2013-10-22

disputable folklore

A Zwarte Piet, captured in 2009.
Otherwise reasonable Dutch friends and acquaintances have today been posting pictures of Zwarte Piet as their profile picture or joining FB groups such as Pietitie which collects signatures against the abolition of a much-disputed 19th century tradition in which mostly white people paint their faces black and wear 16th century servant costumes. Even a news caster dressed up today as a Zwarte Piet when presenting the news that the UN are currently investigating the issue and have signalized that they do think it's a racist tradition and should be abolished. Defenders of the rite claim that the black color is not supposed to imply that Zwarte Pieten are people of African heritage, but that it supposedly symbolizes soot from cleaning the chimney for the gift parcels that Sinterklaas (not Santa Claus) delivers to the children on the evening of 5th December (not Christmas). That does, however, not explain the curly black wigs, red lipstick, and golden ear hoops which usually come with impersonating a Piet, and neither the impeccably clean servant costumes. Many Netherlanders with African heritage understandably feel offended and claim this is a racist tradition (after all, the black guys are the submissive servants and the white guy is the boss) which should be abolished.
 
No matter what the origin or intention of the rite is, I don't understand
  1. why the Pieten have to be black? Why can't there be Asian ones, or Caucasian ones? Is it so important that the servants have a different color than the boss - and if it's about symbolizing chimney soot, wouldn't some patches of black, without the wigs and the lipstick and golden ear hoops, be enough? 
  2. why so many white Netherlanders fervently deny what is glass-clear to the rest of the world: That it's completely understandable that their fellow countrymen and women of color, many of who are indeed descendants from former Dutch slaves, may feel offended by the folklore? Interesting 2011 ethnological article on this expression of cultural aphasia here
  3. why the emotions boil so high that people start leaving entirely insensitive comments such as "don't criticize what you don't understand", or even "go back to the jungle if you don't like it here" on critical news articles, blog posts, or forum discussions? 
  4. why keeping a tradition alive (which was introduced in the late 19th century and is thus not even that much of a tradition) is apparently more important than avoiding to offend people's feelings? ‘Whatever his origin may be the present-day image of Zwarte Piet has a strong resemblance to the European stereotypes of African slaves created during colonial times’ (Ruby Savage, 2009) - and shouldn't that be enough to at least think about altering it? 
Holiday rites, just as other traditions, do evolve over time, and for a reason: Because society changes, because laws change, because we know better now. Shouldn't we be a little more flexible in our folklore - in particular when we realize that we hurt others by insisting on it? Does tradition really trump everything else?

PS - Up to the 1990s, Germany used to have Mohrenköpfe (moors' heads)/ Negerküsse (negro kisses) - candy made from whipped egg whites and sugar, coated with chocolate. Now they simply have Schokoküsse (chocolate kisses) anymore. Same product, but the nasty racist connotation is gone. And the world is still spinning.


3 comments:

  1. Thank you for addressing this.
    I am a black Dutch woman and baffled by the (re)actions of a lot of (white) Dutch folks. I attended the public hearing on Zwarte Piet to express my support with those stating that "Zwarte Piet is Racism" and I was expecting resistance, but not (collective) resistance of this sort. And I mean sort, like in quality, not in quantity.
    They don't realize it (now), but it's just sad.
    I hope they will realize it soon, though. Which brings me to this anecdote which I read on http://www.metafilter.com/121801/No-most-Dutch-people-have-no-clue-how-this-looks


    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]


    I was so touched by it.

    Regards, Claire.


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    Replies
    1. Thank you, Claire, also for the link. I still can't believe the reactions either. How can a tradition be more important than the people who are hurt by it?

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  2. I guess I should add that in Belgium Sinterklaas (& Zwarte Piet) is also being celebrated.

    Claire.

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