Thursday, December 17, 2009

Sinterklaas is coming to town: The most cringeworthy time of the year!

Every year around December 5th, the Dutch celebrate 'Sinterklaas' or the feast of St. Nicholas. St Nicholas was a bishop living centuries ago and is the patron saint of children and sailors. He is also the predecessor of that jolly fellow with  the white beard that we know as Santa Claus or Father Christmas. I spent Christmas 2007 in the Netherlands  and was surprised to find that  'Sinterklaas' is a popular celebration for Dutch children. I was even more shocked and appalled when I set my eyes on Santa's  little helpers.

Historically, St. Nicholas was accompanied by black servants so as part of the Sinterklaas celebrations, Dutch people dress up as Santa's helper Black Pete (Zwaarte Piet). Around the time of Sinterklaas you are likely to find dozens of people wearing 15th Century garb, a black curly wig, black face paint, red lipstick and  of course gold bling. In the Netherlands they call it harmless fun for children, in America they call it Blackface. Blackface in 19th/early 20th century  America was basically white actors impersonating and caricaturing black people in popular performances called Minstrel shows. Such performances were laden with stereotypes of clappy,  happy black people who were always dancing, singing, perhaps nibbling on some watermelon. You know, all the things us black people luuuv to do!

So back to Sinterklaas in the Netherlands, was I more distressed that this archaic practice was still  being carried out with such glee in one of the most liberal parts of the planet? No, I was far more bothered that nobody found anything wrong with it!! According to the Dutch, there is no racial element in the  Black Pete portrayals and he could be any colour; yellow, green or purple. I also annoyed  that people told me that I was offended because I was too Americanized and had become overly-sensitive as well as politically correct. So my question is, would you find Black Pete offensive? 

 Black Petes in Leiden The Netherlands, 2007


Raine said...

So there are no BLACK people in Netherlands willing to play santa's helpers?

Maya Mame said...

Um, YES, I am offended! But not surprised at all, the dutch are damn racist (I know, a ridiculously prejudice remark). There is complete segregation in their national football team (or at least a few years ago there was) and football is a sport that always tends to erase racial borders.

Veiga said...

There is a need for an end to all segregation.
Congratulation by the post
I invite you to view my blog: it you will know a l small country, very old but with good people, good food and beautiful landscapes: Portugal. I write and I speak a little English, Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese-This one interesting for language learning, but you can make comments in English

Abena Serwaa said...

@Raine; interesting question. Some black people I spoke to found it completely demeaning while others thought it was harmless fun and great for kids.

@Maya Mame; Indeed, football can also create barriers! Was horrified to hear about the reluctance to accept the footballer of Ghanaian descent Mario Balotelli on the Italian national team! In defense of the Dutch I have never faced any racism issues in the 3/4 times I have been there. It was apparent to me that alot of people had issues with North Africans in the Netherlands not conforming to being Dutch ie young women covering their hair.

Abena Serwaa said...

@Veiga; I wish all segregation could be ended!! Thanks for the link. Will definitely check out your blog.

posekyere said...

This is appalling to say the least.
The Dutch were perhaps the most savage in their colonial dealings with Africans.
They hanged and decapitated Ahanta King, Badu Bonsu, 171 years ago, and kept it in a jar of formaldehyde in a university lab only returning it when they were shamed into doing so.
I say to hell with 'sisterklass'.

The pale observer said...

Hi Abena - wow! I can't believe this practice is still going on? I definitely don't think you're being overly sensitive to find that whole performance racist and disturbing!

Nana Yaw Asiedu said...

Don't think I am offended. I am acutely amused. No more.

Abena Serwaa said...

*Oh No* I hope I have not opened the floodgate on Dutch bashing! I like Dutch people and my oldest friend happens to be Dutch and I have known him since I was 2!

Abena Serwaa said...

@Posekyere; ironically, King Badu Bonsu's head was somewhere in the basement of the building I was working in at Leiden University Medical Center! How weird is that?! Had no clue. Historically, I think it is hard to say who the worst colonialists were....the Belgians, Portuguese (sorry Veiga!), Germans were all harsh in their various ways. Then again the French and the British were far from being angelic.Hmmm...

Abena Serwaa said...

@Pale Observer; *Yup* Still very much going on! The whole experience was cringe worthy and quite surreal.

@Nana Yaw; Interesting...a colleague from central Africa was also not really offended by it all. I do feel growing up in Southern Africa may have shaped my strong aversion and disgust with the whole display.

Anonymous said...

Dear Abena and commenters,

As a Leidener who has twice played the role of Zwarte Piet, I thought it might be good to respond to your post. First of all, I am truly sorry for any offence caused, as absolutely none is intended. Unlike "Blackface", Zwarte Piet is not at all meant to caricaturize or otherwise ridicule black people,just like Santa's elves are not supposed to offend or caricaturize people afflicted by dwarfism. Instead, Zwarte Piet is a pure fantasy character (and could indeed be different colors, although the story is that he's black from travelling up and down chimneys delivering presents). Zwarte Piet is furthermore well-liked and respectable (I have fond memories of this as a kid); an invaluable helper to the frail and old Sinterklaas. I do hope this clears it up a bit? As for the other remarks:

Raine: yes, there are, and I know black (and Asian) people who have played Zwarte Piet (usually making their faces blacker in order to make it more like chimney soot).

Maya Mame: a couple of years ago there was indeed a fall-out between the Surinamese and Dutch players on our national team, an embarrassing episode which I believe does not show a racial trend but rather shows the arrogance of many overpaid football players, regardless of ethnicity.

Posekyere: there is absolutely no excuse for the evils of slavery. However, I have German friends and colleagues whom I do not at all blame for the evils inflicted in my country by the Nazi regime only two generations ago. I think one of the golden rules for world peace is to no longer blame current generations for wrongs committed by past generations... would you agree?

Quite a long story, and rather late, for which I hope you will forgive me. :) I do hope we humans will learn to look beyond skin color some day. Let's work at it together!

Best wishes, Erik

Abena Serwaa said...

Hi Erik, thanks for stopping by. Your points are very well-taken and I agree that there is no intentional malice or racial intent in the portrayal of Zwarte Piet in the Dutch context of Sinterklaas. My issue was how none of my Dutch friends/colleagues seemed to see how it could be seen as offensive by people exposed to other culture contexts where very similar portrayals were done to mock black people.

Something I have always wondered is: if Zwarte Piet is black from chimneys, how did his hair get curly and his lips red?

Anyway, I should also add that I have always found Dutch people open-minded and friendly towards people from all over the world. Interestingly, one of my favorite books, "White on Black
Images of Africa and Blacks in Western Popular Culture" is by a Dutch author (Jan Nederveen Pieterse). In the book he explores the historical Zwarte Piet as well as the negative caricatures of Black people in America (Blackface). I can't remember if he examines the feast of Sinterklaas in the Netherlands.His take on it would be very informative.

Anonymous said...

Hi Abena, Thanks for the quick response!

You're right; although the story is that Piet's face is black because of the soot, his curly hair and the red lips are undoubtedly based on (old views of) black people. According to some, this is because St. Nicholas freed a (Moorish?) slave named Peter, who then decided to voluntarily accompany the saint as a free servant. In truth though, the origins are a bit vague, and most likely a mix of various pagan, Christian, and folkloristic traditions.

Which leaves us indeed with an intriguing question: how justified is a person in being offended by something not meant to be offensive? An important question in view of intercultural relations. And probably one of those questions without a right or wrong answer, but one that everyone should answer for themselves...

Keep up the nice blog (which I actually stumbled upon while looking for a restaurant in Leiden... :) )

Best wishes,


Abena Serwaa said...

Thanks again Erik. A very interesting question: "how justified is a person in being offended by something not meant to be offensive?" You are correct that there is a big difference between individuals purposely seeking to offend others and others doing it completely unintentionally. However, I believe that as we move towards a world that is one huge multicultural melting pot, sensitivity is important and we must always be aware of symbols, gestures and actions that may be offensive to some. Of course that would be in an ideal world!

I hope you found that restaurant in Leiden! Speaking of which, I'm due back in the lovely city in under a month.