Last week the website Slate ran an article about the Zwart Piet tradition, calling it racist, and a thousand comments about the subject soon followed. I have to admit seeing blue eyed people painting their faces black, lips red, and adorning afros was shocking to my American sensibilities because of what the images mean back in the States.
But then again, so was seeing this for the first time...
... and learning my future father-in-law was among the marchers.
The large wooden cross that followed this procession wasn't burning, but instead carried a carved statue of an impaled Jesus, being that this is an image of Semana Santa, or Easter Week in Sevilla, Spain, not a Klu Klux Klan rally in Alabama. Although, I imagine many would mistake it for the latter which would make the Spanish racist because the white hood and robe always means segregation and lynching, not the Passion of Christ.
I guess the point I'm trying to make is that we see through filters which frame our perspectives, so while the character of Zwart Piet might seem offensive to me because of the history of minstrel shows in the States, to our alien he's just Sinterklass's entertaining helper who comes from Spain like one of her grandmothers. She's never seen a man of African descent and said, "He looks like Zwart Piet." Rather she mentions our black friend in London who came to visit and brought her a dress. Because she understands Zwart Piet is a character, not a representation of an entire ethnicity.
Now, if the Dutch perpetuated this cartoonish image of black people in their every day life, then I'd say they and Zwart Piet are racist. But they don't. There's a surprising amount of diversity in advertising, at the work place, at the local bar. People of color play people of color in the movies and T.V. shows here, unlike in Hollywood where white men still paint their faces black for a laugh (Robert Downey Jr. in Tropical Storm being the most recent) -- or worse, respected black men play subservient roles to white masters in mainstream films, like Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance. You can read about more movies you probably didn't realize were racist here.
Am I saying that there is no racism in the Netherlands? No. But no more than in the States, Spain, England and probably where you live. Just like there are crazy right-wing politicians getting elected to office in every country. As a species, crisis tends to bring out the worse in humanity, it seems, no matter the nationality. In other words, Geert Welders is no more representative of the Dutch people than Rick Perry who hunted at a place called "Niggerland," or Hermain Cain who recommended electrocuting illegal immirgants, are of Americans.
Traditions evolve and Stinkerklass and Zwart Piet have too. The man in the beard no longer beats bad boys and girls with a switch and his helpers, the Black Peters, are not his servants. I see the festivities more analogous to a circus with Sinterklaas the papel inspired ring master and the Peters are his renassaince inspired clowns, without whom there is no show. Who knows? Maybe, in the future Sinterklaas will be fat and black with his Peters white, but would that be insulting albinos?
I remember as a child Columbus Day was celebrated in the States with parades and a day off school honoring the mythical man. Later on a more realistic picture was painted of him, including his enslavement of the indigenous population in the spice trade. Of course, we Americans don't extend such honesty or racial sensitivity to a more cherished holiday, Thanksgiving, or to our favorite pro-sport, the NFL.
Ask a Native American what they think of the term Redskin for not just a team, but one in the nation's capital, and most will say it's on par with the n-word. Yet, every Sunday for 18-weeks a year, millions of people watch the team, celebrate them and buy their gear. Some dress up like this...
Now, are they racist?