Tuesday, December 6, 2011
What I think of Zwarte Piet
Today is the official Sinterklaas Day in Belgium (in Holland it’s on the 5th of Dec). This is a centuries old celebration, especially for children, and it only exists in Holland, Belgium, northern France and certain parts of Germany.
Sinterklaas Day is not an official holiday in Belgium but traditionally primary schools organize an event on the 6th of December and children get a treat (mostly tangerines –mandarin oranges- and speculaas, a typical cinnamon biscuit from this part of Europe). In a former post this blog mentioned the existing discussion on Sinterklaas’s partner(s), Zwarte Piet, translated into English as Black Pete.
Since more than 30 years (Thanks Erik for this info -see comment below) the issue of the black face Zwarte Piet has been raised in Holland. It's only since this year that it dripped down into Belgium. But before 2005 nobody in Belgium was aware of any issue arising of his black face. Even if there were black people living in Belgium, nobody took great offence of this children’s event. It was considered tradition, rather childish, but not rude or meant to hurt anyone.
Things changed. I have friends now who think Zwarte Piet is blatant racism. Influence form the Black American world view has enlightened many European blacks and they don’t want to accept the Black Pete buffoon anymore.
Most white people in Belgium and Holland don’t understand this attitude. Even people who have been fighting racism for more than 10 years are completely shocked by this sudden criticism against Black Pete. They don’t understand that some black people are offended. They weren’t even aware of the fact that it could offend anyone. It’s just Black Pete they say, it’s an innocent character, it’s just for children, it’s like Halloween ...
Many retort to the explanation that Black Pete is black because he is a chimney sweeper. Indeed, the presents Sinterklaas brings for the children are traditionally delivered through the chimney. But that’s a modern day explanation which doesn’t explain the curly hair nor the big red lips. The Black Pete figure was originally a defeated devil and has later been described as a black person of African descent, Sinterklaas’s aid, slave or partner. (For more info check A. Blakely's book 'Blacks in the Dutch World'.)
Zwarte Piet was often also the scary part of the Sinterklaas feast. Only the good children got presents, the bad children had to be punished. And Zwarte Piet was the one who would catch the bad children and punish them. This means that children were supposed to be scared of Zwarte Piet, rather than of Sinterklaas who is more the old and forgiving man.
As a child I experienced this yearly Sinterklaas just like all the other white kids did. I was a good child and so didn’t fear Zwarte Piet. I wasn’t aware of race until I was 11 years old actually. Honestly I always saw Zwarte Piet as a white dude who blackened his skin, not even looking close to what I saw as ‘black people’. Never in Belgium a Zwarte Piet would mimick a 'black' accent, whatver that is. I couldn’t see anything black or African about him, it was just Zwarte Piet.
However, dismissing Zwarte Piet from Sinterklaas Day is not the solution I think. First, Zwarte Piet is a historical symbol of a century old black presence in Europe, eliminating this is ignoring a history that has been too much ignored, a history we have to face so to learn from the past and create a better future. Second, sweeping Zwarte Piet under the carpet is also pretending that stereotypes do not exist. But by deleting Zwarte Piet you do not delete prejudices. Third, most whites are not aware of the racist overtone, blaming them of racism rather than ignorance will not help in making them understand how racism actually works. On the contrary. Again I think we’d rather have to face the issue and change attitude rather than make prohibitions.
I think that rather than excommunicate Zwarte Piet from the Sinterklaas Day we should re-think his presence. A lot has changed since the early 20th century. While he used to be a devilish slave he is more a partner now, nearly equal to Sinterklaas. One day he might replace Sinterklaas. Traditions change over time . Or maybe, more extremely, we can just call the feast Black Pete Day to commemorate all the good things Black people brought to enrich Europe. Black Pete could become a nice and friendly black man who gives presents to the little ones.
As for the black face thing. Continental Europe never had a minstrel tradition like in the US or UK. Besides there was never a dominant black population present within its borders until recently. Therefore the whole sensitive issue of black face in the English-speaking world is of a very different nature in continental Europe. I understand the sensitiveness it has in the States. But while it is nearly non-existent in Europe it only exists in certain traditional holidays (very local). But it’s marginal and people don’t do it to laugh at blacks, they do it to be silly for one day (compare it to Rio Carnival). Let me therefore give another example of a local but strong tradition in Belgium: In the town of Aalst here in Belgium there is also a yearly carnival tradition called ‘De Voile Janetten’ (could be translated as ‘The Dirty Faggots’). In this tradition on the last day of carnival men in Aalst dress up as women, and roam the streets getting drunk . It gives the most hilarious scenes. It is not an anti-gay event, it’s just people being silly for one day.
All this said, I am not here to impose my point of view. I just think it is needed to keep a dialogue. I experienced white people here in Belgium who never ever had met a black person in life and weren’t aware of the sensitiveness of the Dutch word ‘neger’ (which is not the equivalent of nigger, rather of ‘negro’). When I know that a person uses this word out of ignorance rather than to insult me, I don’t think this person is a racist, he or she just uses an old fashioned vocabulary. I just feel it to be my responsibility to explain things to this person and to teach. Attacking Sinterklaas because of Zwarte Piet will only lead to more misunderstandings and hate. Raising the issue and proposing alternatives (like Zwarte Sint & White Pete) could bring more sympathy and understanding, and making people aware rather than angry.
Nevertheless, I was terribly shocked to see the police violence against protesters who were doing nothing more than wearing t-shirts stating ‘Zwarte Piet is Racisme’. This story is not finished yet.