In Defense of Piet

27 October 2013

Observing the Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) controversy unfold over the past several days has been one of the most interesting, sociological observations I have ever experienced. But playing the role of a silent bystander has taken me on another kind of journey -an intimate introspection of race, culture, and identity- one that I find myself unable to remain quiet about.

For those unfamiliar with the Dutch-Belgian holiday tradition:  In The Netherlands and Belgium, a gift-giving holiday completely separate from Christmas is celebrated on the 5 of December for the Dutch and the 6 of December for the Belgians. The central figures of this holiday is Sinterklaas, a character based on the historical figure of Saint Nicholas, his beloved white horse Amerigo, and his companions, the Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes).

sinterklaas

Modern cultural practices and tradition holds that on the third weekend of November,  Sinterklaas arrives in grand fashion on his steamboat with all his Petes and presents from Spain where they reside the rest of the year. A parade is held in all the major cities and is broadcasted on national television. For the next several weeks, Sinterklaas and 6-8 Zwarte Pieten roam around the cities, villages and local schools asking children what toy presents they would like and generously hand out kruidnoten (round spiced cookies). As December 5th nears, children are encouraged to put their shoes in front of the fireplace or radiator, bearing gifts of carrots for
Amerigo.

On the eve of December 5th, Sinterklaas visits all the houses by traveling over the rooftops on his horse. Black Pete enters the houses through the chimney (or radiator) to put little presents in the children’s shoes. As Sinterklaas evolved to become ingrained in the Dutch psyche, the genuine love and adoration for Zwarte Piet (as asserted by the Dutch majority) exponentially grew and took a permanent place in their hearts. For more information regarding the historical and cultural evolution of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pieten, please refer here.

 

At the very heart of this debate, the central figure in all this controversy, is Zwarte Piet. The current traditional costume for Zwarte Piet involves a 17th century colorful Moorish outfit, solid black make up, brightly painted red lipstick, and white gloves.

 

BlackPete1

The polarizing, emotional debate consists of opponents who assert that Zwarte Piet is a racist offensive caricature of people of African descent while supporters vehemently assert that Zwarte Piete is a beloved, harmless children’s character whose appearance is a result of going down the chimney and it is the fault of adults for contributing stigma to what otherwise would be purely innocent.

One of the crucial elements of this debate is that opponents and supporters cross all color lines and socioeconomic and educational stratification. The decades old debate has definitely escalated this year with both opponents and proponents taking extremist positions.

 

The United Nations and Pietitie

What makes this year particularly riveting is the apparent escalation of what was once normal Zwarte Piet drama into a real life telenovela, starting with the surprise involvement of the United Nations Human rights experts, namely on Culture, Racism, African Descendants and Minorities.  The matter came to the attention of these voluntary rapporteurs when they received individual letters addressing concern from Dutch Afro-Descendants that “Black Pete celebrations perpetuate a stereotypical image of Africans and people of African descent as second-class citizens, fostering an underlying sense of inferiority within Dutch society and stirring racism.”

To address the grievances of the minority population who had come to them, these rapporteurs acting on behalf of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, decided to address the government of the Netherlands with their concern in a letter.

Dutch Prime Minster Mark Rutte was quick to respond, “Zwarte Piet is zwart, daar kunnen we weinig aan veranderen (Black Pete is black, there is very little we can do about that). A formal response from the Dutch government was written to the United Nations..

In direct response to the possible serious threat of losing their beloved Zwarte Pieten, Dutch publicists Kevin van Boeckholtz and Bas Vreugde established a Facebook petition page Pietitie with a simple resolution: That Zwarte Piet must remain the way he is. In less than 24 hours, the Facebook page garnered more than a million supporters – making it the fastest growing Dutch Facebook page in history.

 

blackpete2

 

Think of the Children

Watching the drama unfold this past week has stirred up a lot of emotions for me as an American, as a person of color, and a mother to a half-Dutch toddler. My blog went silent last week because it was a challenge for me to collect my thoughts and to process everything as I watched my son happily play, completely oblivious to all the social turmoil.

 

While it’s easy to be an American and instantly pull out the “racism and discrimination card“, I can’t help but take the time for some cultural-introspection as well. As someone of Filipino-American heritage who grew up in San Francisco, I can’t begin to describe my own mixed feelings about Thanksgiving. While I love the tradition of spending an entire day in preparation for gluttony, surrounded by family and close friends, and the atmosphere of gratitude, I highly doubt that the day holds the same meaning for Native Americans.

 

With all due respect to the United Nations, it is a societal issue that needs to be resolved among members of  Dutch society themselves. I wholeheartedly support the idea of “More Dutch and Less American Thinking About Zwarte Piet Please“. This is a Dutch issue, not an American one.

The majority of the Dutch population wholeheartedly do not view Zwarte Piet with any intent to be discriminatory. As far as the Dutch are concerned (both autochtoon and allochtoon), Zwarte Piet is a quintessential Dutch holiday tradition and their childhood memories are filled with only positive associations. What some are fighting for is the last of what remains of their pure unadulterated Dutch heritage, a nod to a more homogeneous Dutch society where their own view of the world is the only view that exists and matters.  At the time of writing this blog post Sunday evening, 2,176,075 people have liked the Pietitie Facebook page. If that isn’t love and dedication for Zwarte Piet, I don’t know what is.

 

zwartepiet

However, there is a minority population who feel quite offended by the black face character. As Dutch opinion writer Asha ten Broeke eloquently writes,

Dat de bezwaren van een zwarte minderheid ondergeschikt zijn aan de feestelijkheden van de witte meerderheid. Dat zwarte pijn minder waard is dan wit plezier. En dát, lieve mensen, is puur, onversneden racisme.”

That the objections of a black minority is subordinate to the festivities of the white majority. That black pain is worth less than white pleasure. And that, dear people, is pure, unadulterated racism.”

 

As a mother, I can’t help but wonder how am I supposed to teach my son about these complex social issues. My son is half-American and half-Dutch and I can’t raise him completely isolated, far removed from the rest of the world. Several crucial questions arise:

 

What is racism?

The larger issue is the apparent gross misunderstanding of what “racism” is and how “racism” works. We can’t start labeling that Zwarte Piet is rascist (or has rascist elements) or isn’t rascist, without discussing as a society what racism even means.

 

Does the Dutch government, and therefore, the greater Dutch society, aim for integration or assimilation?

 

What is multiculturalism? What role does the Netherlands as a society want in the future?

 

What role are minority populations allowed to have in the Netherlands? Are they able to one day have a voice without fear of harassment, death threats and vitriol aimed at them?

 

Isn’t it time in the Netherlands that we start discussing these ideas (racism, multiculturalism, integration, assimilation) within a respectful, safe and civil manner?

 

(Edited) If I were allowed to have an opinion, I would officially join Head Piet Erik van Muiswinkel ,Boom Chicago’s (Andrew Moskos, Saskia Maas, Pep Rosenfeld and Greg Shapiro), and Nederland Wordt Beter‘s pragmatic, clever solution: As a nod to the Dutch assertion that Zwarte Piet is black from going down the chimney, let’s cover Piet’s face with ash and soot instead. Let’s also get rid of the afro wig and painted red lips. Our beloved Piet is here to stay.
Muiswinkel’s, the Dutch official Head Piet since 1998, has an insightful message to all of us:

“Making Piet less black and less of a servant is not so difficult. Let’s just go for that. It should be a matter of grave concern for our government. And the government, as far as Sint and Piet are concerned, is us.”

 

I agree. Let’s think of the children.

 

  • Karien Van Ditzhuijzen

    Great post. I agree that the issue is much wider than just the colour of Piet. I am astonished at the tone of this debate, looking on from across the world, as a Dutch living abroad. I just can’t see how our cherished (by me as well) tradition would be any less fun when Piet has a different colour. The main problem, as I see it, is that the Dutch are offended for being called racist, and they seem to experience that some ‘foreigners’ are forcing change on the natives. That these ‘foreigners’ might have been part of their country for generations now, and have a right to speak, even if they are a minority, seems unmentioned. Over the years I have found there is an increasing xenophobic and inward looking (navelstaarderig) atmosphere in the county, combined with a sense that political correctness, and basically respect and good manners are no longer required. It is one of the reasons we left, and following this debate makes me see it is by far not yet time to return. The tone of the debate is very harsh, even some good friends, who I know as intelligent and sensible people, have said thing I find hard to swallow…

    • rinamae

      Hey Karien,

      Thank-you for sharing your insight with me. It isn’t easy sometimes living in the Netherlands, especially in times like these. It’s more than just a children’s tradition and this subject is serious – it’s definitely not trivial when even volunteers of the United Nations feel compelled to interject.

      I believe in a better Netherlands, one where we can all work together to find a pragmatic solution. After your comment, I actually went back and edited it. Making a firm stand on what I believe should happen. I’m nervous, but if I don’t speak up, how could I, who wants to be part of Dutch society, ever expect progress and change for the better?

      What do you think of the solution?

      -Rina Mae

      • Karien Van Ditzhuijzen

        Mine was slightly different: he used to be black from soot, but these days most people have central heating, and no longer any dirty chimneys, hence he is no longer black! I’d say keep the costume, possible the wig (but get them in different colours?), as these days you don’t really associate them with a black slave anyhow, that seems far fetched, and us Dutch should be allowed some of our folklore. I think it can be quite easily explained to kids, who believe everything they want to believe. Just let the ‘Sinterklaasjournaal’ spin a nice story around it and in a few years it will have been forgotten.

  • http://www.europeanmama.eu/ Olga Mecking

    I have expected a controversial piece, instead you wrote a beautiful, balanced blog post about this difficult topic! I wholeheartedly enjoyed reading your post. I think every culture has a tradition that has roots in a very unpleasant or even racist, or bloddy event. This can’t be erased but I think getting rid of these tradition isn’t a good idea, either. But we can make it more positive, we can discuss these topics, we can turn this around. I also agree that the thing is not at all about Zwarte Piet being racist. This is easy to throw around “racism” in such things. But it requires understanding of a culture to really be able to talk about this. And yes, even though expats here have a voice and are allowed to their opinions, Zwarte Piet is a Dutch tradition adn the Dutch should take care of it.

    • rinamae

      Thanks for your kind words! I have to admit that I edited the part (couldn’t handle being too politically correct), offering a solution that Head Piet Eric van Muiswinkel and the others have suggested.

  • Marta García

    Very interesting. How weird they come from Spain! :)

  • http://dadsthewayilikeit.wordpress.com/ Jonathan Ervine

    This whole debate is fascinating and I think that you did a great job of covering the arguments on different sides. I hadn’t heard of this festival until you mentioned it.

  • Omar Garcia

    Proud American Mother,
    First off yes this is a Dutch issue on an American one. As a person of Mexican descent and a person with the right to have an opinion about anything, it seems as though the Head Piet has written that he desires to do the right thing in regards to solving the issue that Piet has brought up as concern for the Dutch people.
    However i strongly believe that you present extremely important questions: what is racism? and what is multiculturalism?

  • Omar Garcia

    My answers to your questions:
    Racism is and should be the same every where in the world. I say this because so far the human inhabitants of earth are still all different colors. This makes for people to create systems(on top of the ones already created)that help one group consciously take advantage of another. A good example of

  • Omar Garcia

    Is the discovery doctrine
    of 1455 which is still used today by the US and is a part of international law. Here is the wiki link:
    http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discovery_doctrine

    This doctrine uses the old age principal that natives during the Age of Discovery were inferior which gave reason to take away their land and create a doctrine to continue the robbery. This to me is why a type of racism should be the same anywhere on the globe.

  • Omar Garcia

    Yes let’s think of the children. To further my credibility as I have posted too many posts i leave you with my blog of how I survived a hate crime.
    Survivorstory13.bligsp

  • Omar Garcia

    Survivorstory13.blogspot.com

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