|Patrice Riemens on Wed, 14 Nov 2018 16:20:14 +0100 (CET)|
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|[Nettime-nl] Zwarte Piet(en) in The Guardian|
origineel: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/14/black-pete-scandal-dutch-silent-sinterklaas Black Pete: the scandal we Dutch can’t stay silent about any more Joost de Vries The Guardian, Wed 14 Nov 2018Is November’s Sinterklaas festival a vestige of slavery or benign? It’s part of a debate about our culture we simply can’t escape
Last month in the city of Leeuwarden, in the north of the Netherlands, 34 people – mostly men – stood trial, charged with one of the oddest crimes in recent history. The crime had been committed a year earlier. Here are the circumstances: in mid-November, as the tradition has it, Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, was due to arrive in Dokkum, a nearby town in the region of Friesland. Each year children flock to see the Sint (Saint) come off his boat – it’s a highly popular televised event. And each year, more and more activists set out to protest against the tradition.
What they protest against is not Sinterklaas himself – who rides a grey horse called Amerigo and hands out presents on his birthday. No, the problem is Black Pete. Originally Black Pete was to Sint what Luca Brasi was to Don Corleone: his muscle man, his enforcer. In the olden days, if children had behaved badly during the year, Pete would give them “the switch”. Or worse, he would stuff them in a sack and take them away. An elderly white man plays Sinterklaas. Pete is played by a white man too, dressed in minstrel clothing with his face painted black.
Anti-racism activists see Black Pete as a prime example of how racism and traces of slavery are present in the ordinary traditions of Dutch culture today. In recent years people of colour have started speaking out, detailing how often they’ve been compared to Black Pete, jokingly or otherwise, and how offensive that is. Meanwhile, self-proclaimed pro-Black Pete activists have said that getting rid of Black Pete, or changing him, would be tantamount to selling out Dutch national identity.
In the Leeuwarden court, the defendants were pro-Black Pete activists. Last year they had waited for the buses with the anti-Black Pete activists to arrive on a narrow stretch of a main road – and then they’d managed to block the entire road with their cars. Now they were charged with obstructing the right to free protest.
At the trial, several Black Pete supporters were dressed up in the colours of the region, with Frisian flags and wooden clogs – as if to underscore their cultural roots. Hundreds of local Frisians came out to support them. In the end, the defendants were sentenced to between 80 and 240 hours of community service. They bore their punishments proudly, like battle scars.
The trial came across as another illustration of what’s become a chronic national controversy. Just as Sinterklaas is a landmark tradition in the Netherlands, so too now is the debate about Black Pete. It took us quite a while to realise there’s something off about the character. Not until a decade ago, when foreign media started writing about this, did it become apparent that Black Pete might not be “just a funny folkloristic character” but in fact a blatantly racist stereotype.
The pro- versus anti- debate has a touch of the Dreyfus affair about it, with both sides being overheated and even sometimes aggressive. The pro-Pete side rejects the notion that Pete embodies a slave; instead they see him as Sint’s friendly helper. The anti-Pete side points out that the relationship between white master and black servant is nothing but colonial.
The pro-Pete side claims that Pete isn’t black at all – his face is covered with soot only because he goes up and down chimneys to bring gifts. The anti-Pete side asks: in that case, why the racist caricature, the curly hair, thick red lips and big golden earrings? The pro-Pete side will say: he’s a tradition, get used to it. The anti-Pete side will say: Dutch society is no longer a homogeneous white society, get used to that.
One of the go-to arguments of the pro-Black Pete side is that quarrelling about it ends up spoiling the entire celebration for children. But if this were really about the children, surely the Black Pete supporters would have paid more attention to a report published two years ago by the children’s ombudsman. It clearly states that many children of colour find the Black Pete season very troubling: during those weeks they’re more often confronted with racial slurs, usually by other children who call them Black Pete and poke fun at them.
In a sense this debate isn’t necessarily typical of the Dutch; it’s the type of debate that’s going on all over Europe. Every country surely has its own awkward, outdated tradition – where every effort to update it, or to make sure it is offensive to no one, is met with fierce resistance. Nor is this entirely a question of the left versus the right. Leftwing people are easily found on the pro-Pete side. It is more a question of being able and self-confident enough to cope with change, or of being so insecure that you want to cling on to the past, because the future is a jump into the unknown.
In his book Nixonland, about the rise of Richard Nixon and his “silent majority”, the American historian Rick Perlstein writes that the president had a gift for “looking below social surfaces to see and exploit the subterranean truths that roiled underneath”, and he understood that “the future belonged to the politician who could tap the ambivalence – the nameless dread, the urge to make it all go away; to make the world placid again, not a cacophonous mess”. Times are changing faster then ever. With new technologies and social media, those transformations jump up at us constantly – there’s no escaping them. So the urge to make it all go away becomes even greater.
The silence of the silent majority is the problem – much more so, perhaps, than the excitement of those pro-Black Pete activists brought to justice. A large majority of the population seems to keep its thoughts to itself. Yet it’s impossible to have a dialogue with someone who keeps quiet and then only speaks out at the ballot box, producing election results no one sees coming.
Sinterklaas is expected on 17 November in Zaanstad, north of Amsterdam. The Dutch public broadcaster has announced that Black Pete would look different this year – with “only soot” on his face and no earrings. The one good thing that’s come out of the entire debate is that it forces each of us to work out what our ideas are, what kind of culture we want to live in, and what defines a country. Black Pete should belong to the past. We should know better than to hang on to a tradition with racist undertones. As a society, we need to take a hard look at ourselves, and think about what future we want.
• Joost de Vries is a Dutch author ______________________________________________________ * Verspreid via nettime-nl. Commercieel gebruik niet * toegestaan zonder toestemming. <nettime-nl> is een * open en ongemodereerde mailinglist over net-kritiek. * Meer info, archief & anderstalige edities: * http://www.nettime.org/. * Contact: Menno Grootveld (firstname.lastname@example.org).