I’m already picking fights with people. It’s awful. I just got here. But that hasn’t stopped me from being annoyed with about 90% of the Dutch population. I need to lighten up. Stop taking things so seriously. But really, if you were here, this would piss you off too. Difference is – it probably wouldn’t piss you off so early in the year; and you probably wouldn’t constantly find yourself in conversations about it.
First, to avoid any confusion, let me say that I’m still ridiculously happy here. I’m feeling quite grateful and enjoying everyday, everything, everyone. Nothing has changed.
I just have this thing with Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) is a beloved character in the Netherlands (and apparently Belgium) who comes around during the holidays, beginning in November. I won’t get into all of the details of Piet’s story. That’s what wikipedia is for. The important thing to know for the purpose of this ramble is that this beloved Piet guy is black – well, of course. But he’s portrayed in black face. White (and some black) Dutch people paint there faces black, cake on tons of red lipstick to make their lips appear larger, put on an afro wig, accent it with large gold earrings, and wear what I guess is their interpretation of a Moor’s attire.that I can’t shake!
I had heard and read quite a bit about Piet before I got here. So I considered myself prepared for some shocking sights in November and December. Seeing a few people continuing to partake in such a blatantly offensive tradition would be a lot to handle. But I expected it to be just a few. I didn’t imagine it could possibly be more than a few. Although, I will admit that this page from the University’s magazine for new international students raised some broader concerns:
Shortly after arriving I learned it’s more than a few exceptions. The blackface thing is much larger than I realized. Portraits of the minstrel character are plastered around the country for the days/weeks leading up to the holiday – in stores and in homes, on cakes and on napkins.
This leads up to a big parade – a minstrel parade. Adults and children clown around in straight-up, unapologetic black face. So happy and so abundant. It’s like an alternate reality.
As I learned more about Piet’s popularity, I started asking more questions. I had trouble believing that the rational people around me would defend this tradition. Rather, I expected people to have stories about how frustrated they are with seeing these horrifically offensive representations of black people taking over the country each year. I didn’t think it would be hard to find Dutch people in opposition to Zwarte Piet.
But there’s nothing but love for him. I hear a lot of the following:
- “We love him. He’s a friendly character. That’s not racist.”
- “He used to be black. But now he’s that color because he went through the chimney. It’s not about race”
- “The children love him. It’s not racist.”
- “We can’t change it. It’s a Dutch tradition.”
My favorite quote came from my Dutch teacher: “I don’t think it’s meant to be offensive, is it? I mean, he’s not really a negro.” He meant it with no harm. It was actually kind of sweet the way he said it (as hard to believe as that may seem). After I informed him that it is horribly offensive and turns my stomach, he explained he had just never thought about it before since he grew up with it. Makes sense. And I find it fascinating.
So several weeks ago, in my ethnic diversity and popular culture class, I listened as people brainstormed ideas for final projects. I volunteered my idea that was born out of that fascination (and frustration) – what’s the deal with Zwarte Piet?
Along with a partner, who bravely asked to work with me on this, I’ve committed to drowning myself in images, literature, and conversations about Piet. Historical research, interviews, maybe a survey…all requiring objectivity. My lack of objectivity has already proven to be a challenge. And once I begin having one-on-one interviews with people who adamantly defend minstrel shows in 2011, I may need the assistance of spiritual intervention to keep my attitude and volume in check.
So yeah, I walked straight into this controversial fire voluntarily. And this is not going to be easy.
Fascinating, I’m sure. But not easy…