When the UN’s Verene Shepherd last month accused the Dutch Zwarte Piet tradition of being racist, I cringed. I’ve tried making a similar point before, and I only succeeded in galvanizing the opposition. I agreed with Shepherd’s main point, but when she suggested Dutch people should give up Sinterklaas for Santa, I had to slap my forehead.
Since then, there’s been such a torrent of criticism from the Dutch that the UN has now issued a second complaint, specifically about the racist nature of the Dutch response. And while Ms. Shepherd’s first argument had some holes in it, this second UN statement is right on the mark.
Many Dutch responses to Ms. Shepherd can diplomatically be summed up as: ‘We are not racist! Anyone who disagrees can go back to Africa.’
Even Humberto Tan received hate mail for discussing the issue – (Humberto Tan is the least threatening figure since Barbie & Ken). One reaction suggests that every year Dutch people should simply light black people on fire. Watch:
I’ve written about Zwarte Piet in the past, and I’ve also received my share of criticism from people trying to prove they are NOT racist. The Top 5:
5- ‘These complainers are just hyper-correct white people or aggrieved descendants of slavery who look for a reason to complain. They’re just the latest batch of moochers who would rather complain about nothing than do something with their lives.’
4- ‘Every year, you people feel discriminated because of a little black makeup? Show a little character.’
3- ‘Non-white people who complain should start their own tradition of dressing up in sandals and long hair because they’re all doing one big hippie imitation.’
2- ‘Shapiro, it’s simple. Follow our traditions or get out.’
1- ‘To be honest, you sound like a twat. Merry Christmas numb nuts.’
My response is as it has always been: ‘Listen to yourselves, for God’s sake. Are you making the Dutch proud?’ And – as the rhetoric has escalated – maybe there’s starting to be a collective look in the mirror.
Shortly after the remarks by Verene Shepherd, there was a pro-ZwartePiet march in Malieveld in Den Haag (organized by the PVV). It was described by one photojournalist as a jolly, peaceful affair… until a real black woman showed up.
As it happens, she was also protesting the UN (for a different reason). But the ZwartePiet supporters didn’t know that. All they saw was a black woman with a flag. As a word of advice to white people trying to prove you’re not racist: If you’re dressed in blackface, don’t stand in front of a camera yelling at real black people to ‘go back where they came from’ (in this case, Delft). (She was protesting the UN inaction in the humanitarian crisis in West Papua.)
That image – of white people in blackface yelling at that black woman – may prove to be a turning point.
Shortly after the incident in Den Haag, I overheard a conversation among some Dutch (white) sound technicians in Rotterdam. They were talking about the controversy around Zwarte Piet. It was exactly like the conversation I’ve heard so many times – but with a big twist:
Tech Guy 1: ‘Hey, who’s ready for a break? I brought candy!’
Tech Guy 2: ‘Uh-oh! These have Zwarte Piet on them. Haven’t you heard? You can’t have these anymore. It’s “racist.”’
Tech Guys: ‘Hahaha.’
Tech Guy 3: ‘Ugh. Every year, it’s the same thing.’
Tech Guy 4: ‘And every year, it’s just one group of people complaining.’
Tech Guy 3: ‘It’s only one group of people who even sees Zwarte Piet as black! Ridiculous.’
Tech Guy 4: ‘Now they’re saying it’s racist… It’s not racist!’
[Everything up until now I’ve heard before. But then there was a small pause…]
Tech Guy 1: ‘… And yet. When you’re screaming to a black woman “Go back where you came from…”’
Tech Guys: ‘(sigh) Yeah.’
To me, Dutch Zwarte Pieten are rather like Shape-Shifting Aliens in science fiction movies. The aliens always emit some mind-altering chemical so that humans see them as normal, instead of hideous. Zwarte Pieten seem to emit a similar substance that only works on Dutch people. They see Zwarte Piet as normal, instead of potentially offensive. Appealing to their sense of reason is ineffective. No outsider can snap the spell. No amount of clear evidence can defy the mind-control. But this year – maybe just maybe – I witnessed a collective moment of self-awareness.
Yes, there’s the Pietitie page on Facebook to preserve Zwarte Piet, as is. But there’s also a page called ‘Pietitie voor Piet met Roetvegen.’ (aka ‘Petition for Piet with Soot Face’)
Perhaps not long from now, the Zwarte Piet in black face will be as old-fashioned as the Zwarte Piet who used to beat kids if they were naughty – even if some of them clearly deserve it with their online comments.