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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

What I think about Zwarte Piet

Ordinarily, I try to stay as far away from the Great Zwarte Piet Debate as possible. I figure if I keep my nose out of it and others follow suit, it'll eventually disappear.

How naive is that?!?

The debate - nay, argument - only seems to gain momentum and get blown to more gargantuan proportions with each passing year.

So, why not slip my own opinions into the mix?

Readers, beware: this is gonna be a long one...

Yes, the first time I saw Zwarte Piet, the shock was so great, you could've knocked me over with a feather. Not because I found it racist, but because I come from a country where blackface is not just a taboo, it's illegal. Seeing dozens upon dozens of white people running around covered in black make-up with curly black wigs and big red lips, I felt like Alice must have when she first stepped through the looking glass.

But once I got over the "Oh no, they didn't!" factor, I ceased to notice it.

I admit it, I'm part of the What's-Wrong-with-Zwarte-Piet? camp. I don't see anything racist in it because I don't believe it's intended to be racist.

From what I've seen, the vast majority of anti-Zwarte Piet-ers are visitors, expats, immigrants, and internationals who come to the Netherlands and try to impose the cultural norms, expectations, taboos, etc of their home country on this, their host country. There are, of course, Dutch nationals who disagree with the color of Sinterklaas' little helper, but there doesn't seem to be nearly as many and they're certainly not as loud as their non-Dutch compatriots.

Perhaps I'm missing the point, but to me, when you choose to live in another country (and, no matter what brought you to the Netherlands in the first place, it was your choice to come and your choice to stay), it's like choosing to go to someone's house. You respect their rules and you respect their home. You respect the way they live.

It doesn't mean you have to be a mindless drone or that you have to conform completely and forget where you came from, but you do need to affect a bit of a when-in-Rome attitude. If they take their shoes off and leave them at the front door, you should do the same. If they don't put their feet on the sofa or up on the coffee table, why on earth would you? You don't go into someone's house and move their television from the living room to the kitchen because that's how you prefer yours to be at home. You don't go rearranging furniture because you're uncomfortable with the way things are set up, and you don't go taking down their hanging pictures and wall art because you find them offensive.

So why would you move to someone else's country and expect them to change their long-held traditions and beliefs because you were brought up to find them offensive?

The Dutch have been doing this Zwarte Piet thing for a helluva long time. To expect them to change their tradition because you and a bunch of other immigrants now living in their country think they should is naive and unrealistic. And, dare I say it, rude.

Take a look at these Dutchies in New York. They want to hold on to their tradition of Sinterklaas, but they now live in a country where blackface is illegal. Instead of starting petitions and holding demonstrations to get the US to change their attitude and let them have their Zwarte Piet, they've come to terms with the fact that they need to adapt to their new surroundings and change their ways a bit to what is acceptable in their new country.

Now, don't get me wrong. It's not wrong to be offended and you can't change the way you feel. But, are there perhaps ways you can ignore, come to terms with, or overlook it? Leave the country for Sinterklaas? Take sick leave the day of the office Sinterklaas party? Not go into town on the day of the intocht? Avoid the places where you know the Sint is going to be hanging out? Learn to turn a blind eye to it? Pull your child out of school the day Sinterklaas pays the class a visit or tell the teacher you would rather your child have an alternative to craft projects and other assignments involving Piet? Just put a bit of black make-up on your child's cheeks so it looks more like soot than blackface? Or be progressive and paint their faces in rainbow colors like what's now being done in Curacau? Maybe consider leaving the Netherlands altogether if that's possible?

I know it's easier said than done, but it seems a lot more effective than trying to get the Dutch to change their tradition. Especially one they seem so hell-bent on hanging onto.

But, back to why it's so important not to project the cultural norms of your own country on your host country.

As an American, I come from a country where it is politically incorrect to call a black person a black person. They're African American. Even though the majority of them were born and bred in America and not Africa. Even though a ridiculously small percentage of them have even set foot in Africa. Even though they have nothing in common with Africans besides skin color. And that's not always a guaranteed commonality either.

A deeper look at our history though, and it's not hard to see why this is still such a sensitive issue. Slavery wasn't officially ended until December of 1865. Not that long ago in the greater scheme of things. And the civil rights movement lasted until the late 1960s. That's not even 50 years ago. Even today, there are active KKK groups in the United States.

When I competed in the Miss America pageant system, my platform was "Can You DIG It: Diversity IS Great." My friends are gay, handicapped, learning disabled, of various backgrounds, religions, and colors. It disturbed me to no end that there were groups of people in the world who did not accept my friends because of their color/religion/upbringing/disabilities/sexual orientation. So, my goal with my platform was to teach children at an early age that being different is good.

In 2003, I competed for the title of Miss Washington, DC. A reporter from The Washington City Paper attended to do a write-up of the pageant. My platform stuck out so much in his mind that he included me in his article. Just not the way I'd hoped. Here's what he had to say [NB: back then, I was Tiffany Jarman]:

"The last contestant left on stage is Tiffany Jarman, 19, a blond woman with big bangs and a big smile... Jarman introduces herself and then, with spirited self-righteousness, tells the audience about her platform--teaching diversity and acceptance. 
This messenger of diversity hails from Knoxville, Md., a small town of about 4,000 just across the Potomac from Harpers Ferry, W.Va. According to 2000 census figures, Knoxville is approximately 94 percent white. 
Diversity is great," Jarman announces. "Can you dig it?"

Most of the audience succeeds in choking back laughter. Even so, a chorus of snickers ripples through the auditorium."

Apparently I come from a country where it is even offensive to the non-white community when a white woman lobbies in their favor (interesting to note: the reporter is a white male).

The closest thing Americans have to Zwarte Piet is minstrelsy, the art form where white (and even black!) people put on blackface and portrayed black people as dim-witted caricatures. We can't see the fun-loving, candy-throwing, gift-bestowing, good-hearted Piet without giving him the "Mammy! How I loves ya, Mammy" subtitling.

The Dutch, however, come from a completely different perspective. Yes, they did engage in slave trade, but they never owned any black slaves themselves. In 1818, slave trade was abolished in the Netherlands. Meaning they got out of the business 47 years before slavery was ended in the United States.

It's also important to realize that cultural diversity is still a pretty new thing in the Netherlands.

After 1960, economic growth in the Netherlands resulted in a significant labor shortage, causing the country to open its doors to guest laborers from Southern European and North African countries. The idea was that they'd all eventually return to their home countries once the Netherlands was back up to speed. But when the time came, instead of returning home, they called for their families to come and join them in the Netherlands where the quality of life was much higher than where they came from.

To be honest, I have more than enough digits on my person to count the number of black people I have seen/met since living in the Netherlands. Living in Utrecht means I'm in one the the 4 largest cities in the Netherlands, so it's not like I'm out in the sticks. And most of those are expats.

A most interesting thing happened the last time I was in the US...

For those who don't know, my daughter will turn one on Sunday. A few weeks ago, we went to the US to visit my family there and celebrate Thanksgiving.

One morning for breakfast, we headed out to IHOP. The restaurant is located near my brother's house, the food is good, the service is fast, and the staff is friendly.

We got a booth at the back of the restaurant and our waitress brought over a highchair. She made all over Daughter as we set her in the chair, making her smile and laugh. As she left to get our drinks, Daughter's eyes followed her until she was completely out of sight.

When she returned, Daughter couldn't take her eyes off of her, staring at her in complete awe. My daughter is an exceedingly friendly kid. She's very open and quick with a smile. People are always all over her, doting on her. But there was obviously something really special about this waitress. I mean, I'd never seen my daughter act that way with someone before.

Soon, it was time for our food to be delivered. This was done by a second waitress. She was also very nice and made all over Daughter. And Daughter was equally in awe of this woman: couldn't take her eyes off of her. I'd never seen anything like it.

It wasn't until the third waitress came over that I figured it out. She also fell head-over-heels for Daughter, no more or less than the other two. My daughter smiled at her and then turned back to try to pick up a piece of pancake on the table in front of her.

Three waitresses, each equally into my kid. But Daughter only had the awed reaction with the first two.

Then it hit me. The first two waitresses were black, but the third was white. Up until that morning, my daughter had never seen a black person before. In her eleven months, she had only ever seen one dark-skinned person: my best friend from Singapore.

I think that the Dutch simply don't see why people take such offense to Zwarte Piet because they don't have the history with racial issues that so many other countries do. This is a relatively new thing for them, and I don't think they know how to handle it.

And there are enough non-white people that willingly partake in the activities and see nothing wrong with it. There's been at least one black family at each Sinterklaas event I've been to, actively participating. If they had an issue with Zwarte Piet, they sure didn't show it.

Each year my husband's Moluccan colleague jokes that she should play Zwarte Piet at the office party to save the company money on make-up.

When I was taking my language courses, two Indonesian classmates had an "argument" as to who would be a better Piet.

My friend from Singapore thinks Zwarte Piet is perfectly harmless.

I think it depends on how you were raised to think about it. And how you choose to think about it. Because, I think you can find something offensive in just about anything if you put your mind to it. I think we've taken this PC thing too far on a lot of levels and that, as a society, we do tend to look for the offensive in everything (check out some of the comments on this article in the Irish Times)

That's not to say I'm opposed to things changing. And I've certainly considered all the alternatives thrown out there.

My feelings on the Rainbow Pieten? Leave the rainbow to the gay community. I think it's a cop-out. And I find it lame. "Let's make the Pieten multi-colored! Then, we're either offending no one, or offending everyone equally and at the same time!

My feelings on Just Piet? Another lame cop-out. While we're at it, let's make the Easter Bunny just The Bunny. Or the Tooth Fairy just The Fairy?

My feelings on getting rid of Piet altogether? Sure! And, while we're at it, let's sack the elves and reindeer. Let's get rid of the dreidel and the menorah. Let's take all the embellishments out of everything and leave only the basics. People, Piet is more beloved than the bearded, mitre-wearing man himself. Let's not kid ourselves. The holiday is for the kids. And they don't pin racial connotations onto Piet. Why take out their favorite holiday character because we can't just live and let live?

My feelings on the "he's just dirty from climbing up and down the chimney" theory? Does anyone really buy that? Yes, he spent all that time in the chimney and got so sooty it turned his face and hands completely black, but his clothes miraculously stayed pristine! I think not. It's a lame excuse, Dutchies. Stop using it. We all know better and it just makes you look insensitive and naive.

But, wait.... why don't we take that idea and run with it? If we're going to say he's dirty from going up and down the chimney, then let's make his make-up accurately reflect that and call it a day. Then everyone's happy.

Zwarte Piet stays Zwarte Piet, but gets a 'make-under' to look more like Bert The Chimney Sweep and less like Al Jolson. what is now the lame chimney excuse becomes a viable explanation.

Sadly, I didn't come up with this, but I do think it's brilliant. And you might actually be able to convince the Dutch to hop on board for this one.

I don't ask you to agree or like anything I've said here. I don't think I'm necessarily right. I don't think I'm necessarily wrong. And, honestly, as a white woman, what does my opinion count for anyway? But I've been silent on this for too long and, damn does it feel good to get it out!

So, since I've already opened Pandora's box... What are your feelings about Zwarte Piet? What alternatives do you suggest? (And, play nice!)

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Melynda said...

With all due respect, I completely disagree. I've found this to be a well-written piece:

studio TOOP said...

You've stated your point well, even though I disagree with most of what you have written. What I do agree with is that the eventual change will have to come from the Dutch community itself. I am aware that my role as an immigrant to this country makes it difficult, if not impossible, for me to really be the one to initiate this type of change, and I do think that is appropriate. But, fact is, even if the Dutch are trying to deny and avoid it, NL is becoming an increasingly multicultural place.

What I also agree with is that, those with a more intimate history and relationship with slavery are more offended by Zwarte Piet than those who are not. That is discussed a bit in this movie (which is generally worth watching).

Laurie V. said...

Thanks for sharing your opinion/thoughts on the matter. I couldn't agree more with all of the points you make, and I think you worded everything perfectly.

Anonymous said...

With all due respect, your logic isn't very sound. If you lived in Saudi Arabia, for example, would you not vocally oppose the lack of women's rights? And the Netherlands has a very long history of welcoming foreigners and taking on their (enlightened) ideas. I's not true there aren't any Dutch people against Zwarte Piet, just google it.

Tiffany said...

I would not agree with women's lack of rights, but that's not my point. My point is that I, as a non-citizen, a foreigner coming into their country, cannot expect them to change their ways because I disagree with them. My protests will do extremely little to help the cause. Any change would have to come from the Saudis themselves. Same with the Zwarte Piet issue. And, no, the concept of foreigners in the Netherlands is not new, but the concept of dark skinned foreigners is relatively recent. Just Google it (here are two sites to get you started - and I never said there aren't any Dutch people against Zwarte Piet. My exact words were "There are, of course, Dutch nationals who disagree with the color of Sinterklaas' little helper." I have no issue with you disagreeing with me and think it's only healthy to have differing opinions. The reason I threw this out here is that I've been listening to what others think for four years while keeping my mouth shut and I decided since the debate is not going away, why hold my tongue about my own feelings any longer? I'm all up for a debate and hearing opposing views, but please read the words I wrote instead of putting them in my mouth.

Anonymous said...

Nice article, but a teensy correction. . . blackface is not illegal in America.

Tiffany said...

Oh, wow, I had no idea! Thanks for sharing that. I'll have to amend the post. Very interesting!

Federico said...

I came across your blog post through Google and I appreciate your well-argued, balanced commentary on Zwarte Piet.

I just wanted to comment on a point on which I disagree: namely, cultural practises don't need to have bad intentions in order for them to be racist. I feel zwarte Piet is racist because it is very clear to me that this character did not get black skin, big lips, and curly hair from coming out of a chimney. Zwarte Piet is quite obviously a caricature of how black people were once portrayed. On those grounds, the *idea* of Zwarte Piet is racist. People who dress up as Zwarte Piet are not racist, but they are making use of a caricature of an ethnicity, much like other 19th century caricatures do (of Chinese, Jews, etc).

I, too, don't expect the Dutch to change their tradities. I would, however, prefer it if people would be honest and simply say that Zwarte Pieten are blacks by ethnicity, not because they come in through the chimney.
Happy holidays,

Invader_Stu said...

I've always been of two minds about it. I don't think the Dutch are trying t be racists so at the most it's insensitive? Zwarte Peit is very loved character so they are not doing it to be hateful.

People will always have different reactions to it.

Isha said...

The 'they are black because they climb through the chimneys' theory is not lame. Sure, from an adult's perspective it looks like a cop-out theory (most people nowadays don't even have chimneys). But I believed it as a child. I think most children do. When they think about it at all, that is.

Chad B said...

Your article is chock full of inaccuracies and partial logic, which I won't delveinto, but it is important to note that the Dutch continued selling slaves until about the 1860s, mostly within the confines of the black market. See out an article called "StereoPiet." If you're going to have an opinion on this, maybe you should learn the acual history of the tradition and the Dutch's involvement with those of the African Diaspora first. Also, just because you don't know Dutch citizens of African descent doesn't mean that they don't exist. And yeah, they're in Utrecht, just probably not in your immediate area.

LJK said...

I'm one of those foreigners who is very anti Sinterklaas tradition, but then again I'm also anti Santa Claus! We don't do that stuff with our kids and I don't like any of it being pushed on them.

Your solutions to avoiding it don't hold weight. Once a child in NL is 5 they are 'leerplicht' and you cannot just pull them out of school because you don't like a holiday. You will get fined!

I tried asking to not have my kids do the crafts, etc but then the kids just feel weird and not normal and the teachers say no to you anyway.

Zwarte Piet IS racist but that isn't the only reason we're against the holiday. FYI Dutchies, don't get your panties in a bunch. I'm not calling you racist.

Shannon Meyer said...

I experienced my first Sinterklaas last holiday season. Yes, Zwarte Piet initially shocked my American sensibilities. However, now I think it's kind of cool that Dutch folklore includes a black figure. Regardless of how he may have been portrayed in the past, at the celebrations I attended he was shown as a respectable side-kick, not so much a servant, and certainly not a slave. In many cases he outshone the Sint himself because he was the one playing with the kids. Ideally, he would be portrayed by a black individual and then the black-face would not be needed. Change how he is portrayed, but I don't think it would be better to eliminate the character because he is black; what kind of message does it send to *decrease* diversity?