There are people who have fixed ideas about Zwarte Piet; people who are reluctant to give up or throw away ideas that are worn, for warmth and security I guess, if not for tradition – even in the face of evidence that counters their notions. These people often pepper their narratives with perfectly rehearsed lines and show the flexibility of fabulists. Unfortunately, these folks have a rather clinical view on trans-class, trans-ethnic, trans-racial relations within The Netherlands and spent a considerable amount of effort in the careful separation of good & bad, tolerant & intolerant, Left-wing & Right-wing politics, racists & non-racists.
However, the ability to think of yourself, or someone else, in terms of Left-Right, tolerant & intolerant, racist & non-racist, good & bad does not imply that you possess a sophisticated conceptual framework, or an assumed ideology, or a keen understanding of racist power structures. These overall attitudes are simply abstracts of your position on the (political) issues that concern you the most.
I’ve been embroiled in a heated debate on Facebook about Zwarte Piet. I’ve already written a blog entry about this racist caricature, so I’m not going to delve into it again. It boggles my mind that there are still people who can’t see that Zwarte Piet is a racist stereotype. Their consciously articulated and choreographed performances expose a profound lack of awareness, understanding, compassion and a love for false oppositions. The celebration of Sinterklaas promotes racism through the use of blackface stereotypes and Zwarte Piet is the cardinal representative of the hypocrisy & racism in The Netherlands.
What I find extremely troubling is the fact that a majority of the people react viscerally without proper knowledge of our shared history. It is utterly mystifying that so few contemporary Dutch citizens understand the cultural & historical significance of a mainly white Dutch society celebrating a white saint who travels with a Black underling. Most Dutch people tend to see blackface & problematic race relations as typically American. It is true that the discourse on race has been predominantly influenced by the civil rights movement in the United States & African American studies. However, we must not forget that racism, like blackface, is not an American invention, nor a specifically American problem. Europeans brought racism to America.
As of late the discourse on race/immigration has taken a turn for the worse in The Netherlands. The discourse on immigration & the blurred & porous European borders have evoked pervasive feelings of anxiety; the Other is perceived as a real threat to the Dutch way of life. In an attempt to safeguard Dutch culture the majority clings on desperately to traditional Dutch values & celebrations. Race (in the guise of ethnicity) & questions of identity & loyalty are being fiercely debated; and these debates are shaped by the Dutch imagination.
To many people of colour Sinterklaas is a yearly manifestation & celebration of white supremacy. However, pointing out the racial dynamics of Sinterklaas often provokes fervent, violent protestations. The Zwarte Piet apologists profess that Zwarte Piet isn’t a racist stereotype and proffer the popular explanation that his blackness is caused by Zwarte Piet’s downward climb through the chimney. According to Dutch folklore Zwarte Piet climbs down the chimney to deliver presents and he’s black because of the soot. This explanation and others about the origin of Zwarte Piet are given in an attempt to de-racialize him. The most common arguments in support of their claims are:
- The holiday is a celebration for children and children aren’t racist.
- It’s a matter of ‘tradition’ (which ‘foreigners’ certainly can’t critique due to a limited understanding).
- The critics are the ones who make it racist.
Most Zwarte Piet apologists fail to see that these counterarguments do not negate the argument that Zwarte Piet is a racist caricature. Sinterklaas may be for children but it is adults who dress up as Zwarte Piet and act out racist notions – until a few years back these adults spoke a mangled form of Dutch with a Surinamese accent. Tradition is simply the sense that the present is continuous with the past – that the present in some way repeats the forms, behaviour, and events of the past. Zwarte Piet in his current form originated in the 19th century when slavery was still legal and Zwarte Piet embodies a lot of notions that were in vogue back then. So, in essence Zwarte Piet is utterly traditional…
And to suggest that ‘foreigners’, by which they often mean Allochtonen, can’t critique this tradition due to a limited understanding of Dutch culture is paternalistic – to say the least. If I follow the same reasoning and apply it to Dutch policy then the Dutch can’t critique e.g. female circumcision, and I could state unblinkingly that the Dutch critics are the ones who make female circumcision misogynistic – which will make me sound extremely stupid & insensitive & misogynistic.
These explanations & arguments present us with ahistorical views that do not take into account the assertions that are being made about race through the representation of a Black underling and a white saint. These defenses call to mind the warped morality that enabled self-proclaimed Christians to enslave other humans. Representations of Black people have a history that goes much deeper than Zwarte Piet and contemporary debates and representations build on the ideas we have inherited from the past. You cannot look at Zwarte Piet without analyzing the historical context that has led to stylized images of Black people. The fact that the current embodiment of Zwarte Piet is a racialized modification of the devil – with stereotypical darkie iconography – is exactly the problem with Zwarte Piet.
Furthermore, the belief that black equals inferior is widespread, and this colour bias, which preceded the racial bias, is embedded in our language. Black is used as a marker to tag schools & neighbourhoods that have a poor reputation, or house a large population of people of colour. Through this colour bias people, especially children, are being taught to associate Zwarte Piet with Blackness and by extension with people of colour.
This colour bias/racial bias is universally & uncritically applied in the media and politics. Politics & the media present Dutch white people as the primary agents/subjects in society. Historically & culturally there is a long tradition of considering people of colour as innately different. The Allochtoon is constructed in juxtaposition with what is considered ethnic white Dutch and is placed outside society. Differences in behaviour & practices of ethnic minorities are not constructed on the basis of cultural differences, but on the basis of a deviation from the norm that the majority, i.e. ethnic white Dutch, constitutes. What is defined as Dutch is consequently dependent on a subordinated other. This viewpoint leads to a perceived incompatibility of identities, restricted access to a Dutch identity & discrimination. The development of the nation state went hand in hand with the ideology of nationalism. And the development of racism co-occured with the development of the nation state. Nationalism, like racism, theorized a distinction between Self and Other.
One role of the nation state is the generation and (re)construction of a sense of the ‘imagined community’ of nation. This raises the question of belonging; who belongs to this ‘imagined community’?
The nation state seeks to create an ‘imagined community’ by unifying & universalizing subjects that are located in different political, cultural, linguistic or religious contexts by blurring the boundaries between these differences. However, by blurring the boundaries we risk allowing the distinct voice of the Allochtoon/Other to get lost in a sea of whiteness & privilege. The physically distinct (non-white) Allochtoon is for ever the Other; this group is usually singled out & discussed & dealt with as a problem by politicians, the media, and the academia. All of which are predominantly white and male and Dutch-centric.
The Dutch definition of citizenship is problematic because of the dualism in the collective Dutch consciousness. This dualism is a result of the power/race relations & “common sense” discourse, which determine a certain “logical structure” of society – a structure that shapes the identity of both the ethnic white Dutch & the physically distinct Allochtoon/Other. This “logical structure” (majority/minority, Autochtoon/Allochtoon) implicitly denies Dutch membership to everyone who isn’t white. The ‘construction’ of the ethnic white Dutch subject itself can be seen to be inseparable from the construction of the Allochtoon/Other. This “logical structure” can be traced back to colonialist discourse in The Netherlands, when colonialist discourse created a new ideological category of the physically distinct situated “Other”.
In the process of constructing a single voice of authority over the colonized, the colonialist included the situated Other in its discourse by representing the situated Other as being starkly juxtaposed with the European Self (wild vs. civilized). The colonial authority and the Other became locked in the same historical narrative; their cultures and identities became dependent on each other. The incorporation of the Other hybridized the European Self.
The tradition of Sinterklaas is the paradigm of this dualism; power/race relations are codified within its rituals. This racist power structure manifests itself not only through the ritual itself but also through the public debate about Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas illustrates how the power/race relations paradigm is structured in the Dutch imagination and how this power/race relations paradigm is expressed in “common sense” discourse.
So, when nationalist intellectuals fail to critique their nation’s traditions, and fail to see how these traditions affect certain ethnic minorities, it is because these minorities seem so far removed, so radically Other. These minorities don’t occupy a significant space in their consciousness.
Most ethnic white Dutch people assume that blatant acts of racism are the chief & only instances of oppression and conceptualize racism in terms of the physical distinctness of people of colour. However, this view doesn’t take into account that distorted representations of people [of colour] contribute to the oppression of people [of colour] and that racism has very little to do with physical distinctness: racism centers on constructing a subordinated Other in order to maintain a position of privilege. It is, therefore, important to analyze the various dynamic differences that take effect in our interpersonal relationships and the world around us, and how we differentiate the Other from ourselves. In our interpersonal relationships we need to be aware that how we experience power and our alterity shapes our beliefs. This awareness will make us realize that our point of view is not the default – this allows us, in turn, to act toward other people with sensitivity when they express experiences of power and oppression that differ from our own. Our experiences of society are intricately complex.
Though my critique of Zwarte Piet serves a political purpose I do not critique Zwarte Piet from a political standpoint solely. I critique Zwarte Piet from a socio-cultural standpoint, as well. This is a matter of social justice. The population of The Netherlands consists of diverse communities that are interdependent. The Allochtoon/Other, as the ethnic white Dutch, are inherently hybrid and syncretic. So, discussions of “race” or “ethnicity” are not only one-dimensional (because of intersecting forms of oppression & our shared history), but they also isolate & trap the communities of Allochtonen in “common sense” discourses that deny them agency & multivocality and create the illusion of The Netherlands having been historically an ethnically pure country. The institutional “common sense” discourses and power/race relations set forth narrowly constructed and sometimes arbitrary techniques of representing the Allochtoon/Other. These representations are not “real”.
The concept of social justice raises two very important questions for the Zwarte Piet apologists: How do we balance cultural demands against moral demands? And is it morally appropriate to exploit the legacy of colonialism for entertainment?