I have been in the Netherlands for over three months now, and I haven’t really been shocked by anything. Sure, their commitment to riding their bicycles in the rain, snow and hail is mystifying. But until the lead up to December, I was pretty cool, calm and collected. But then I began to notice some odd decorations in the windows of shops. Namely, colourfully dressed black dolls similar to ‘Golliwoggs’. I was quite shocked, because the Netherlands has a reputation for being a free-thinking liberal minded country, and these dolls would be completely unacceptable in Australia.
Apparently, the decorations were for the Dutch Christmas, called Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas is celebrated on December 5th, and involves a Santa type figure arriving on a ship from Spain to give presents to children. However, he is not aided by elves, but by black slaves called the Zwarte Piet.
So every shop in Utrecht has pictures and dolls of Zwarte Piet. However, the Dutch claim that the tradition is not racist. They argue that Zwarte Piet isn’t an African slave, but is only black because of soot from coming down the chimney. But then how are their clothes perfectly clean?
I couldn’t believe it, so I went shopping and took photos of every example of what I perceived to be blatant racism. But I was absolutely floored when I saw people actually dress up as Zwarte Piet and paint their face black. Seriously. I do not think that you could get away with that in Australia.
Hmm interesting observation! I don’t find the notion of a black assistant to St Nick offensive – in fact, if the stories say he traditionally had a black side kick, I would have thought changing the stories would have been a racist rewriting. The ‘he is black because he is a chimney sweep’ argument sounds a bit disingenuous! What I do find racist though is the depiction in the second photograph you included – the caricatured gollywog features – to me, that is really offensive. I am pretty sure they could get away with it in Australia, in fact, but certainly not in the US.
December 9, 2010 at 3:42 am
I love the fact I can vicariously experience a Dutch Xmas through your eyes .. I had no idea Sinterklaas existed.
I have just done a google search on Zwarte Piet – some fascinating intercultural debate unfolded on the web. If interested – do a search too.
December 9, 2010 at 7:00 am
A black sidekick would be great! But Zwarte Piet isn’t an assistant, he is a slave. That’s where things get a bit tricky.
But I do think that the Dutch have realised that this is problematic, and that’s why they have tried to use the chimney soot argument.
I think that there is certainly a struggle between their tradition and their modern consciousness. They aren’t ready to let the Zwarte Piet legend go, but I don’t think that they are completely comfortable with it. (Although, some people I met were comfortable enough to paint their face black!)
December 9, 2010 at 1:15 pm
I must say that I was initially a tad surprised by your reaction to my favourite Zwarte Piet, as he resembled joy to me when I was a child in Holland – he even rode on the back of my father’s motorbike to visit us on Sinter Klaas!
Racism was never factored in – not even in my later years there. Zwarte Piet’s mantra was one of respect – that we should respect others. And that just goes to show – cultural experiences and values are quite personal. That said, it does raise our awareness considerably.
For me, it was delightful to view your snaps as I have just returned from Holland after seeing him swinging from the balcony in “De Bijenlorf” in Amsterdam.
December 16, 2010 at 8:51 am