It was recently that time of year when normally sane and otherwise liberal-minded Dutch men and women black-up and dance around the streets throwing sweets at children.
For those of us who live here but who came from elsewhere, it takes some getting used to. (More than 4 years, is all I can say at this point.) Most expats express at least mild discomfort at the spectacle of white folk frolicking about with boot polish on their faces. Not to mention the disturbing caricatures of Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) whenever he is drawn.
Every year, the debate rages. Is Piet a slave? Or is he a Personal Assistant? Is he black because of his racial origin? Or (as some people have claimed) from climbing down chimneys? Is it all harmless fun? Or are the undertones of slavery reinforcing racial prejudices?
I am old enough to remember the great golliwog debates in the UK, when we (as a country) asked ourselves “are these black-faced dolls with exaggerated, stereotypical features racist?” “Almost certainly yes, we concluded.” “And, by the way, is this TV show, where white singers paint their faces black and sing and dance cringingly, something violently offensive that should never have been made, let alone aired?” “Absolutely!”
In fact in a Party shop, I saw several Zwarte Piet dolls, which were exactly the same as the old golliwogs, for sale quite openly. It was a harsh reminder of less tolerant times. Like watching old cartoons when, after being blown up, characters always resemble a grotesque black caricature who will inevitably start singing a spiritual.
So, does Zwarte Piet represent the condoning of the subjugation of whole races? Or is it merely a representation of the fact of the time – a bishop would have had a servant. And one from Spain or Turkey (depending on whether you believe the Dutch or fact), is even more likely to have one that was black. To hide this fact is also wrong. And he is integral to the legend. Although Sinterklaas has the status - there is only one of him and he is clearly in charge - who do the kids call out for? Not the dignified cleric, but the crazy one who doles out the sweets.
But it is not Piet’s colour that is unsettling, of course, but how it seems he can only be portrayed by a white painted black (or black-painted white, if you prefer.) It is all done with naivety rather than with any malice, but still, there is offence to be taken.
I know of one school for foreign children that tries to steer the practice in less murky waters by having Bonte Pieten (Multicoloured Petes) where all of the faces are painted in different colours). You only have to do something differently for a few years running for it to become the new tradition.
Whether in the future Piet becomes multihued or stays black... Whether his ethnic heritage is played down or played up... Whether he and the bishop are held up as an image of modern inter-racial co-operation or past enslavement... the kids won’t really care. Just as long as they get their sweets.