I’ve only been back in Holland for a week and already I’ve got a severe case of man flu (despite being female). My nose is blocked, my throat is scratchy and my ears are sore. This is coming from someone who never gets sick – three years on the road with hardly a sniffle – hence why I’m terming it my own version of man flu. I’m annoying even myself.
This means that over the past couple of days, I’ve watched plenty of television and faffed around a lot online. The biggest story nationwide at the moment is, you guessed it, Black Pete. If you don’t know who Black Pete is, or ‘Zwarte Piet’ as he’s called here, check out what I wrote in 2011 and then again in 2012. These blogs haven’t made me too popular here, let’s just say.
In a nutshell, Black Pete is Sinterklaas’ (the original Dutch Santa Claus) helper, or slave. He’s usually represented as a cartoon or through average Dutchies painting their faces black and lips ruby red, donning afro wigs and dressing up as court jesters. They look ridiculous, which is the whole point of blackface, which was a type of theatre popular in the nineteenth century.
But it’s not the nineteenth century anymore. It’s not even the 1980s, when golliwogg dolls were still popular in Australia and I had one among my stuffed doll collection. Now the United Nations has put their two cents in on the matter, and it thinks the whole charade is a bit racist too. The Dutchies, unsurprisingly, are none too happy about this.
The United Nations, bless their cotton socks, has not exactly gone about their criticisms in the most constructive way. Verene Shepherd, who is chairing the UN Human Rights Commission’s panel on the issue, has become the number one public enemy in the country in a matter of days. She’s been quoted saying, for example,
The working group does not understand why it is that people in the Netherlands cannot see that this is a throwback to slavery, and that in the 21st century this practice should stop.
You know what, Ms Shepherd? When I moved to the Netherlands three years ago, I couldn’t understand it either. I really didn’t get how people who are seen as some as the most liberal and politically-correct people in the world had totally missed the memo on blackface.
But they did. All sixteen million of them. And now they’re more united on this than anything I’ve ever seen before. They are adamant that Sinterklaas and Black Pete are central to their culture. When do you ever see an entire nation in agreement on something, bar perhaps a football match?
But it’s true. In less than two days, more than 2 million people have already signed the ‘Pietitie’ (the ‘Piet petition’) on Facebook, including just about every Dutch person I know.
So you can’t yell ‘racist’ from the sidelines, Ms Shepherd. Two million people aren’t racist. Little kids with black paint on their faces personally aren’t racist. That’s just going to make a whole country (oh yeah, and the dear Flems over the border) crack it, big time.
I used to be flat-out against Black Pete, as I just didn’t understand the tradition. Now I understand it – the fact that Piet-mania every November is something akin to Beatle-mania – so I tolerate it. But I don’t have to like it.
One thing I’ve learnt is that I can’t call the whole Black Pete thing racist. You can’t ban Black Pete. It’s not going to achieve anything. Instead, I’ve tried chipping away at the edges and this is when I’ve at least gotten a few slow nods from locals. For example, why can’t Black Pete just be Pete? Why can’t he lose the lipstick, afro wig and black paint? Keep the court jester outfit. Then Pete remains, doesn’t he? Because I can’t identify if it’s Black Pete that is supposedly so central to Dutch culture, or simply Pete, Sinterklaas’ helper. Maybe that’s where there can be a debate, rather the current Black Pete versus the UN battle that is clearly quite one-sided here.
The Dutch have well and truly played their culture card. In the nineteenth century, even sometimes in the twentieth, blackface used to be no big deal. But the whole world’s watching now and this debate ain’t going away.