Sinterklaas: Breaking Down Some Arguments


blog.seniorennet.beOkay, this is part four in what has become a series. I’ve already addressed the first couple of arguments in my previous posts, but let me mention them again just to be thorough.

Argument: Zwarte Piet has nothing to do with slavery. Zwarte Piet is a fairytale figure–not based in any history.

My response: It’s irrelevant where the idea comes from. The point is that Zwarte Piet is racist now.

image: mamamaai.blogspot.com

image: mamamaai.blogspot.com

Argument: Zwarte Piet isn’t racist. Zwarte Piet is a friendly part of a friendly holiday. Zwarte Piet is a friend to children. They love him.

My response: It’s irrelevant what your intentions are with Zwarte Piet. The point is that black people find him offensive. I can’t stress this enough: White people don’t get to decide what black people can or can’t experience as racist.

Argument: Who do the United Nations think they are, interfering with our Dutch traditions? And they don’t even get the facts straight (see this post by Dean Richards).

My response: Whether or not the UN understands the facts and history of Sinterklaas is irrelevant.

image: nedermeme.nl

image: nedermeme.nl
“Zeurpiet” can be translated as “Whining Piet”.

It’s the responsibility of a national government to ensure that minorities’ rights are not trampled. If a minority brings to the national government’s attention that they feel discriminated against, and the national government doesn’t do anything, then the United Nations is alerted.

If you don’t want the UN to comment on the situation, then you’d better make sure you deal with the issue satisfactorily. The fact that the UN had to get involved should be a wake-up call. Shame on the Dutch government for not taking the concerns of its minorities seriously.

image: cnn.com

image: cnn.com

Argument: There is a civil war going on in Syria; we are in a recession; Indonesia is killing West-Papuans (see this artikel by Gerrit de Heus). So don’t we/the United Nations have anything better to do than worry about something as innocent as Zwarte Piet?

My response: Tell it to black people in the Netherlands that it’s innocent. Tell it to the guy whose coworkers and even his boss refer to him as Zwarte Piet for two months out of the year.

Also, the United Nations is quite capable of looking into more than one issue at a time.

And sure, there are always worse things to worry about. But that’s a great excuse for never doing anything about anything. It’s also a diversion tactic. The average Dutch person can’t do anything about the civil war in Syria or the recession or the fact that Indonesia murders West-Papuans, but they can do something about the racist nature of Zwarte Piet. So the argument that there are worse things to worry about is the argument of the lazy and the indifferent.

image: rtvstadskanaal.nl

image: rtvstadskanaal.nl

Argument: I know plenty of black people who love Sinterklaas and everything about it, including Zwarte Piet.

My response: That’s irrelevant. Apparently there are enough black people who do find it offensive, and that’s what matters.

And anyway, you don’t know the motivations of those black people who “love” Zwarte Piet. Maybe they really do (see this post by Van Daal en z0). I don’t presume to know what other people think. Having said that, and since black people have always been such a minority in the Netherlands, and considering the reaction of the majority the moment anyone dares to criticize Zwarte Piet, you’ve got to wonder how many black people don’t just say they love it and go along with it, even participate with gusto, because they are used to having to work extra hard to fit in, and to show they are “a good sport” about things.

image: scientias.nl

image: scientias.nl

Argument: The vast majority of Dutch people want to keep Zwarte Piet; just look at the Piet Moet Blijven Facebook page. Its got so many likes already!

My response: The only thing more inane than having polls like that is the fact that people are getting all excited and pleasantly surprised when they’ve gotten the first million likes. Of course you’re going to get a lot of likes–you’re the majority!

However, democracy isn’t about majority rule; it’s about defending the rights of minorities. Having a vote about Zwarte Piet is like representatives in a majority Republican state in the USA wanting to decide whether gay couples can marry by taking a vote. That’s nothing less than bullying, which is why we have national governments. And if they don’t do their jobs, then you take it to the UN.

Argument: The UN (or what’s really meant: those damn divisive blacks who brought this issue to the UN) have created racism where there was none (again, see Dean Richards and Gerrit de Heus).

My response: BULLSHIT! People who aren’t racist don’t suddenly become racist because the UN gives them a rap on the knuckles about a children’s holiday.

image: ad.nl

image: ad.nl

First of all,  Zwarte Piet has always been racist (see my second post in this series). Second, the mass hysteria that has taken over the country shows exactly to what extent white Dutch people consider black people as  equal Dutch citizens: not at all.

“How dare they attack our traditions!” There was always racism and this just brings it to the forefront.

Argument: It’s not racist; it’s tradition.

image: divinevarod.com

image: divinevarod.com

My response: So anything that’s tradition isn’t racist? Get real.

And tradition? Don’t give me that. The Sinterklaas tradition was never set in stone.

When I went to school in the sixties, kids exchanged surprises–that’s all, but now classrooms have cardboard fireplaces and kids put out their shoes and get candy. Or if that’s not considered hygenic, teachers can always buy pre-cut paper shoes that the kids can color first. That’s relatively new. They didn’t do that when I left 2o years ago. Apparently some bars even have a schoentje zetten event. That’s also new. And there are Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet dolls now. Again: new. It has nothing to do with tradition and everything to do with consumerism. They’re all just more ways to make money off the holiday.

If you can add things to the Sinterklaas “tradition” every few years in the name of making a few more bucks, you can bloody well take offensive aspects out. And no, that’s not going to change the whole face of Sinterklaas (see my last post).

There, that should cover it. If not, let me know.

The next post: let’s try an analogy.

7 responses to “Sinterklaas: Breaking Down Some Arguments

  1. Barbara, there’s quite a few things, that I don’t agree with here, smaller and bigger. I’ll just tell about a few of them, to give ‘my side’ on this issue.
    I’ve seen Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet dolls when I was young, we did all sorts of stuff around Sinterklaas in our school when I was young (and we’re about the same age) When my kids were young, about 3 or 4 one of them said very loud “Zwarte Piet” to a person with a dark skin, he got so excited but that was not a racist remark and they didn’t get angry, and we didn’t see him as a lesser person, he was from Surinam and had a great head of hair! So some of the things you mention are not really new, I think it depends on where your school was and what type of school you went to and how they thought about Sinterklaas.
    Also you have been away from the NL’s for many years now, hardly been back in that time, and grew up in another country for a big part of your life. Not saying that makes a difference in what the whole Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet discussion is, but your look at it is the look from an outsider.
    If you look at it, with the ( I have to say it) ‘American’ thinking that somebody with a ‘blackface’ is a racist thing, you will see all people using black stuff on their face as being racist. I know I never in my life thought about Zwarte Piet as a slave, or a silly, stupid person, he was always really clever and quite strong too. He was and is Sinterklaas’ helper (which was called knecht back then, as in the song) and he often remembers things the old man has forgotten. A bit like a P.A.!
    If we have to see bad things in all the stuff that we have around this tradition, we better get rid of the steamboat (pollution) the horse (animal cruelty) all the candy(obesity) etc etc … I mean it. You can only see racism if you look at Zwarte Piet as someone who is imitating and belittling black people, Does that make me racist? I’ve had and still have people of all colors as friends, I just don’t see Piet as a racist thing. I can’t help it. AM I now racist and stupid? I agree there’s quite a few people out there using this to grow the ‘Nationalistic’ feelings in the NL’s, if you are going back sometime in the next few years, you will see how things have gotten. Nothing to do with color, but everything with open borders and fear.
    Banning Zwarte Piet will not help here, it will make the feelings even worse I think.

    Not sure if you will write a part 5, but I was waiting what else was turning up so I could write a bit about how I felt, and I’ve been away from the NL’s for 7 years now. The home country sure has changed!

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    • Barbara Backer-Gray

      Hi Hanneke,
      Yes, that is a lot, so I’ll respond very briefly to most of it, and longer to what I feel is the most important.

      Okay, I stand corrected about Zwarte Piet dolls and what was and wasn’t done in schools in our time. But my point was that the tradition evolves.

      As for a 3-year-old calling a Surinamese person Zwarte Piet: I was referring to fully grown people calling their black co-worker and employee Zwarte Piet, even after he has made it clear that he really doesn’t appreciate it. There’s no childlike innocence in that.

      I was born in Holland, lived there until I was almost 5, when I moved to the super-racist Australia of the 1960s, and I came back when I was ten, starting 4th grade. Like most other white Dutch people, I loved everything about Sinterklaas, including Zwarte Piet, and I never thought anything about Zwarte Piet or the way he was depicted.I was as Dutch as anyone. Yes, twenty years ago I emigrated to a country that has taught me a thing or two about my attitudes toward other ethnicities. You haven’t; you emigrated to New Zealand.

      It is exactly because of being very Dutch but having gotten different insights that I feel I should address this issue as intensely as I have. I didn’t want to. The whole thing makes me sick and I also didn’t really want to air our dirty laundry in this way. But my blog is about being Dutch in America, and if this isn’t a topic for my blog, then I don’t know what is. Yes, nowadays I look at Holland from the outside, and it seems to me the country could do with taking a step back and looking at itself from a distance. (Even afstand nemen, als het ware.)

      No one is saying we “have to see bad things in all the stuff we do around the tradition”. That’s a distraction tactic, a pathetic attempt to change the subject, if I may be so blunt. Nobody is suggesting we get rid of the horse or the steamboat or the candy. The black population is requesting we get rid of the racist aspects of Zwarte Piet. That’s all.

      “You can only see racism if…” No. Again, you don’t get to determine what black people can or cannot experience as racist.And this is the most important point.

      Hanneke, I know you feel very strongly about horse welfare, so let me give you an analogy:

      Let’s say you’re in a stables with a man who is holding a horse that’s obviously in great pain. The animal is foaming at the mouth, chomping at the bit and jerking its head up and down. So you point out to the man that the horse is in pain because of the bit he’s using, and that a simple adaptation would end the pain. All he has to do is remove one pin. The man responds that he never intended to hurt the horse. Maybe that’s true. Maybe he didn’t even know the horse was hurting. Maybe he always thought that the foaming and chomping and jerking were signs of sheer joy. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. But now he knows that it is indeed causing the horse extreme pain. Instead of saying, “Well jeez, thanks for pointing that out, I’ll remove that pin right away, because I would never intentionally hurt my horse,” he insists it’s not abuse because he’s not an abuser; it’s just that he has always used this bit; it looks great and he just really enjoys it, he can’t help it, so he’s not going to remove the pin. He doesn’t think it’s abusive but the horse is clearly in pain. Would you care that the man says he thinks it’s not abusive, or would you focus on the fact that the horse is in pain? And if it’s been pointed out to the man that the horse is in pain as a result of something he’s doing, something he could easily stop doing, and he insists on continuing the practice, what does that make him? It’s a rhetorical question, of course; I know what you’re answer would be. And I have to believe that we’re better than that horse owner.

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  2. Thank you for another insightful article.

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  3. Hi Barbara,

    As I think back on my 1940s childhood in Baarn, I can recognize the casual and not-so-casual racism that was around at that time and in that place, mainly directed against people of Indonesian or Eurasian stock. At the time I wasn’t conscious of it, and it didn’t occur to me to ask why the servants of Sinterklaas were dark skinned. That’s just the way it was.

    Only after we moved to Victoria, B.C., where I spent my teens, did I become aware of racism, there directed against First Nations people (then known as Indians or, more commonly, drunken Indians) and people of East and South Asian stock. There was one black family in Victoria I was aware of, and its members were treated almost like household pets. Had there been a thousand such families, attitudes would undoubtedly have been different.

    Now, half a century later, it is clear to me that Zwarte Piet is rooted in the era of slavery, and that people (whether Dutch or not) who are of African background are right to be offended and to regard him as expressing the racism of the past as well as of today. There are plenty of Netherlanders (and Canadians and Americans) who feel ambivalent about or hostile to people with dark skin colours. By no means all who feel nostalgic about Zwarte Piet are consciously racist, but they should be prepared to change with the times and adopt a colour-neutral Piet.

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    • Barbara Backer-Gray

      Thanks for your reply.. I know that not everyone who’s nostalgic for Zwarte Piet is consciously racist. But we who have moved to countries with larger ethnic minorities and have learned to be more sensitive also know that simply saying you’re not racist doesn’t mean you’re not. Whether racism is intentional or unintentional makes little difference to those on the receiving end. And that’s what many Dutch people seem to have a hard time understanding.

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  4. I admire your clarity and forcefulness, not just the series (when I saw the title ‘Sinterklaas’, I never imagined it would have something to do with racism) but also your reasoned replies to comments. Kudos.

    Like

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