Send in the Clowns

Zwarte Piet.  Black Pete.  The fabled character that has caused a worldwide stir for the last year or so.

It’s as if Dutch people woke up from the haze of the weed and realised ‘Oh wait this is wrong’.  (by the way that was a rude generalisation.  A lot of Dutch people don’t smoke weed.  Because it’s legal it’s not as interesting.  Next time you find out someone is Dutch, please refrain from making weed references- it’s boring).  So, what has taken the most liberal country in the world 160 years to realise that it’s bad?

When my sister and I were first introduced to Zwarte Piet, I was seven. We’d moved to Holland six months before the Sinterklaas hoopla started in November, and we were told that they were Sinterklaas’ helpers, who entertained kids and climbed down chimneys to bring presents on 5th December for kids that had been good.  They worked for Sinterklaas all year to make sure all the presents are made/packed and helped bring presents on a ship from Madrid, where Sinterklaas lived during the year.  If you really thought about this, the story doesn’t make sense to begin with.  Which old man in his right mind comes visit Holland in winter?  It’s freaking freezing.  If he was smarter about this he would come in summer when the weather was more bearable for his old bones.  But anywho.

Never did I, or any of the kids in my class, equate Zwarte Piet to any of the black kids in school.  I never pointed at the black kids in my class and go, ‘hey, wait a minute, you look like Zwarte Piet.’  Because let’s face it, it’s not like Zwarte Piet looked like anyone we knew.  They are made to look like animated characters with their oversized jewellery and super red lips or busy eyebrows, much like presenters on kids programmes look out of place on the street.  Because the character comes from a book.  And everything that comes from a book is mostly exaggerated.  Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter ring immediate bells.  Or they’re jesters, really, if you consider their outfits and outgoing, happy personalities.  They are jesters who also climb down chimneys.

Over a year ago, the debate started gaining media attention.  There was talk of taking this to the ICJ, for crimes of racism.  People all over the world are rejoicing, because for once, the country of legal drugs and euthanasia had taken a step in the wrong direction (Again, why did it take so long? Makes me suspicious.  What are the powers that be hiding from us while they keep us entertained with this bullshit?).  Dutch courts are now debating whether or not Zwarte Piet should be black.  In an interview, a black Dutch man actually said that the ‘ideal Piet’ should be blonde with blue eyes.  I’m sorry, who is being racist here?  (Most) Dutch people are proud of their multicultural society and so why should Piet now ‘ideally’ be blonde?

The worst part for me, sitting in cosy and happily multicultural England (sarcasm intended), is the global media attention.  Perhaps the worst, was a promo for a documentary.  In it, Dutch people go to Hyde Park dressed as Zwarte Piet and try to introduce our tradition.  They didn’t do a very good job in the edit we see, and  British people are clearly disturbed.  In fact, I am disturbed.  I didn’t realise that England got to OK all cultural and traditional customs for all of Europe (was that in the EU pact somewhere that we don’t know about?).  It’s like me selling chicken feet in Hyde Park.  Or maybe I should go and perform some ‘foreign’ temple ceremonies that includes beating the shit out of myself?  Ooh, even better, let’s open up a restaurant and sell dog meat like they do in China.  No one is trying to force Zwarte Piet outside Belgium/Netherlands/anywhere else in that corner of Europe, so don’t try and get Brits, or anyone else, to understand it.

What I want from this debate is a clear understanding of what we’re teaching the kids.  Zwarte Piet to me was more magical than Sinterklaas.  Yes, he could ride his horse on the rooftop but in my imagination, Zwarte Piet knocked on our window on 5th December, 1996.  My dad answered the door, a purple flash flew into the living room and dropped off a sack of presents, and before we could think they were out the backdoor.  I wanted to talk to them, so I ran after them, and watched them scamper up the roof.  They entertained kids, and every year when they arrived by boat they gave kids sweets and they would do some ‘house visits’ (for those that could afford to hire them, of course), and they would play and be the life of the party.  Is that what we’re teaching the kids, that Zwarte Piet is so positive and energetic, even though sometimes they have the tough job of unloading a nation’s worth of presents off the ships and squeeze through chimneys?

The big question is of course what the black community in Holland feel.  Obviously, many feel ostracized and that’s why this issue has come about.  But why has it taken so long for them to come out with something like this?  Is it something deeper, outside of the Sinterklaas celebrations they are really fighting?  Europe is plunging into a deep hole of anti-immigration and anti… well, everything outsiders.  It is felt through all different levels of society, and no doubt more so in the poorer communities.  The Holland that was once the tolerant beacon of the world is no more, and it’s so much easier to attack a tradition than it is to attack a feeling of being misplaced in your home country, as is the case I imagine for many people, especially those from Suriname, or even Morocco and Turkey that have settled in the Netherlands and face open racism on a daily basis.  There are stories of gangs, rivalries, and prominent teenage drug and alcohol abuse.  People don’t go to certain parts of town because that’s where the ‘Turks’ are and thus considered dangerous, or… this is starting to sound like every Western country.  You fill in the gaps, you probably know more than me anyway.

Instead of headlines about the very public display of ridicule this has become, can we focus on something else?  Maybe how we are ‘tackling’ the issue of inclusiveness in society and how we are going to support our youth in this uncertain economy.  Or our work on social projects for cultures to integrate and the struggles that we face there- because that’s probably the bigger, more prominent issue that might help eventually resolve this Sinterklaas debacle.

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