Sinterklaas: The Zwarte Piet Issue from the Outside

zwarte clownSeveral people have pointed out–in a somewhat accusatory tone–that I’m looking at the issue of Zwarte Piet being racist from the outside. To a large degree it’s true. But first let me point out to what degree it’s not.

Like I said in my second Sinterklaas post, I mostly grew up in the Netherlands. I learned songs like “Moriaantje zo zwart als roet”  (a Little Black Sambo kind of song) and my very own grandfather depicted black people in the first graphic children’s books in the Netherlands in what I can now only see as a painfully racist manner. But at the time I thought nothing of them. I was no different than any other Dutch child of my generation.

And no, I’m not saying my grandfather was an active, consciously rabid racist; he was just unthinkingly continuing a stereotype he himself grew up with.

Like all other Dutch people, I grew up with Sinterklaas. Sure, there was a hiatus when I lived in Australia (1965-1970), but I was at no risk whatsoever of acquiring any racial sensitivity Down Under and my maternal grandparents dutifully sent us Sinterklaas packets every year, so the tradition was kept alive.

I was a Zwarte Piet for the NOS (national public television) myself when I was sixteen and even though by that time I was well aware of and stridently appalled by the history of slavery and by racism in general, I never put two and two together. I was as Dutch as Dutch could be when it came to Zwarte Piet.

Even having lived in the USA for twenty years, when  I became aware of the Zwarte Piet controversy a few weeks ago, my very first reaction was: well, yeah, it is racist, but-but-but-but-but … he’s Zwarte Piet! You can’t get rid of Zwarte Piet!

Where living in the USA makes a difference is that it only took me about an hour of thinking it through to come to the conclusion that changing Piet’s appearance wouldn’t be the end of the Sinterklaas tradition as we know it, and that we should accept that it’s about time to get rid of this one racist aspect of the holiday.

I started following the discussion on other WordPress blogs. It’s interesting that a lot of other Dutch people who are as flummoxed as I am about the defensiveness regarding the issue also live abroad.

So the fact that I look at the issue from the outside isn’t a bad thing, in my opinion. It just proves that when Dutch people are able to take a step back, the conclusion they come to is that, yes, obviously Zwarte Piet is racist, and yes, obviously we should change it–what’s the big deal?

The other reason I feel so strongly about this is that, as an immigrant here, I know a thing or two about taking on things that are ingrained in the prevailing culture. I know what it’s like to be at an unfair disadvantage, or discriminated against, and then hitting a brick wall at about 100 miles an hour when I bring it up. Over and over and over again.

When I moved here, my world was pulled out from under me because my Dutch library degree wasn’t recognized.

(Oh, here we go again, some of my veteran readers might be thinking, but bear with me.)

My degree wasn’t recognized because it was a three-year college degree that I took straight out of high school.

It didn’t matter how much I talked, how I explained that we have national school standards in the Netherlands, so students go straight to library school or law school or medical school after high school, because they don’t have to sit through three-quarters of a bachelor’s degree first to learn in very watered-down form what they should have learned in their first twelve years of education.

The registrar of the local “university” (I still can’t help putting the damn word in parentheses) had no clue what I was talking about because he knew absolutely nothing about European education.

The so-called independent degree evaluation companies knew not one iota more than above mentioned local yokel, but that didn’t stop them from charging me $300 to tell me that my three years of library school were the equivalent of three years in American college, and so I should shut up and go back to school.

I put my library school courses and those offered at UT Austin side by side and approached the dean of their library school. But he was unavailable. The various library schools across the country all passed the buck, referring me from one to the other, until I was finally referred to a long-retired library school professor in the mountains of Colorado, who agreed that I was obviously qualified to run libraries, but he had absolutely no say in the matter. He couldn’t imagine why anyone thought referring me to him would do any good. So sorry.

For my newer readers: you have to understand that I was somebody in the Netherlands. I had had a pretty good library career in the eleven years between graduating from library school and emigrating to America.

My last job was being the librarian of Europe’s second-largest archaeology library. (Which made it also automatically larger than any American archeology library; there was only one, somewhere in the northeast and it was a third the size of mine. Other American archaeology collections are thrown in with anthropology.)

I had personally written two classifications; one for police subjects that was adopted by most of the country’s other police libraries and one for archaeology. I had automated one entire library and had prepared and begun the automation of the archaeology library (which was stuck in 1956 before I took over in 1992).

In short, to say that it was frustrating and insulting to be told, as a 34-year-old Dutch librarian, that I had the equivalent of three years at a little rinky-dink American state “university” is an understatement.

And to add insult to injury: I went to said  “university” and had to sit through 5-week summer courses of World History and a second language and Math and such because it didn’t count that I had had those subjects extensively and for years in middle school and high school. And what do you know? I got high grades. And everyone was amazed. My professors gushingly referred to me as an intellectual. (Yeah, my Dutch friends are now rolling on the floor, laughing their asses off.)

I graduated magna cum laude, which not one single person in the whole damn “university” knew how to pronounce. Suddenly complete strangers in Washington D.C. offered me unsolicited help getting jobs I was not remotely interested in.

Even if anyone had taken the time to really listen, admitting that my library degree was the equivalent of a 3-year American Master’s degree in Library Science  would have meant admitting that American kids are all getting royally screwed because after graduating high school they have to spend the next four years of their lives and tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars to half-assedly learn what their teachers failed to teach them properly during the first twelve years of their school careers. So that was never going to happen.

That was my brick library degree wall.

During this time we had kids. And we were pleasantly surprised that there was a Montessori school in our area. No Pledge of Allegiance! Our kids could avoid the nationalist indoctrination of American public schools. What a relief.

And then 9-11 happened and those Montessori teachers, who until then had been so proud of the international character of the school, started saying the Pledge of Allegiance in the classrooms. In my 3-year-old daughter’s classroom.

So there I was, emotionally and tearfully trying to explain to Montessori teachers why Maria Montessori would turn in her grave if she knew that the Pledge of Allegiance was being said in a school that bore her name.

Blank stares.

And I tried, even more emotionally and tearfully, to explain where I as a Dutch person was coming from–that we associate the Pledge of Allegiance with Hitler Jugend tactics.

Glares stares that did their best to remain blank.

And then dismissiveness: But it’s just the Pledge of Allegiance.  It’s not indoctrination; it’s harmless. It’s just showing pride in our country. You should come see when the kids do it. It’s the cutest thing; most parents get tears in their eyes.

Then compromise or what was supposed to pass for it: How about if R (3-year-old R, mind you) went and stood out in the hall while the rest of the class said the Pledge of Allegiance?

By this time I was getting seriously upset, so the teachers were getting seriously hostile. I was that crazy Dutch person. One teacher–the only one who had been paying attention when an outside Montessori consultant had visited years earlier and had pointed out that the American flag or the Pledge had no place in a Montessori school–eventually came to the rescue: R could come to her classroom; she didn’t say the Pledge. Problem averted, until that teacher left a year later, anyway.

Around that time I started volunteering in the school library. Pretty soon I was working there full-time, for free, running the library, computer-cataloging and labeling the collection. My kids stayed in the after-school program because I was often the last to leave the building, along with the custodian, who locked the door after me around 6 pm.

I turned the library from a storage room with a bunch of books falling from dysfunctional shelves into a real library.

I developed and carried out comprehensive, hands-on weekly library skills classes that started  in 1st grade with filling out a blank map of the library and ended in 6th grade with writing short research papers. I also gave weekly literature appreciation classes–the first year we read and wrote different types of folktales and the second year we read and wrote different types of poetry.

The library had no budget, so I bought everything from my own–or rather T’s–money. From a new desk chair, a filing cabinet and any office supplies I needed to I don’t know how many books, bought by the carload at Half Price Books up in Austin each month.

But it didn’t matter how hard I worked and how hard I tried and how much I gave; I was forever that crazy Dutch bitch who had dared to criticize the Pledge of Allegiance. Whenever I walked into the staff room, conversation all but stopped. I was largely ignored, except, of course, when I  called in sick and a teacher suddenly didn’t have that precious hour when a third of her students were gone.

When we told the school we were moving to Austin, especially R’s initial teacher couldn’t wait to see me go so she could start using the space as a storage room again. The director didn’t say goodbye. Only one teacher’s aide wrote me a thank-you note for all I had done.

That was my brick nationalism wall.

My point is this:

I know what it’s like to bash your head against a cultural brick wall.

I know what it’s like to have to address something that’s unfair or offensive to you, but that’s sacred to everyone else.

I know what it’s like when nobody listens or if they do listen, they don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.

I know what it’s like to be dismissed as just another  crazy disgruntled outsider.

I know what it feels like to be told that this is the way it is and if you don’t like it, then just go back to where you came from.

I know what it feels like to have to choose a hundred times a day between speaking your mind or being accepted because the two are mutually exclusive.

I know how it feels to just want to scream and pull your hair out. (And I did regularly scream until I was hoarse in the privacy of my car, on my way home after having to listen to a professor tell college seniors that the age of revolutions was called that because there were revolutions like–anyone? anyone?–like  the American Revolution and like–anyone? anyone?–like the Industrial Revolution. Blank stares. Oh boy.)

I know what it’s like to feel like you’re losing your mind. And being acutely aware that everyone around you is convinced that that’s exactly right.

And I wasn’t even taking on the whole country, although at times it sure felt that way. All I wanted was to continue to be a librarian and to get my 3-year-old daughter through the school year without having to pledge unquestioning loyalty to Uncle Sam.

I’m not saying I know what it’s like to be black, either in America or in the Netherlands–no white person can ever get close to knowing what that’s like, I expect. But I can imagine, at least to some degree, what black people in the Netherlands are up against when they address the racist aspects of Zwarte Piet.

White Dutch people whose initial but-but-but reaction I share have the same reactions to the notion that Zwarte Piet is racist that I have encountered in America to the notion that the education system elsewhere could possibly be better different or that the Pledge of Allegiance isn’t that innocent.

They are the reactions of people who have never been in the minority, who are incapable of putting themselves in an outsider’s shoes, who are complacent and dismissive at best, and hostile at worst toward anyone who has the audacity to point out flaws in their heretofore unquestioned beliefs.

That–and the fact that bashing my head against any brick wall in my path has become second nature–is why I feel so strongly about the Zwarte Piet controversy, and about my need to make my point exactly because I can look at it from a distance.

9 responses to “Sinterklaas: The Zwarte Piet Issue from the Outside

  1. Marie-Jacqueline

    Barbara, I’m glad that you did write this part of your life and work in the US; which was extremely frustrating to say the least!
    I can better understand where you come from relating this in the issue at hand.
    You may be surprised that I very well know how it feels to hit the a brick wall!
    I have OCD since I was about twelve; in that time nobody knew what it was; if I tried to explain how I felt I got the blank stares you are talking about!

    Skip several decades, otherwise my answer gets to long!
    I got very sensitive for those people that without any knowledge or some understanding want to say what is good for me (LOL: Politicians for instance) I have a disorder, yes, but I’m a lot more than that!

    They never stood in my shoes, they didn’t experience what I did; they never had to struggle the way I did to have a life, to be someone that has some valuable experiences to contribute to society!

    Yes, you have a point that I was never black; so how could I how it feels for a black person when confronted with Zwarte Piet!

    What happened with this Zwarte Piet issue is the following I think!
    We felt attacked on something very dear to a lot of Dutch! Being a small country, we are bombarded on tv with American films and tv-shows.
    The Dutch language is flooded with English words.
    So in that climate we felt attacked and got defensive on that what (onderscheidt) us from other nations. It makes you feel special!
    It isn’t anything to do with nationalism or something like that!

    If the Zwarte Piet would get a different colour face; I could really accept that!

    But what colour? Red? Yellow? White?
    What colour would not be offensive to anyone?
    Getting a bit philosophical now:
    Like I said before: A colour is just a colour!
    It is humans through history, culture, religion have labeled it and because
    of those labels, the images and feelings connected with it will stick to it.

    The comparison I gave to you concerning Thanksgiving; it is a good anology!
    (The Santaclaus elves one wasn’t! So please forget that one!)

    I felt attacked and got defensive on the subject at hand!
    The Thanksgiving example was born from that, to be honoust!
    Every country may have something that they accept as something belonging to their culture. They grow up with it, it is dear to them; is accompanied with nice memories etc.

    LOL: It got a hot topic on your blog!


    • Hi Marie-Jacqueline, I understand that the idea is to have Piet have different colored faces. So you could have red Piet, Blue Piet, Purple Piet, etc. R also has OCD. It just became apparent around a year ago. It’s a battle, that’s for sure, even though the moment she started talking about it, we recognized it for what it was, and she now has therapy with someone who is specialized in OCD therapy for children. I can’t imagine what it was like if nobody knew what you had.So anyway, think of the ignorance regarding OCD you have had to deal with, and that should help you know what it must feel like for people to have to explain why they feel that Zwarte Piet is racist.


  2. Now your degree story not being recognized is just absolutely bullocks, I mean it’s a certified degree in other countries, if I would have gotten mine, have it certified in the NL’s like I had to do with all my diploma’s before they were recognized before we got permanent residency, it should be the same for you in the USA. Sorry for all those other immigrants to the USA, but I think THAT is discrimination as well!

    I’m going to stop discussing Zwarte Piet, here and on FB, I’m going to leave it up to the people back in the NL’s to decide what will happen, as I have left there it seems some people think I don’t have a say in this, hahahaha, never mind you can’t have it both ways they think, if you have left you can’t keep your Dutch passport here either if you get a Kiwi passport, and that’s not the NZ government either, it’s the DUTCH one!

    Maybe next year, there will be a multi-coloured Piet, but I think it will not happen yet, but, give them time…

    Now, how about those elves…?


    • I know it’s bollocks, but that’s how it is in the USA. Anyway, it’s their loss–I’m a translator now. Yeah, I think I’m done with Zwarte Piet, too. Unlike the Dutch in Holland, I have the luxury to move on. But at least nobody can say I didn’t do my part, right? I think that eventually the country will see sense and change Piet. I just think it should happen now. As for elves–they’re elves. Not little people. It’s just now occurring to me that maybe Marie-Jacqueline got confused with munchkins the movie The Wizard of Oz, but that would never be done now.


  3. Very impressed by your librarian background and your willingness/compulsion to lock horns with unenlightened natives 🙂


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