Monday, November 14, 2011

Sinterklaas, blackface, and racism.

Sinterklaas landed in the Netherlands (and also Flanders) two days ago. Simultaneously in all Dutch towns, landing at the beaches from his steamship called Pakjesboot 12, bearing gifts for all good children. He is accompanied by his black slaves who are individually and collectively called Zwarte Piet, who may or may not hint at a racist colonial history since they may or may not be black because of chimney soot or being formerly Moorish slaves.

Curly black hair and red lips
Funnily, the idea that white people put on black face paint and red lipstick, and dress up in colourful court-jester costumes isn't considered racist by the mainstream. For the many people lining the streets, dressing up their children as Zwarte Piets and waiting for the procession of Sinterklaas to come down their street and give candy to their children is considered harmless fun.


Poster along my street

I don't see any dark-skinned people dressing up as Zwarte Piets. Why is that? I think the Zwarte Piet get-up is just the human version of a golliwog, a racist caricature that views 'non-Whites as less human, less intelligent, and less civilised. And I think it's highly insensitive for people to keep on saying that it's all in good fun, and that children don't see it as racist. That's because racism is socialised into us -- wouldn't it be better to teach children about respecting everyone instead of giving them a cultural reference that places dark-skinned people as subordinate to lighter-skinned people?

My friend S said something so apt, that 'Sinterklaas is the only allochtoon (foreign-born) who is still welcomed with open arms every year'. She's alluding to the social antagonism that exists here now in reaction to the political classification of Dutch people as either 'native-born' or 'foreign-born' when they have to fill up forms for schools or hospitals. Dutch people of Moroccan or Turkish descent, being forever marked as 'foreign-born', don't stand a chance at ideological integration or being considered Dutch, with no hyphens.

Sinterklaas is white, and he has black slaves. Harsh, right? That's why later version of the story softened the colonial blow by changing the term to 'helpers', or claiming that Piet was a liberated slave to willingly serves Sinterklaas.

But in the Global South people make fun of the dark-skinned too. This is what I saw during a yearly procession called the Reog in Ponorogo, which celebrates the triumph of King Kelono Sewandono  over King Singabarong the King of Lions and his army of lions and peacocks. A group of men also dress up as dark-skinned people supposedly from Irian Jaya, but who are now said to be 'mysteries':

Whoa. Maybe I'm just linking everything to transnational domestic workers (haha!), but this softened version of the Zwarte Piet story reminded me of a quote from 'Global Woman' by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Hochschild (which I'm reading for my thesis-writing):

"Today's north does not extract love from the south by force: there are no colonial officers in tan helmets, no invading armies, no ships bearing arms sailing off to the colonies...Today, coercion operates differently."

What I want to take from this is that it is not just economic coercion, but also ideological coercion that operates invisibly. It operates by making us all think that dressing up in stereotyped caricatures is just simple fun, and that dark-skinned people bear the burden of trying to convince us that this is not amusing.


drkoepsell said...

Thanks for this, I always cringe this time of year. Say what you want about racism in the US, but we have a black president and stopped thinking black-face minstrel shows were acceptable 50 years ago.

Sya said...

And I believe golliwogs are also out of style in the UK by now. I still find it amazing how so many people here still consider this okay and fun!

Leona said...

Well said!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...