it is a pretty offensive caricature, and I can understand why people would be offended by it. Given that we don't endorse the racial stereotypes that gave rise to this, maybe we should think about changing it after all."

I guess in the end, the cold calculation is that the tradition is seen as more valuable than the offence it gives.

I think it also fits well in our carnival traditions, in which the normal order is subverted for a couple of days, a jester rules the town, and floats depicting the prime minister in his bare ass are paraded around. It's a feeling of 'the normal rules don't apply'.
posted by LucVdB at 3:11 PM on November 14, 2012


Would you say the mocking and caricaturing of a historically despised minority is a subversion of the normal order, or a reenforcing of it? From my point of view, it is the latter.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 3:15 PM on November 14, 2012 [3 favorites]


Also, hey, the elves thing--that's kind of a good point. If little people in the US stated publicly how much they were hurt by elves as a concept, I would say "OK let's make all the elves tall and pointy eared like they're supposed to be ANYWAY."

I wouldn't say "You little people don't understand how important it is that NOTHING EVER CHANGE."

Because who the hell cares? It's a made up fictional world, let's make something else up!

I don't see why the color of the skin of this character matters so much. It's like the word "niggardly". Sure, it's too bad that people don't understand that it has a different root than "nigger," but I'm just going to go ahead and not say it. There are perfectly good words that mean the same thing.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 3:16 PM on November 14, 2012


Besides that, you guys do it too doesn't address the primary criticism.

No, but I've gone down that path to at least hope to get a glimmer of understanding from people to whom this is all very insulting.

I understand that you don't like to think of Zwarte Pieten as being racist, but it must be clear that it is, at best, tremendously insensitive. And many of this "minority" who are complaining about it are the very people who are hurt by it, and one would hope that people would stop and consider who they are hurting, and why, even when they don't intend and are oblivious to that hurt.

I agree that it is (possibly) insulting. Not every black man finds himself referred to by a guy in a crazy costume who is fooling around, just because that actor is wearing black makeup.
Even so, yes, I agree that it has a high potential for offending, but well, so is a lot of stuff to do with race and ethnicity. Some people here take offence at how women dress for their culture and religion, for example. They need to live and let live, even though they feel offended by it.
posted by LucVdB at 3:22 PM on November 14, 2012


I guess in the end, the cold calculation is that the tradition is seen as more valuable than the offence it gives.

Cold indeed.

Bare-assedness is not a central part of a caricature that has been used to subjugate prime ministers for centuries. People of the Low Lands have so many traditions to be proud of -- what's so "valuable" about the ones that keep grotesque stereotypes of other races alive, year after year?
posted by argonauta at 3:23 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Would you say the mocking and caricaturing of a historically despised minority is a subversion of the normal order, or a reenforcing of it? From my point of view, it is the latter.

Hmmm, well put. But, again, I don't see the Zwarte Pieten as mocking black people. I see them as Zwarte Pieten.
posted by LucVdB at 3:27 PM on November 14, 2012


From the man of twists and turns' excellent link:
Over the years, a small but growing group of people have been protesting this celebration of Black face costumes and ridiculing of minorities. Systematically, these protests have been met with a very strong and stubborn resistance from a majority of White Dutch who refuse to even consider the racist implications of this “tradition”. Those who are against the Black Pete depictions are consistently told that there is nothing offensive in it, that the tradition is not up for debate, that they are being oversensitive and that, and here comes the usual xenophobic retort, “if they don’t like it, they should go and live some place else”. Additionally, people who speak against this are also told that they are importing North American models of “political correctness” that have no place in Dutch society. Moreover, the supporters of these Black face depictions are adamant that there is nothing, absolutely nothing racist in Black Pete’s representations and that claiming otherwise is the result of a cultural imperialism brought upon by North American influences. According to supporters, Dutch culture is so different from that of the US and the context so incomparable that such discussion should not even take place. Any attempt at contextualizing the role of the Dutch in slavery in the Americas and how the continuation of these racist practices owes everything to the mindset that made such trade possible is met with protestations and the statement that “only Americans see offense in Black face, we, the Dutch, are obviously different and not racist in our traditions”. In sum, what they claim is that the rights of White people to don Black face are more or less sacrosanct and native Dutch children have a right to the continuation of this “tradition” undisputed.
posted by elsietheeel at 3:28 PM on November 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


LucVdB: They need to live and let live
That sounds reasonable. Yet, if you substitute in what we're actually talking about, that becomes: "they need to live and [let others portray their race and their grim, tragic history via silly pantomime]".
posted by gilrain at 3:29 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


People of the Low Lands have so many traditions to be proud of -- what's so "valuable" about the ones that keep grotesque stereotypes of other races alive, year after year?

Fair enough, and thanks for the compliment. When I refer to the 'cold calculation', by the way, it's not one that I make, but I think is made in society. Just like Thanksgiving is seen to be more valuable than the connotations of genocide it comes with. There just doesn't seem to be much of an animo to change this. I think at least you've understood that from my comments.
posted by LucVdB at 3:32 PM on November 14, 2012


LucVdB, I gather from some of your comments that you seem to be trying to show us why you view the Zwarte Pieten as you do - as just what they are on the surface, a tradition that has nothing to do with racist caricatures. Is this correct? Because I, for one, am having absolutely no problem understanding your position. That still doesn't make it okay.
posted by coupdefoudre at 3:32 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


ven so, yes, I agree that it has a high potential for offending, but well, so is a lot of stuff to do with race and ethnicity.

Yes, which is why there has been a long, difficult movement to convince people that this is an area where it is worthwhile to err on the side of caution. Because, as I am sure you know, when the subject of race and ethnicity comes up, it isn't simply one of bruised feelings, but instead a terrible history of violence, subjugation, and the creation of an entire class of humanity who were bought and sold as chattel. Which is why I prefer to discuss it without concern for whether it is "offensive" or not, but whether or not it is consistent with a history of oppression.

Holland is not without that history.

I don't see the Zwarte Pieten as mocking black people. I see them as Zwarte Pieten.

But you do understand that they aren't just mythical creatures? In the modern tradition, Black Pete is an actual slave that St. Nicholas liberated. And the look that he has now literally dates back to a single illustration in a book from 1850, and so it is neither a terrible old tradition, a terribly necessary tradition, or a tradition that resists evolution. I mean, there is a case to be made that the character actually dates back to two black ravens who flew with Woden during his Wild Hunt. That would be an awesome thing to see. Instead, the image is very literally a Colonial representation of a former slave, and that's full of problems, whether you were aware of them as a child or not.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 3:34 PM on November 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


it seems to be mainly people who don't know the tradition that are offended by it

Except, as has been pointed out earlier in the thread, many black people living in the Netherlands along with the entire country of Suriname, which, as a former Dutch colony on which such traditions were imposed as part of colonialism, absolutely has a "right" to comment on the tradition.

Also: Bunny Ultramod explains the distinction quite well. When Americans celebrated Thanskgiving by dressing up as Pilgrims and Indians, that particular activity was racist. When Dutch celebrate Christmas by dressing up their Zwarte Piet character in blackface, that is racist (and yes, blackface refers to the costumery of putting on a blacking agent, afro-style wig, and exaggerating features such as lips and white eyes/teeth, along with white gloves; not just the characters in minstrel shows and similar venues that were dressed up in this way). Americans can celebrate Thanksgiving in a less racist way by not using stereotypical depictions of Pilgrims and Indians. Dutch can celebrate Christmas in a less racist way by not dressing Zwarte Piet in blackface. You can keep Christmas, you can keep Zwarte Piet. Just ditch the blackface. It is the blackface that mocks black people, not the whole Zwarte Piet character. Really not that hard!
posted by eviemath at 3:34 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


That sounds reasonable. Yet, if you substitute in what we're actually talking about, that becomes: "they need to live and [let others portray their race and their grim, tragic history via silly pantomime]".

Yeah, it can't be much fun if you take it badly, but what's the alternative? Outlaw everything offensive?
posted by LucVdB at 3:35 PM on November 14, 2012


The alternative is what is happening here: Asking people to examine their behavior, and asking them to voluntarily change them if they recognize that that behavior is genuinely hurtful to others.

There are, in fact, a million alternatives. I am sure the Dutch are capable of representing this character in a manner less consistent with gollywog imagery.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 3:38 PM on November 14, 2012 [6 favorites]


No, the alternative is arguing in threads like these, talking to your friends, writing your newspapers, and trying to gradually make change. It'll happen eventually.
posted by gilrain at 3:38 PM on November 14, 2012


Offensive things don't need to be outlawed if the person doing/advocating the offensive thing STOPS DOING IT because they respect others and don't wish to offend them.
posted by elsietheeel at 3:38 PM on November 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


LucVdB, I gather from some of your comments that you seem to be trying to show us why you view the Zwarte Pieten as you do - as just what they are on the surface, a tradition that has nothing to do with racist caricatures. Is this correct? Because I, for one, am having absolutely no problem understanding your position. That still doesn't make it okay.

Yes, that's correct, thank you. I felt I had a hard time getting that across.
And no, it doesn't make it okay, but I just don't see it changing any time soon, just like I suppose the RedSkins will remain the RedSkins for a while yet.
posted by LucVdB at 3:40 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Thanks for your comments everyone. Now it is bed time for me.
posted by LucVdB at 3:45 PM on November 14, 2012


Oh perhaps. But thousands of schools have already changed their Native American related names and mascots. Oregon and Wisconsin have banned them outright.

So we're examining our racism and acting to change it.

It's a lot better than making excuses.
posted by elsietheeel at 3:47 PM on November 14, 2012 [6 favorites]


I'm going to say what I always end up saying in these discussions: it's not about offense, it's about harm. People aren't "offended" by the caricature. They are hurt by it, marginalized by it, occasionally beaten and arrested for expressing that injury. It is not difficult to draw a line between the anti-Moorish origins of the tradition and current Islamophobia rampant in the political dialogue.

Instead of saying "offense" and "offended", say "harm" and "harmed". It will become clear that telling people that they need to live and let live, even though they are harmed, is kind of a callous thing to say to someone, and that while the tradition may indeed be more important than the harm it causes (although obviously I don't think so), the bar it must meet to be worth it is rightfully much higher.
posted by Errant at 3:49 PM on November 14, 2012 [14 favorites]


Man, and I just got the stink eye and a condescending explanation of why we don't say "Going dutch" or "Dutch uncle" or "Dutch courage" anymore.

Not that I'm really going to stop — I think those idioms are orders of magnitude less offensive than "redskins" or even "gypsy." But I am getting a pretty good chuckle out of it.
posted by klangklangston at 4:05 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Crossposted from the MeTa thread:

Zwarte Piet and Cultural Aphasia in the Netherlands by Dutch ethnologist John Helsloot. Abstract:
In recent articles American historian Ann Laura Stoler has introduced the concept of ‘aphasia’ for describing metaphorically the cultural ‘inability to recognize things in the world and assign proper names to them’, especially in matters relating to the colonial past in Western societies. Taking this concept as a lead, the author analyzes an incident in the Netherlands in November 2011, when two young black Dutchmen were arrested for wearing a T-shirt on which the phrase ‘Zwarte Piet is racism’ was printed. Zwarte Piet [Black Peter] is the imaginary character in blackface acting as the helper of Sinterklaas, the central figure in the Dutch ritual of gift-giving thas has its apex on 5 December. For some decades now, there has been a debate in the Netherlands as to the precise nature of this blackface. By and large the Dutch deny, as was again the case in the aftermath of this arrest, any relation to a portrayal in caricature of a black person, producing instead associations that are difficult to grasp. After presenting the arguments of opponents of Zwarte Piet that there is such a connection, termed racist, the author focuses on the performance context of Zwarte Piet’s presence, in order to try to understand why Dutchmen generally fail to make this connection. In an epilogue the author makes a plea for going beyond the mere conclusion that Zwarte Piet is contested. Sharing himself the protesters’ perception of Zwarte Piet being racist, in his view the metaphor of cultural aphasia obliges professional ethnologists to re-associate this connection as well, and to make this known to the general public.
posted by Kattullus at 4:27 PM on November 14, 2012 [8 favorites]


The whole Sinterklaas thing is just a Christian perversion of Odin worship anyway. Maybe the traditionalists should put their money where their mouth is and go back to the real traditions.
posted by Sys Rq at 4:30 PM on November 14, 2012


God, it's about 1000x more obnoxious for a Belgian to be blithely dismissing racism than it is for a Netherlander to do so. No European country has a more despicable, bloody history in Africa than Belgium.

What a fucking obnoxious thing to say. Belgians are super-duper bad for disagreeing with you? You get to assign original sin to everyone?

King Leopold is not on Metafilter; Belgians are not responsible for decisions made decades before they were born.
posted by spaltavian at 8:25 PM on November 14, 2012 [4 favorites]


I don't see the Zwarte Pieten as mocking black people. I see them as Zwarte Pieten.

This is the crux of the matter. That's the disconnect any campaign to change Zwarte Piet has to deal with. While he is of course rooted in racist imagery and has racist connections to those who are sensitive[1] to them, the presentation of Zwarte Piet in official media is deracialised, in as far as that is possible with white actors in blackface. Officially, Zwarte Piet has nothing to do with actually existing Black people and his origin (freed slave, chimney sweep, etc) is largely glossed over these days. His presentation these days is also much less racially stereotyped ("funny" accents" et all) though Golliwog like pictures are not hard to find either.

Piet isn't a clown and hasn't been for years, doesn't quite fit the stereotypical images of American blackface, but is shown as a valued assistant and friend of Sint.

Which is not to excuse it, but to explain why it can be hard for (white) Dutch people to understand why, no matter how well he is presented, the image of Zwarte Piet still remains offensive. Combine that with the usual resistance to being called racist, especially by Americans, who after all are only barely civilised themselves (tongue firmly in cheek here).

Piet is also ubiqitous in a way that's only comparable to Santa Claus; it's hard to go against the grain this way when he's on tv, at your children's school, on every frigging ad poster in the city.... If your entire environment shows Piet as a symbol of good cheer and family togetherness it's that harder to believe he's a symbol of racial oppression

The slavery issue in this context is a red herring; that's all history, is even further away from Dutch perceptions of Piet and it all happened overseas. Slavery is just nowhere near as visible as a living issue to white people here than it is in the US, where it happened on the doorstep.

[1] Not meant as a sneer or criticism: I know that as a white dude there are a lot of signals that fly over my head in these contexts that I would've picked up if I was Black and subjected to them on a regular basis.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:40 AM on November 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


There is actually a petition on change.org: Dutch Ministry of Education: Get Zwarte Piet as a blackface tradition out of Dutch schools. Though there aren't a lot of signatures on there at this time, it's interesting to read the supportive comments by people from the Netherlands. One guy from Amsterdam says, "My 5 yrs old son who comes crying home when they called him zwarte piet. This should be reason enough," and someone else says "Because I still carry the shame of being called Zwarte Piet by innocent children. And because I don't want MY innocent children to EVER do the same."

Elsewhere, someone says "I'm thinking if this is the last year I'll ignore children calling me Zwarte Piet. [Edited by moderator]. Ask the black children who are being called Zwarte Piet each year if they think it's funny. The land of the Hollanders has black people too and we don't want to be called zwarte piet because you think it's so much fun to play black-face every december!" and "I am not Dutch but my husband is and he loves Zwarte Piet and Sinterklaas. I am black and I find certain images offensive..... no matter how much I try to pretend it doesn't. I particularly find offensive, the images of Zwarte Piet as a short black man with ridiculously huge lips, big buggy eyes and a big afro. This is a typical, RACIST caricature of a black person that the rest of the civilised world threw out ages ago. I've allowed my kids to partake in Sinterklaas celebrations since birth but it's something I feel very unsure about. I don't understand how many Dutch people can't see how offensive this image is.... it's on wrapping paper, cds, sweets."

When I was trying to read some of the (machine translated) articles about/by Quinsy Gario, it seems he was saying how hurtful it was that children were calling his mother "Zwarte Piet," if I was understanding correctly. I can't help but feel that most of the people who find it difficult to understand or imagine the offensive nature of the symbol would feel very differently if it were their child or mother, if not themselves, being characterized/caricature-ized this way.

From my (terribly removed) position, it just seems like it would be so simple and reasonable to move forward with the chimney soot story, and cease the gollywog portrayal... Zwarte Pieten could wear soot-blackened clothes, with some smudges on faces and hands (as you would get if you were involved in chimney adventures) and this would neither destroy the holiday nor traumatize children of any color. And, yeah, the schools really seem like a great place to begin instituting such a practice.
posted by taz at 2:56 AM on November 15, 2012 [11 favorites]


B: No, we've been hashing this through decades ago, we have a minimum of sophistication and can tell the difference between Zwarte Pieten and black people.

This is an assumption. There have been many studies about how people internalize seemingly "innocuous" sexism and racism, along with how they organize the priorities of their society based on who is being represented and how. It's not a straightforward issue of "I can tell the difference between the racist depiction and a real person."
posted by stoneandstar at 1:15 PM on November 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


I was hanging out with my mom today. She's 83, Belgian, and has been in the U.S for about 50 years. She has great judgement, so I asked her if she thought this was racist. "Oh course it's racist! Of course!", she said. "I didn't know it at the time, I don't think anyone did, but it was and is racist. Why do you ask?"

I told her about this discussion, and she was so shocked that this was still a tradition that she thought I was joking, and it took a few minutes to convince her it continues to this day.

So, just a data point that it's possible to grow up with this as a benign tradition and independently decide for yourself that it may not be so benign after all.
posted by Room 641-A at 3:29 PM on November 15, 2012 [11 favorites]


taz: "From my (terribly removed) position, it just seems like it would be so simple and reasonable to move forward with the chimney soot story, and cease the gollywog portrayal..."

I can see how that would seem like a solution, and indeed many Dutch would agree with you. I respectfully would not, however, because I feel there is something insidious about bowdlerizing a character obviously rooted in colonialist oppression on the pretense that that would somehow absolve the character's use from its shameful history.

I don't plan to make a habit out of it and I already feel a little dirty, but here's maybe a rare instance where it might be appropriate to quote GeenStijl, the snarky Dutch "current affairs oh and some tits" shock blog (think TMZ meets Drudge): here's an excerpt from a recent entry titled Yes, of course Zwarte Piet is racism [SFW, might be some NSFW in thumbnail images etc.] which counters possible defences of the Zwarte Piet tradition in GS's trademark snarky tone.
He's not a Negro, he's a chimney sweep
Right. A chimney sweep. A white, sooty chimney sweep. Okay. Have you ever climbed down a chimney? It's fun, you should try it. We guarantee you will not emerge with an evenly blackened face, bright red lips, gold hoop earrings
[...] As a racist caricature of a black man, in short. If he's going to be a chimney sweep, why not upgrade to 2012 and make him a bit more of a realistic one. A couple of black streaks instead of, well, an offensive black-hating image of a blackface minstrel.
So this illustrates why I would never buy the chimney sweep whitewash (pun not intended if perhaps apt), although I admit it ends up agreeing with your point about dropping the Golliwog for the chimney sweep after all. I just don't think it could ever be taken seriously as separate from the racial caricature, nor do I think it would ever succeed narratively or commercially.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 6:08 PM on November 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think the "and cease the gollywog portrayal..." was a key part to taz' comment. 'Cause otherwise, yeah. Obviously not a chimney sweep; not fooling anyone.
posted by eviemath at 9:04 PM on November 15, 2012


eviemath is right; I meant that the zwarte pieten would not be blackface caricatures at all, but soot-smudged helpers along the lines of this image, in terms of face. No afro wig, no red lipstick, no gold earrings. They could still have colorful helper costumes, and maybe tinsel wigs, for example.
posted by taz at 10:36 PM on November 15, 2012


I think tinsel wigs would be very Christmas-ey! But that may be just my American cultural perspective:P
posted by eviemath at 11:34 PM on November 15, 2012


Here's a fun experiment: if you genuinely think the Piet character is totally innocuous and has no creepy, upsetting racist overtones, spend the next 24 hours addressing and referring to every person you know using the same naming convention and see the kind of reactions you get and the way it makes you feel.

Examples:

"Good morning, everyone. Before I begin my presentation, let me introduce my coworkers: Jewish Jimmy, Carmen "Speech Impediment" Burns, Wheelchair McGee, and of course, Double X Chromosome Sarah."

"Thanks so much for letting me go first in line at the coffeeshop, Albino Teenager."

"I'm sorry, Grey-Haired Wrinkled Mom, but I can't go to the movies tonight. I'm getting together with Homosexual Larry and Karen the Tall White Girl to study for final exams."

The Piet character is fictional, but it's a remnant of a world where it was considered OK to give people that sort of nickname -- and when actual living humans in 2012 get called "our Zwarte Piet" as a form of "innocuous good fun," then it's pretty clear one's society is perhaps not as thoroughly modern and cosmopolitan as it could be.
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:18 AM on November 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


Ack, the quote was meant to illustrate how the Zwarte Pieten are now and how the "chimney sweep" ruse (which has had some traction) is superimposed on top of that, not how a more politically correct version might look. Sorry if that wasn't clear.

Let me try again: sooty-faced white kids scattering candy to help the old Saint Nick out would be a-okay by me. But I don't think they'd ever work in the context of Sinterklaas, because they'd still be built on top of the Zwarte Piet character's history. You can't simply remove that foundation.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 4:05 PM on November 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ah, thanks for the clarification goodnewsfortheinsane! I agree that that's definitely a concern. Conscientious schools and organizations in the US that wanted to keep a long weekend with the same timing as the formerly-celebrated Columbus Day for other reasons(*) made sure to explicitly distance their long weekend from Columbus Day, to avoid coming across as being petty and acting like, "well fine, we'll call it something else because you complained enough, yeesh! [affectedly aggrieved teenager sigh from Napoleon Dynamite]".

(* For example, one of the universities that I attended had an explicitly-not-Columbus Day long weekend at the same time, because supposedly that weekend had the most student suicides over the years, and was just generally considered a good time in the semester for a little bit of a break for everyone's happiness and stress levels.)
posted by eviemath at 5:59 PM on November 16, 2012


(Whereas merely changing the appearance of Zwarte Piet to more accurately reflect what an actual chimney sweep would look like might not be enough of a break from the past depictions, so might come across as more the petty-style concession.)
posted by eviemath at 6:03 PM on November 16, 2012


Short video report by Euronews.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 1:09 AM on November 20, 2012


US Thanksgiving
posted by eviemath at 3:56 PM on November 22, 2012


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