Saturday, December 3, 2011
Zwarte Piet is Rascism
Let me introduce Zwarte Piet - Black Pete a Sambo/Golliwog-figure that's part of Dutch culture.
On the fifth of December in the Netherlands. "Saint Nicholas", and its manifestation; racism.
The letters in the newspapers and on the internet are in general very emotional, reflecting a fear that ‘Dutch’ culture is being ‘threatened’ by ‘foreigners’. It's a holiday is a celebration for children. It’s ‘tradition’. I have been told by Dutch people that I am the one who is making it racist and if you start a discussion about it with other Dutch people as I have you'll be told he's black as he comes down the chimney - which suits them as then they cannot be accused of being rascist and they don't have to think any further about it.
The refusal to listen to counter-arguments and reply to those with substantial criticism reflects an insensibility for the opinion of a minority and it questions the portrayed image of the Netherlands as being “the most tolerant nation in the world” and every accusation of racism is beforehand answered with denial.
Before I'll discuss this controversial black figure I will discuss his white master, Saint Nicholas/Sinterklaas.
Sinterklaas was a bishop born in the 3rd century near a city called Myra in Byzantium now called Turkey. He died on the sixth of December After he died the Byzantium church declared him a Saint. The legendary bishop is remembered during an annual holiday that is widely celebrated in the Netherlands & Belgium. In offices, schools and homes. The idea is to give each other presents and to write poems filled with irony and humour, offering you the chance to poke fun at each other. Children are taught to believe that they receive their presents from Saint Nicholas who is accompanied by a black servant called 'Black Pete'. Adults will dress up as Saint Nicholas and Black Pete (a white person painted in black face).
Saint Nicholas "arrives" from Spain in November by boat in Holland together with his black servants (as the Dutch like to call them).
It is on national television and opens the festivities. The stores are filled with candy, books, decorations and toys covered with representations of coal black skin and ruby red lips and an old white male with a funny hat.
Legend is told that Nicholas is the patron of children, sailors, merchants and female virgins so the Byzantium church declared him a Saint. One such a story is the tale of a poor nobleman who is unable to offer a dowry for his daughters, so they may marry. He decides that his daughters will have to prostitute themselves in order to survive. Saint Nicholas prevents this from happening by throwing bags filled with money through the poor nobleman’s window at night. Each bag contains enough for the dowry of a daughter and makes it possible for them to marry. Many of the legends take place in the so-called 'Land of the Moors' as Byzantium was at war with the Arab Muslim during the 9th century.
As stated earlier the black slave-characters that accompanied Saint Nicholas originally symbolised the devil, a ‘joker’ who was submissive, frightening and disobedient all at once and was associated with Moors/Muslims who were seen as the devil. When Saint Nicholas re-appeared at the end of the 18th century after being banned by the Protestants he returned alone, without Black Pete.
He wears the costume of the child-slaves that worked in Europe at that time, the pages. Carrying a large bag and his rod he threatens to take children that behaved bad. In an era of slavery and colonialism the racial ideas of that time were translated onto this figure.
The combination of the small Black Pete and horse-riding Saint Nicholas, represents the triumph of good over bad, Christian over heathen, and later; Christianity over Islam. The contrast between the Saint Nicholas and Black Pete stands in a long tradition of rascist representation in which Europeans portrayed themselves and Africans as essentially different: Europeans as rational responsible, civilised, mature and as masters. Africans as irrational, wild, childish and as slave'. Saint Nicholas is being portrayed as everything Black Pete is not. The Saint is an old white, wise, and articulated man. Pete is a young, black, simple, cheeky (classically followed by a reprimand from the Saint), boy.
In the 21st century the black figure is still with us, dressed in the same outfit. The role is usually played by a white woman or man who wears black or brown grease paint on their faces (Saint Nicholas is always performed by a man). He or she wears large golden earrings, a curly wig and red lipstick. Right now they wear brown grease paint more often because “the blackness frightens children”.
Once the transformation is completed, a change in voice and behaviour usually follow. He or she will speak improper Dutch with a low voice and a Surinamese accent. In other words; a racial stereotype is reinforced. While the stereotype and its origin, are obvious, many people (also respectable scholars) contend that the figure has either no racial connotations, or the racial connotations should be viewed as being positive.
Black Pete symbolises the devil who was usually associated with people of Moorish decent. The current Black Pete is simply a variant of this devil-figure. The fact that the current Black Pete is a racialised variant of the devil figure and people (esp. children) are still being taught, through the celebrations and rituals, to "easily associate" evilness and Black Pete with people of colour, is exactly the problem here.
The oppression of Africans was legitimised by an ideology, a discourse translated in ‘scientific’ and religious theories about blacks that ‘proved’ they were inferior, destined to work as slaves. Contemporary Black Pete is a caricature of a black person.
When we deconstruct the myth of Saint Nicholas and Black Pete we discover the conviction that blacks are inferior, a conviction that does not stand on its own but as we all know is still translated as truth in certain academia, popular media and politics. By including race thinking in the ritual it becomes part of the attributes of a power structure. In it's recent form it shows us how power relations can be read in Dutch multicultural society. This is not only evident through the ritual itself but especially through the public debate about the imagery of the white master and his black servant.
In Suriname the myth of the white saint and his black slave was difficult to contest or criticise. For example, in 1970 writer Astrid Roemer was a High School teacher who refused to celebrate the holiday at school. She talked to her colleaques and the principle of the school, but they refused to listen to her arguments. The day of the celebration she did not appear at the school. She was fired the next day.
In the seventies a lot of Surinamese people migrated to the Netherlands due to the political circumstances in their home country. Their presence led to a re-evaluation of the ways the Dutch dealt with their colonial history and their images of black people. Again Black Pete was scrutinised, only this time in a context where the majority of society was white. A friend of mine from Suriname told me that white people have used it as an insult to Blacks on the streets in Paramaribo by shouting "Black Pete" at them.
Posted by Big Daddy Wayne