Thursday, October 17, 2013

Slave to the Tradition

I’ve noticed that every year there’s more and more debate about one single aspect of Dutch culture. One figure of Dutch folklore who starts appearing at this time of the year in readiness for his big day. On December 5th, Sinterklaas, the grandfather of Santa Claus, leaves presents in kids shoes in a very similar fashion to his more internationally known offspring, who tends to go for stockings. Instead of the North Pole, he lives in Spain. Instead of a reindeer-drawn sleigh, he has a steamboat. Instead of elves he has a faithful black servant.

The debate about is always about Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) who historically was almost certainly a slave, but is portrayed more as a comedy sidekick. Is it racist, is what the debate is all about. With most people from outside the country saying yes, and many of those who grew up with it saying no.

It took me a few years to get used to it, and now, I must say, I barely flinch when I see a real live Zwarte Piet or a doll-like representation of him which looks exactly like a gollywog, which were dolls we got rid of in the UK quite a few years ago. At least I barely flinch visibly.

My point of view is this. Obviously history is history and the real Saint Nicholas quite possibly had a slave/servant/comedy sidekick who quite probably was black. I don’t have a problem that such a figure still exists in the folklore and has not been replaced by mythical elves or magical reindeer. I don’t have too much of a problem that he is portrayed as being somewhat wayward and a little crazy, slavery isn’t something to help keep up perfect mental health, and as such you should take what liberties you can. The only real problem I have is this, which is at the core of why it’s considered racist: Zwarte Piet can only be portrayed by a white man or woman in black face paint, curly wig and thick, red lips in the style of a minstrel show, something else we got rid of a long time ago.

For me it’s only this offensively stereotypical representation that is what makes my flesh cringe whenever I see it. I think everything else can be kept. Make him blue or say he can only be portrayed by black actors or I don’t know.

But the kids, of course, don’t see it. Piet is a very popular character, mostly because he gives out sweets and so forth. And those adults who grew up with it only to be told later on it’s racist often are quite offended by the suggestion. They make up alternative histories to explain why he’s black - from coming down the chimney. Presumably he scratched his lips all the way down as well and the soot made his hair go curly. It’s only natural to be so defensive of something you grew up with and never saw any offense in. It’s very similar to those Christians who when asked about dinosaurs and their omission from their holy book state that they are a test from God.

I’m pretty sure the debate will continue for a few years yet, but the fact is seems to get bigger implies it will come to a head. As someone who lived through similar issues in the UK some 20+ years ago, I can assure the people of the Netherlands, these sort of changes, although they cause a lot of grumbling and even resentment at the time, are generally looked back upon with an air of, “I’m glad we did that” and without the very fabric of society being any more than ruffled in one corner.

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