10 January 2012

The Dutch Tradition of Blackface Fuels the Fire of a Movement

The ubiquitous holiday character Zwarte PietBlack Peter – is an antiquated and offensive reminder of the Netherlands’ colonial past.

Dutch tradition, Black Pete, Blackface, Zwarte Piet, Christmas, racism

Throughout November and the first part of December, it’s impossible for anyone living in the Netherlands,  as I do, to escape the image of the incredibly popular character Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), the Black servant of Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas). Adults and children, cakes and dolls. For several weeks, as BET.com reported several weeks ago, it seemed that everyone wanted to be Black, while defining and portraying Blackness in some of the most offensive ways possible. The Sinterklaas holiday has passed. But the bitter taste and debate surrounding Zwarte Piet  lingers on.

A Debate that Never Ends 

It’s a debate that circles around racism, intolerance and increasing diversity in the Netherlands. Not unlike discussions related to race and class in the U.S., the Zwarte Piet debate uncomfortably hovers over some deep and personal topics for almost everyone involved. Which is more important -- honoring the traditions of the past or admitting to the wrongs of that past? No resolution yet. In the meantime, folks feel free to walk around in blackface, becoming angry and abusive toward those who challenge their right to impersonate and mock the history and physical appearance of Black people.

The character is so blatantly racist, literally on its face. From the outside looking in, it seems that even the most slightly diverse (and perhaps civilized) society, would forego the controversy and just do away with the yearly tradition that offends a significant percentage of its population, any percentage, really. Why is this even up for debate?  Several people outside of the Netherlands have asked, “Where are the Black people? How have they let this continue for so long?”

The Rihanna Controversy

It’s not so simple. In terms of racial awareness and sensitivity, there are large differences between Dutch and American society. A Dutch fashion magazine, Jackie, recently thought it might be cool to describe Rihanna, somewhat admiringly, as “the ultimate n--gabitch.” (The editor later apologized.)

In the U.S., yes, Black people have gained sufficient power and acknowledgment to influence a number of social norms, creating rules that are taken seriously. When Dutch people make fun of the politically correct American, I’m sure they’re referring to me and the many rules I, as a Black American, apply to them, like, say, don’t call me a Negro. No rules have been established for the comfort and dignity of the Black Dutch population, at least not yet, even though that relationship traces just as far back, historically.

In the U.S., it’s as if we, Black and white, grew up together in the same city, if not neighborhood.  We’ve known each other pretty much all of our lives. So we know each other’s secrets and insecurities. The Dutch grew up in different countries and were pen-pals, at best. They’re just getting to know each other as adults, a process that takes time. In real life, in spite of a decent-sized black population, predominately from Suriname and the Dutch Antilles, many who are 2nd and 3rd generation in the Netherlands, Dutch culture demonstrates a stubborn insistence to maintain traditions reminiscent of a colonial past, whether most people are conscious of it or not.

A Gradual Process of Resistance and Change

From what I can tell, the first generation from Suriname took a low-profile approach, quietly assimilating into Dutch culture, some even painting the faces of their children black alongside their white classmates. I’m not in a position to judge the economic and social factors that must have played into virtually every decision made by a Black person in the Netherlands in the 1970s. The racial resistance of that time was likely discreet, ruffling only one feather at a time. It remained for a relatively young movement to bring the masses out of the Dutch post-racial utopia.

Yet, coincidentally in the year Time magazine has named “The Protestor” as its Person of the Year, a social movement in the Netherlands has gained momentum, with protestors using Zwarte Piet as a key target. The blackfaced reminder of the 19th century is a great proxy for so many other questions of equality and acknowledgement for the black Dutch population.

“Zwarte Piet is Racisme”

In January 2011, when Quinsy Gario, a poet and artist, spontaneously spray-painted "Zwarte Piet is Racisme" (Black Peter is Racism) on a T-shirt, the timing was right.  A collective of artists, poets, and musicians quickly took shape into the Zwarte Piet is Racisme campaign.  Capitalizing on existing grassroots efforts and social networking, using Tumblr and Facebook to promote education and action, the campaign ignited quickly and now crosses all categories of age, race and education.  Beyond T-shirts, the campaign sponsors public events, including an art exhibit, debates, and reading groups, raising awareness about Zwarte Piet and the history of blackface imagery.  Although the campaign’s message has made many people uncomfortable, every supporter’s unwillingness to compromise makes this feel quite significant.

As with any social movement that personally affects the majority, those who protest Zwarte Piet have not gone without opposition.  The video of Gario’s violent, November 12 arrest, in front of children, only for wearing a T-shirt alongside three other protestors, spread virally. It told the rest of us that some sort of battle was underway, no matter which side we may choose.  And while many Dutch people have clearly (and sometimes offensively) aligned themselves with the police based on their responses to Gario’s arrest, from my perspective, the masses are now committed to a Dutch society in which all people are respected, heard , and seen.  Kno’Ledge Cesare, musician, arrested alongside Gario, appeals to the traditionalists and activists alike: “I believe our country can do better.”

In the meantime, the endless, and occasionally productive, debates continue.  But those who defend the celebration of blackface so impolitely, with that sense of aggressive superiority, may have gotten the wrong impression from those years of debate and quiet resistance.  No one is asking for their permission to create change.  Change is always inevitable.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.