The Netherlands: Much Ado about Sinterklaas

Posted by By at 22 January, at 11 : 10 AM Print

The Netherlands: Much Ado about Sinterklaas
The Netherlands: Much Ado about Sinterklaas

(published in the New African magazine, January 2014 edition)

sinterklas and zwarte piet

sinterklas and zwarte piet

What then did you expect when you unbound the gag that muted those black mouths? That they would chant your praises? Did you think that when those heads that our fathers had forcibly bowed down to the ground were raised again, you would find adoration in their eyes?” – Jean Paul Satre

“Four hundred years, it’s still the same philosophy.” – Peter Tosh

Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.” – Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks.

It must be a very difficult time to be a White Dutch today. Just imagine that few short decades ago, your grandfather owned large stock of slaves. He owned stocky Black men and women as his chattel properties; like any of the other properties he owned. The heavily-muscled black males worked like mule in the plantations. From sunrise to sunset they worked, with grandpa having nary a worry about salary or such like. The black slaves grew the cotton, the sugar-cane, the tobacco, the cotton and whatnot, which they processed into marketable products that went all over the world, and brought enormous profits. Profits that were ploughed back into building modern machineries, big castles and well-laid out towns and cities.

It was this wealth from slavery that totally transformed Europe from a backwater place, where bathing was considered satanic, and a place that constantly lose one-third to one-half of population to hunger and plagues.

 

While the male slaves labored in the plantations, the women slaves existed to cook, waited over the Master’s wives and nursed the Master’s children (even as their own children were plucked from them and auctioned off); they also provided sexual pleasures whenever the Master’s libido is stirred. The products of the sexual liaisons were not spared either as Masters had sex with their own daughters and auctioned them off afterwards.

The slaves were also encouraged to breed (yes, that was the word used) like mules; the more the merrier for the profit margins of the plantation.

Human beings, sorry slaves, were pluck like cattle from pen branded and sold off whenever Masters feel like it.

Abraham Lincoln, today touted as the Great Emancipator, once sold a slave for a bottle of Molasses.

Beating the slaves were commonplace; they were “boys” no matter the age; mere children with the undeveloped minds of babies. Lessons must be taught so that the darkies do not get any silly ideas into their blackened hearts. The uppity ones among them were roasted on slow-burning fires; scalawags needed to be taught good lessons. The rape of ‘the most stubborn male slaves was widespread in the system known as ‘breaking the buck.’

Of course, they didn’t teach you that in history lessons.

And suddenly, the world turned upside down, and the very profitable enterprise was ended. The slaves were freed and they developed mouth. They didn’t shout our praises; rather than be grateful to us for bringing them enlightenment and salvation; they got conceited.

Imagine the trauma we had to go through! Our world upended into a chaos. The slaves were let go, and we cannot keep even the symbolism of our noble past.

Some accursed mischief-makers want us to end the only tradition that reminded us of our glorious past. How on earth are we expected to transmit the history of our Golden Age to our little ones?

If people cannot imagine the traumatic psychological deprivations of not owning our own chattel slaves like our illustrious ancestors, they should please try, just try, to sympathise with the enormous Post-Traumatic-Slave-Owning Withdrawal Syndrome (PTSOWS) we suffered.

Why is the whole world so suddenly against us?

We gave up slavery; we gave up colonization; we even gave up apartheid. Why can’t we be allowed to keep our quaint, anachronistic tradition so that out little angels will not be deprived of their only joy of the year?

Yes, it is true that other societies use elves to assist their Santa, but we cannot drop a Sinterklaas on our little ones without his Zwarte Piet. Imagine the enormous cultural shock the little angels will suffer”

Ha, what a tribulation!

Are people simply not trying to be unreasonable when they see something wrong in a black minstrel, with the brains of an oaf, who pranks about like a mindless idiot and speaks our guttural language very badly to amuse our little ones? Where is the racism in that?

sinterklas and zwarte piet2

sinterklas and zwarte piet2

Almost ten percent of our population signed a petition that support the tradition; they can’t all be racist, now; or can they?

This appears to be the cry of the Dutch who continue to celebrate Sinterklaas, a festival so riddled with slavery symbolism, that it beggars belief that some people can even think about organizing it in this age and time.

But the Dutch do it, and many of them have absolutely no qualms about it.

Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas or Santa Claus), celebrated on 5 December, is probably the greatest festival in the Netherlands.

The Dutch variation is a basatardisation of the real Saint Nicholas, who was said to be a fourth century bishop from Asia Minor who helped the needy.

Like Santa Claus, Sinterklaas is a White man with populous white beard. But unlike Santa Claus who is help by elves, the Dutch variant continues to be served by black-faced helpers – ‘Zwarte Pieten’ (Black Petes) – white men who dress themselves up as black men in brassy clothes and enter town in raucous, bombastic processions.

The black characters are portrayed by white folks with painted black face paint. They decorate themselves with bushy afro-wigs on their head, with their lips painted ruby red and ears decked with gold hoop earrings. They prank around and act the characters of the Black with the brains of a foo – an utterly ignorant, docile, yet jolly servant who continue to faithfully serve his white master. The stereotypical racist characterization of a black person.

The Dutch even have a Piet for many functions: there is a “Hoofdpiet” or Head Piet; a “Wegwijspiet” or Navigation Piet who is supposed to be the navigator of the steamboat from Spain to the Netherlands; “Pakjespiet” or Packing Piet who packs the gifts.

According to the legend, the Pieten distribute presents and ginger biscuits to children deemed good; and they threaten to pack mischievous ones in sack and ferry them back to Spain to pick oranges.

Between December 5 and 6, Dutch children leave their shoes near the chimney, and in the morning express surprise when they discover gifts in them. Of course, the gifts were bought by the parents.

Dutch parents, try to rationalize the obvious racism of the Zwarte Piet caricature of Black people by telling their children that the Pieten have black faces because they climb down dirty, soot-filled chimneys.

What no one bothers to explain is how climbing down chimneys could result in curly, Afro wig hair, large red lips, large earrings, the loss of literate tongue and little brains.

The whole Sinterklaas reeks of rank racism that I felt nauseated when I first saw it.

I have two big problems with the thing. First, my Yoruba culture frown heavily on the telling of lies. The Yoruba proverb: [Eni ba nparo, ma jale / He that tells lies will steal] inculcated in us the ethical imperative there is but thin line between lying and stealing.

I never could understood how parents can deliberately tell lies to their own children.

Secondly, I also had great problem understanding how the Dutch, with their especially brutal history of slavery and colonialism, can fail to see the enormous insult they heap on the injuries of Black people by this mindless, thoroughly racist festival in which they appear to find so much joy.

No one dare mock the Holocaust, yet millions of Dutch people think nothing of jesting about a part of their history that will shame a nation of savages.

Everything about Sinterklaas make it appear as though the Dutch still hanker after slavery and regretted its abolition. It brings to mind what Fanon wrote: “Negrophobes exist. It is not hatred of the Negro, however, that motivates them; they lack the courage for that, or they have lost it. Hate is not inborn; it has to be constantly cultivated, to be brought into being, in conflict with more or less recognized guilt complexes. Hate demands existence and he who hates has to show his hate in appropriate actions and behavior; in a sense, he has to become hate. That is why Americans have substituted discrimination for lynching. Each to his own side of the street.” – Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks.

Whichever way we throw it around, Sinterklass is a racist show that exposes the Netherlands as a backward society that continue to find it difficult to divorce itself from a shameful past.

Of course, most Black people find the Sinterklaas highly offensive, but in the insular world in which the Dutch cocooned themselves, the minority have no avenue to express their frustrations.

Dutch media, even those with liberal pretensions, treat protests by Black people as overreactions by ‘sensitive’ people who like to overreact.

The irony of wanting to be entertain by oafish Blacks appears totally lost on the Dutch people who claim to be tolerant and vehemently deny being racists.

Gradually though, the momentum to outlaw the obscene Zwarte Piet nonsense seems to be gathering pace.

The man who spearheads the fight for the abolition of Zwarte Piet is Quinsy Gario, a Curaçao-born Dutch performance artist.

In 2011 when Sinter arrived in the Dutch town of Dordrecht, Quinsy led some Black activists on a protest.

To forestall any action that will disallow little white Dutch angels from enjoying their Black minstrels, the city officials made it illegal to demonstrate in the town centre. Gario and some of his colleagues decided on a defiant stand-in protest. Wearing T-shirts emblazoned with: ‘Zwarte Piet is racism,’ they stood by the side of the road. This was too much for overzealous police officers who badly manhandled the Poet.

The brutality inflicted on Quincy Gario stirred some controversy.

And then this year, the Dutch were thrown into unwanted international limelight.

On 22 October 2013, Ms Verene Shepherd, chair of United Nations’ Working Group on people of African descent, in an interview with the Dutch television news program EEN Vandaag stated that: “The working group cannot understand why it is that the people in The Netherlands cannot see that it is a throwback to slavery [..] as a black person I feel, that I, if I were living in The Netherlands, I would object to it.”

For her troubles, Verene Shepherd, who is Jamaican, was subjected to racist vituperations of the worst kinds. She was inundated with racially offensive e-mails.

So incensed were the Dutch by Ms Shepherd remarks that two days after she made her remarks, more than two million people responded by endorsing a Facebook (Piet-ition) petition to keep Zwarte Piet’s image unchanged. The “Save Zwarte Piet” Facebook petitionwas was initiated by two white, Dutch publicists, Kevin van Boeckholtz and Bas Vreugde.

The Telegraaf, the Netherlands largest newspaper, chipped in with articles denouncing anti-Piet protesters as troublemakers. The paper also presumed to speak for Black people by patronizingly claiming that the protest did not represent black people in the Netherlands.

That was not all.

One of the best known Black faces in the country, Sport newscaster Humberto Tan, narrated on national television the types of negative retorts he got when he came out as anti-Pete, including a lynching threat.

Singer Anouk (who represents the Netherlands at this year’s Eurovision contest) and Doutzen Kroes (the model in Victoria’s Secret), two high-profile female Dutch celebrities married to black men had ugly sexual insults hurled at them after they condemned Zwarte Piet.

Even Jan Pronk, a supposedly leftist, highly emotional politician, who once served as the U.N. representative to Sudan endorsed Zwarte Piet: “These are very old traditions,” he said, “I don’t think it’s so bad.”

Quinsy Gario said that he is getting threats of unspeakable violence, including death, because he dared to speak about the racist history of Zwarte Piet. Dutch tabloid media continued to mock him.

Geert Wilders, the anti-immigrant fascist whose Partij voor Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) currently leads the Dutch polls, tweeted that he would rather eliminate the UN than Zwarte Piet.

But the opponents of Zwarte Piet are nor rolling over to play dead.

In the words of Quinsy Gario: “The world is watching, and the Netherlands has been found wanting.”

More people appear to be coming around to the conclusion that Zwarte Piet is a relic whose time has passed, and should be consign to the ashes of history.

In an interview published in the Het Parool newspaper, Amsterdam councilwoman Andree van Es, herself as white you can get, openly called for its end: “The Sinterklaas celebration once began without Zwarte Piet, it’s time it continues without Zwarte Piet.”

A Facebook page with the slogan “Zwarte Piet is Racism” has become the major platform for the anti Zwarte Piet battle.

The Director of the Anti-Discrimination Bureau for Amsterdam, Jessica Silversmith, said in an interview: “There is more opposition to Zwarte Piet than you might think.” She said that her office which used to receive one or two complaints per year, has seen the numbers jumped to more than 100 last year, and she fears that the figure will increase this year. “It’s not only Antilleans or Surinamers who are complaining, it’s all kinds of Dutch people.” She added.

In early December, a documentary laying out the arguments against Zwarte Piet aired on national television.

One of the nation’s leading news blog, “GeenStijl” took everyone by surprise when it launched a vitriolic attack against Zwarte Piet: “Zwarte Piet is nothing more than a repulsive parody of a slave, fine-tuned to indoctrinate schoolchildren into the finer points of racism. The sooner we get rid of Zwarte Piet, the sooner we won’t look like idiots to the rest of the world.”

One columnist for the NRC Handelsblad, the Netherlands top business newspaper, asked whether the country is really as tolerant as it pretends to be. The writer deplored the fact that whereas the U.S. re-elected its black president, not a single member of the Netherlands’ Cabinet is of non-Dutch ancestry.

Dutch Playwright, Mark Walraven, says he used to be one of those that used to paint his face and delighted children with his Zwarte Piet pranks. Not anymore. “I stopped after I began working with black people. Many people are offended by this symbol. Many countries have abolished these kinds of things but in Holland they still exist.” Mr. Walraven added that it is possible to have Sinterklaas without Zwarte Piet.

Although Ms Shepherd asked Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutter to use his influence to stop it, it is not an appeal the Dutch Premier will heed anytime soon. He simply shrugged off the mounting criticism: “Black Pete is black. There’s not much I can do to change that,” he said.

Mr. Rutte’s was backed by the leader of the PvdA or Labour Party, Diederik Samsom, who chimed: “I do not particularly like to quote Premier Rutte, but he put it well. Zwarte Piet is simply black.”

However, Home Affairs Minister Ronald Plasterk says he in favour of a change. “I can live with it if green or blue Petes should also run around between the between the Black Petes. I do not think the children would have less pleasure from this.”

One change anti-Pete activists have suggested is replacing his black face with smudges, since the “cover story” is that Zwarte Piet becomes black from going down chimneys.

Some people appear to be grudgingly embracing the change. Leading the way are two of the country’s leading chains of stores, Blokker and V&D, which dispensed with Petes with black faces in their catalogues and replaced them with images of kids with ash-smudged cheeks.

Those that defend Zwarte Pieten and claim not to see any racism in it are simply being dishonest. It is a very powerful associative symbol that project and support Global White Superiority and Black Inferiority.

Any festival that promote racial superiority, however symbolically, is to be celebrated only by idiots.

 

About the Author

Femi Akomolafe is a passionate Pan-Africanist. A columnist for the Accra-based Daily Dispatch newspaper and ModernGhana, and Correspondent for the New African magazine, Femi lives in both Europe and Africa, and writes regularly on Africa-related issues for various newspapers and magazines.

Femi was the producer of the FOCUS ON AFRICANS TV Interview programme for the MultiTV Station.

He is also the Man and Machine Coordinator at Alaye Dot Biz Limited, a Kasoa-based Multimedia organisation that specialises in Audio and Video Production. He loves to shoot and edit video documentaries.

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