The Netherlands, Christmas 2014
This is going to be an entry different to what I usually write in this blog. It will be written in instalments as I record the debate –from my own point of view– about the Zwarte Piet during this my first (and only) Christmas in The Netherlands.
I discovered the Zwarte Piet this June at a summer school on Slavery that took place in Middelburg, a small city in the South West of The Netherlands, and of particular importance in the history of the slave trade and of the Dutch colonial past. For one of the sessions the summer school organisers –among which was giant decolonial semiotician Walter Mignolo– invited Quinsy Gario (@), an artist and activist from the Dutch Caribbean who, some time ago, started the campaign Zwarte Piet is Racisme. Quinsy presented this tradition to the audience and talked about his experience as a Dutch black man daring to say the blatantly obvious many white Dutch people refuse to acknowledge: that Zwarte Piet is racist.
For people with a certain sensibility about social justice, discrimination, and oppression, stating that Zwarte Piet is racist comes as a truism. Yet, in the Dutch context it apparently isn’t as a vast majority of Dutch people refuse to see it as racist. Further, they refuse to link it to slavery and colonialism, which is, I think, the most astonishing part of the debate.
The debate has been raging for a while now in The Nethelands. I will put myself to the task of recording what I can.
I get an email from my son’s school where I am informed ‘Sinterklaas’ and his coloured ‘Pieten’ will visit the school early December. I go to Twitter to share my shock with the world, then add that the school my son goes to is an International one, and that many of the families there come from India. I add the HT #zwartepiet to my Tweets.
I Tweet Dutch people refusal to acknowledge how racist Zwarte Piet is “is either colonial blindness or colonial amnesia. Perhaps even secret colonial nostalgia.”
One twitter user (@DJSabroso) –somebody who masters both Dutch and Spanish– enters in conversation with me, retweets my tweets, we end up by following each other. From his tweets one easily gathers he is seriously active against the Zwarte Piet. I also realise that there are many others involved with various campaigns. They are organising marches in Gouda and Amsterdam. I am still reflecting on whether I should take part in these protests. Zwarte Piet is racist regardless of whether you come from The Netherlands or not. Yet, I don’t feel legitimised.
Two other (presumably) Dutch (presumably white) Twitter users react to my tweets. In a nutshell it is me who doesn’t get it (the usual drill). About my mentioning the fact that there were many Indian families in the school one of these users tells me that before judging the Dutch I must remember “Indian people are known as the worst in enslaving others”. I reply by noting such affirmation is sort of … you know … racist. This person says that since I clearly have no arguments I opt for brandishing “the R word”. Now, the “R word”? This is PC madness. The word is racism! Repeat after me: /ˈreɪ.sɪ.zəm/. Racism.
You will easily remark that the person denying this tradition is racist did not have any qualm whatsoever in ranting about Indians. Actually, the crux of her/his argument about the Zwarte Piet being not racist at all was to point out the horrendousness of Indian people. Yet, she/he can’t utter the word racism.
You will also easily remark the difference between stating “Zwarte Piet is racist” and “Dutch people are racist”, which I never said.
The other Twitter user claimed linking Zwarte Piet with colonialism and slavery “is the stupidest argument” ever. Wow.You have to admit these are strong arguments.
This is going to be an interesting Christmas, a sort of rich fieldwork.
I discuss Zwarte Piet with my son. He is 9. He is also white, green eyed, and European. I tell him about the tradition without telling him what I think of it. He knows me though. We have spoken a lot about gender and race, and about privilege. I explain to him that in The Netherlands there is a sort of Father Christmas who’s got some white-painted-in-black persons as his personal assistants. He is shocked. He does not get it. “Why do they paint their faces black?” he asks me. I say I don’t know. Suddenly he opens his eyes wide and tells me: “But mum, the school is full of Indian children. They won’t feel at ease with that”. You are right my love. Altough my kid is young he’s become sensible towards these issues. He witnessed once how one of his school mates from Bangladesh got spat at by a couple of white teenagers. My son and his friend were six and a half. That episode left its mark on him.
Quinsy shares this link. The article is worth reading and the videos are worth watching.