|Dutch (white) boys and girls playing Zwarte Piet|
Before I start, I - as a Dutch black person - support the film, so check out www.kickstarter.com. But first the details and then my explanation.
Synopsis: Directed and Produced by Shantrelle P. Lewis and Produced by Chanelle Pearson, Black Pete, Zwarte Piet is a film exploring the blackface tradition of Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands.
Black Pete, Zwarte Piet: The Documentary is a film about the blackface tradition of Zwarte Piet, a Dutch folklore character associated with the celebration of Sinterklaas. The documentary seeks to explore both sides of the Sinterklaas/Zwarte Piet blackface tradition – and everything in between. Who wishes to change the tradition? Who wants to maintain it? And why?
Making a film about Black Pete in the Netherlands is a challenge. A challenge because such a film could easily become a cliche if it tries to explain an issue which has been discussed in news articles, blog post and on YouTube for many years now. But let's look at one question Shantrelle P. Lewis will try to explore.
Who wants to maintain it? And why? We know why many Dutch people want to maintain the black character Zwarte Piet, but what about the black people. We also know that many Dutch black people see Zwarte Piet as racist, so her real challenge would be to explain why some black People are not against it. And also why some Black people in the Dutch Caribbean actually black up their face to play Zwarte Piet.
But why do black people put up with Zwarte Piet? Is it ignorance, internal racism, or are they just black zombies who don't know what is happening around them? The answer is perhaps very simpel. Black children celebrate Sinterklaas just as white children. In the age of 2 till 7 the celebration of Sinterklaas is a magical period of Zwarte Pieten, who walk on roof tops and climb into chimies to deliver presents. So what should black parents do, tell their 4 year olds that Sinterklaas is a just another white supremesist and Black Pete is racist because he looks like racist blackfaced white American Al Johnson and functions as a slave?
Oftentimes, during school celebrations, Black children are selected to play Zwarte Piet." To support her claim she added a picture of a black Dutch girl dressed as Zwarte Piet.
Her message is clear: black children in The Netherlands are victims of the white racist school system, they are blacked up to serve as Zwarte Piet.
Complete nonsense. Every black person who was born and raised in The Netherlands has primary school pictures with a Zwarte Piet in it, but no one has ever been forced to dress up as Zwarte Piet. True, black people in The Netherlands are not as active when it comes to fighting racism, but if this is true, the Sinterklaas celebration would change overnight.
What bothers Lewis is that Dutch black people don't fight racism the way black Americans do. Having studied the black Caribbean presence in the Netherlands she came - perhaps in anger - to a final conclusion. At the end of her journey Lewis looked back on Facebook and called black people in The Netherlands "Black zombies" for putting up with these forms of racism.
Unfortunately her view created a deep conflict with the well known Dutch black artist and Black Pete activist Quincy Gario. He is the person with whom she teamed up to explore the black Caribbean presence and he was the one who showed her the face of racism in The Netherlands. He was deeply offended by her comment and felt if she had stabbed him (and other black activist) in the back. But seemingly Lewis meant something different, but it's clear this issue has not been resolved, since Gario does not appear in the trailer of the documentary. And let's be honest, a documentary about protest against Zwarte Piet without Gario is like the Niggazs in Paris video without Jay-Z. Perhaps this was clash of two big egos, but the end result is not very productive.
Do I blame Lewis for her lack of nuance? No, if I were a black American and had seen a film like “Alleen maar nette mensen” and had checked out in a supermarket with a cashier dressed up as Black Pete, it would be hard for me to understand why Dutch black people don’t rally against this as black American people probably would have done in the US. Although many activists have protested against it, Gario is not the only one.
But many Dutch black people who don't hold up picket signs - including me - also see Zwarte Piet as racist and want to see it disappear. But on the other hand we don't want to burden small children with the complexity of racism, we just want them to have fun and experience the same magic as we did when we were young. The tough question is, how can you fight this without spoiling the party?
That's why I hope Lewis will show this complexity instead of bringing on the American blackface history of the black minstrels and demand - as a black American - that The Netherlands should remove the Zwarte Piet character immediately. Even Gario knows that's not going to happened.
As for the blackface issue, whether or not the Dutch got the blackface example from the old US is completely irrelevant. In the history of black activism against Zwarte Piet this issue played a very minor role. Black Dutch people are against Zwarte Piet because they find Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet a racist master-slave representation, American blackface is a non-issue. I even know a story of an old Dutch black man who even liked the British Black minstrel shows on Dutch Television, the good old man had no idea what it really represented. Stupid? No, because back then and even today most black and white Dutch people have no knowledge of this racist American tradition.
Whatever the outcome I support such a documentary. Although Shantrelle P. Lewis sometimes shows some elements of black narrow mindedness, she still is an experienced curator, who not only connected with black people in the Netherlands but also traveled to the UK, France and Sweden to get in touch with black communities. So in spite of all my reservations I am still very curious to see the end result.
So should you support this? A full yes. Dissenting views, conflict and an occasional lie are always the basis for good documentaries and a lot of debate.
Check the trailer below
Update March 2014
I wrote this post (see above) more than a year ago, but much has changed since then. Although this topic is about the documentary, I felt the need to write a small update since I am not writing new posts anymore and because this post triggered some controversy of its own.
The “Zwarte Piet”, or Black Pete debate exploded in November and many people - including me - came to the conclusion that you can't fight this "without spoiling the party". So I was wrong.
I somehow thought you could change it with what they call in The Netherlands "poldering", which is solving problems not by power, but through discussions and negotiations. But when you talk about “Zwarte Piet” in The Netherlands, the “poldering” does not apply anymore. You hit a brick wall.
That wall turned into ugly racism that year. Black people who never gave the protests much attention were suddenly confronted with a level of response they had never expected.
An important issues which surfaced, was the question of who decided whether something is racist or not. It became clear the Dutch majority felt they had the right to make that decision. The opinion of others is considered irrelevant, or simply just ignored. The straight answer is often the same: "Black Pete is not racist because we say so. It’s my country, it’s my culture and if you don't like it, go back to where you came from. "
Because of these responses, many people were triggered to join the protests, or at least felt they had to speak out. This was not only about Black Pete, but about how Dutch society dealt with race relations in general.
In the heated debates that followed this monopoly on who decides what is racist and what is not, was challenged and slightly changed as a result. People of different ethic backgrounds suddenly talked and wrote openly about the racial jokes they felt they had to put of with all these years. As if it had something to with being integrated. But it were Black protesters who challenged it, let's be clear about that.
But in spite of the protests, the responses and the debates, it doesn’t mean these protest are supported by everyone in the different black communities in the Netherlands. There are many Black people who support Black Pete and don’t feel it is racist at all. For them Black Pete is just a character, no more no less. Although I disagree, I respect their view.
UN investigates if Dutch tradition of Zwarte Piet is racist
Race + The Netherlands: Resistance, Lost in Translation
And a story with great photos of one of the protests.
Nieuwe energie, strijd tegen racisme gaat door (New energy, fight against racism continues
I spotted this video when I wrote this comment. This video was made on the day of the Sinterklaas arrival in Amsterdam. This was the silent protest.