This past weekend I attended the local Dutch festivities welcoming Sinterklaas into town. He’s not really like the Santa Claus we know in the United States, he’s more of a Catholic bishop, a Saint dressed in a completely different manner. His beard is longer and so is his hair. What stands out most and makes him so unique is not anything he is or he wears but his “helpers”. I will try to describe Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas’ assistant, as objective as possible. Let’s start with a quick google search:
“These Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) all dress in 17th century colorful Moorish outfits with curly black Afro wigs, brightly-painted red lips, black gloves and solid blacked faces and other exposed skin. Naughty children were punished with switches and even carried away by the servant in a large jute sack. In the late 1960s Zwarte Pieten began shifting away from being primarily about discipline and punishment to providing entertainment. With these changes, people said Zwarte Piet’s face was black because soot got on it going up and down chimneys delivering presents. However, this did not explain why his face was solid black, he had a curly black Afro-wig and exaggerated red lips. Amazingly, after going down chimneys, getting his face totally blacked, his clothes remained perfectly clean.”
According to several discussions I have had regarding this controversy (whether this character should continue to be an appropriate part of this tradition) the changes to this tradition are a “new development of recent years”, yet according to the site above “back in the 50s Zwarte Piet, the servant or slave, began to get a softer image during the 1950s. His black-face began to be attributed to soot from coming down chimneys, thus attempting to make him more like Knecht Ruprecht in Germany or Schmutzli in Switzerland. The first recorded questioning about the role and portrayal of Zwarte Piet was in 1968. A woman named M. C. Grünbauer thought ‘it no longer appropriate to continue to celebrate our dear old Saint Nicholas feast in its actual form.’ While slavery had been abolished for over a century, she said, ‘we continue the tradition of presenting the black man as a slave. The powerful White Master sits on his horse or throne. Pete has to walk or carry the heavy sacks.’ “
After reading this I couldn’t understand how people can’t see how this character, as it stands today, can be considered innocent and NOT racist. Just because the games at the coliseum in Rome that involved human slaughter were considered a celebration back then does not make them any less barbaric. We have come far from those days but we have hurdles to overcome.
I attended the festivities today in full journalist mode, I tried to be as objective as possible and made no mention to my son of my apprehensions on the subject and allowed him enjoy it and he did. I tried to see the side of Dutch people who feel highly connected to this event by the warm and happy memories of their childhood. Here is my honest takeaway. I feel very strongly that there needs to be a paradigm shift in the way we treat each other, as people, as humans who share this earth and have a mountain of differences. I recognize that as a part of a traditional upbringing I carry anger and judgement in my heart. Since the birth of my son I have tried to made changes in my personal life to try to be a part of the change I want to see in the world. We are in a journey in our home to move away from fear-based parenting, no yelling, no hitting and no alienation. We work really hard to heal our deep wounds of the past and look for love in every decision we make. I think love is the answer for a better future. Love means we put aside our selfish desires and wants to take account the feelings of others. I find that continuing a tradition that can be hurtful to an entire race of people under the excuse of “hurt feelings” and “tradition” is an unloving and disrespectful approach to the people we share our world with. The world is still a more favorable place for whites, whoever says otherwise doesn’t have to walk out into the world daily and face the challenges people of color do or have been raised in a white washed world that has taught them to repress who they are. About a year ago I could’ve told you with all certainty that I was NOT a racist, that I had no shred of discrimination for people of color. Thanks to a little thing called the Blue Eyed, Brown Eyed project I came to the painful realization that I was very ignorant about the way the world feels for a person of color. After spending a couple of hours on YouTube watching Jane Elliot and her work on the project I realized that I often used very hurtful and demeaning language when speaking to people I cared for and love. “I don’t see color when I see you. We are all the same. I get you, I grew up in the hood.” Gosh was I a pompous, arrogant idiot. Back then I would’ve accepted the veil of this grand Dutch celebration as simply something to brush off and look past “for the sake of the children”. Now I can’t see this display of blatant disrespect for people of color who find it offensive and think that it should be allowed to continue as it stands.
While at the festivities and on days prior I took a variety of pictures. This is where a picture is worth a thousand words.
These images propagate all the following stereotypes and negative or hurtful historical representation of blacks:
- Blackface: a type of makeup used in Minstrel shows to ridicule the physical features and character of people of color.
- Sambo: depiction of black characters as ridiculous, always happy, lazy, irresponsible and carefree.
- Savage: primitive and childlike.
- Servant/Slave: This is self explanatory, Piet carries the sacks and walks instead of rides on the horse, he does all the work. He is often depicted as a man with loop earrings, a symbol of slavery.
- Unintelligent: If Piet there only to serve and carry things, be silly and act like a court jester can children of color see him and feel like they can amount to Sinterklaas-type aspirations in life?
If you are not familiar with the history of Blackface and Minstrel shows (I wasn’t for a very long time) click here.
If you are a parent of a child of color, trying to teach them pride in their heritage, trying to uplift them from centuries of oppression, teaching them that the white history we all learn is only part of the story and that people of color have made intelligent and forward-thinking contributions to the history of the world, it can be difficult if society continues to promote such stereotypes with such a light heart. As a Colombian I felt offended when a Dutch model who’s name I wont promote put a picture on her profile of Colombian soccer players snorting cocaine on the field during the world cup. That is the most hurtful stereotype from the country of my parents and I am glad she got backlash for that. The same is happening here and just because it has not been discussed before does not mean that it’s not a real issue for people of color.
Would I allow my son to continue to do or say something that would hurt someone else’s feelings even if it’s a part of his personality? Would I ignore my husband’s complaints about some habit of mine that feels hurtful to him even though I see it as completely innocent and even fun? NO, I wouldn’t. Because part of living in harmony with someone means respecting their feelings of hurt even when they make no sense to us. In this case I think the Dutch have a responsibility to explore the feelings of those being hurt, even if those people are NOT Dutch. Why? Because what makes the Netherlands a unique and wonderful place is the open door and mind to everyone of different backgrounds and belief systems. The first step is acknowledging that the practice of ridiculing any race in any way, or demeaning it is simply wrong. For the sake of the children we simply must lead by example. Just because it’s veiled by innocence and because it’s a party that “makes children happy” it doesn’t mean that blackface is ok in any circumstance, for any reason. The video below may not be a completely accurate account of what the tradition is like in person and the fun is certainly sucked out of it but I think that’s what we need to do. Isolate the issue at hand apart from everything else and see it for what it may represent to some people.
The part I don’t understand is the people that are claiming the change is somehow insulting or hurtful to the children or to Dutch people in general. A blog from an expat american married to a Dutch man called Finding Dutchland practically dismissed the feelings of people complaining about this issue stating “there are two sides” and “we need to also see the hurt on the other side ” She stated to me directly: “Let’s start by establishing that we are not in the United States anymore. The American rules, our way of thinking, our societal values, are not the same around the world. There may be similarities, but definitely not the same. It’s a different country in a different culture with a different mindset. And actually, do you know who is also quite upset about this? The near silent black minority who love and are proud of this tradition. One wanted me to write that his mom, a beautiful strong woman from Aruba with dark black skin was proud of the Zwarte Piets, proud of them being slaves. Because from her perspective, as much as slavery caused her parents pain and suffering, it also brought them to where her family is today. So in place of shame, she takes ownership of it. She was a proud woman who wanted her black children to hold their heads up high, never to forget about the atrocities of the past, but to move forward with love and hope. And every year, when the holiday comes, she made sure that her children and grandchildren enjoy the magic and wonder too. Now for a moment do you really think that I can write that on my blog without fear of being attacked? Of being misunderstood? Because that is this woman’s real story who deserves every bit to be listened to. Who am I to say that she is wrong, to invalidate, to question, to trivialize her love for Zwarte Piet? There is more than one story. And if you can’t trust that they are coming from a place of love, than I am afraid you will never understand. Change is already happening. And it’s coming from people who are willing to make a change.” The blog she is referring to can be found here.
First of all the anecdotal account of one woman does not justify this or make it ok for those people who are upset by this. For the sake of staying on point, let’s just talk about Dutch people who are unhappy about this, let’s forget the opinion of the rest of the world for now. Where is the respect or love for Dutch people of color who are genuinely hurt by this? To answer the statement above it’s important to remember that the history of oppression, slavery and discrimination is not only an American phenomenon. We don’t own the rights on racism and slavery. Lest we forget history let’s look back a moment. According to several sources by 1650 the Dutch had THE pre-eminent slave trade in Europe. As of 1778, it was estimated that the Dutch were shipping approximately 6,000 Africans (probably black slaves for those who say “white people were slaves too”) for enslavement in the Dutch West Indies each year. The Dutch shipped about 550,000 African slaves across the Atlantic, about 75,000 of whom died on board before reaching their destinations. From 1596 to 1829, the Dutch traders sold 250,000 slaves in the Dutch Guianas, 142,000 in the Dutch Caribbean islands, and 28,000 in Dutch Brazil. The even sadder part is that the Netherlands has a long history of telling black Dutch people to “get over it,” to read a more well-researched account of this outside the context of Piet read this great article by Humanity in Action.
How does this tradition honor the millions that died and suffered for being enslaved, ridiculed and hated? Did I miss an entire history where white people (Dutch or otherwise) have been largely sold as slaves, where the world is ruled by black people and where white people have had their lives and opportunities destroyed based solely on the color of their skin? And aren’t people from the Dutch island colonies, the very people who’s ancestors were slaves, JUST as Dutch as the mainland Dutch and the most entitled to complain? This is the part most people just don’t get. When a group of people (whites, males, the rich) that have had the power to oppress another group of people (children, people of color, women, gays, the disabled and children) they don’t have a right to cry fowl when they are questioned for practices that propagate a social structure that continues to demean, degrade, belittle and hurt the people that have been oppressed for ages. I am sure not every single person of color is offended by this tradition but even if it’s just one single Dutch person that says this is hurtful, it’s the duty of his/her fellow citizens to see how they can remedy this.
I truly believe the Sinterklaas arrival, the story of how he brings presents is unique and sweet. My son had some amazing moments sharing with our local actor who did an amazing job when we visited Huis Sinterklaas, saying in perfect English “You’re from America? Then you know my great friend Santa Claus. When you back please give him my regards, we are like this!” (while gesturing crossed fingers) He proceeded to hug my son, read his letter and treated him so nicely. This is the best Father Christmas experience we have witnessed. The Piets were also sweet, kind and fun. I would never want to take all that joy away from children, I just think there is a way to do it while simply adding a dash of love and a ton of compassion for those who feel (rightfully so) insulted and hurt by a part of the story that perpetuates hurtful and demeaning stereotypes of a people that should no longer have to continue fighting to be heard, understood, embraced and appreciated for all the amazing contributions to society they have given all of us. Dutch people need to see that they are a part of the people of Holland some expats who maybe should keep their opinions to themselves but many of them Dutch by birth in Suriname and Antilles or other colonies. Their voices matter, the pain in the past matters, their struggle is still real. The main reason I moved here is the world-wide fame of the Dutch ability to embrace and respect differences and create an environment where people from all walks of life can live in harmony and feel embraced. The “live and let live” motto of the Dutch is something I admire very much. You are admired the world over for so much, this is the last step in being the example for the rest of the world of a society of open minds and progressive thinking. Below are some great ways to a happy celebration free of black-face and the propagation of these hurtful stereotypes. Some pics are from this past weekend and some are from celebrations outside of Holland where blackface has been eliminated from it.
I have tried my best to provide historical references and information to substantiate my observations. Don’t take my word for any of this, I am after all just an expat on my way out, this is just what Mavi Says.