Head Down South for Blackface

Saturday, October 3rd, 2015

Just a heads-up here to all my readers, as part of this weblog’s public service function, for the coming annual controversy over the Father Christmas-associated figure in Dutch culture of Zwarte Piet or “Black Pete.” As a rule this squabble only gets going around mid-November, when major Dutch cities stage elaborate “arrivals” of Father Christmas (Sinterklaas) from Spain, always accompanied by his multiple Zwarte Piet helpers, gaudily attired and in blackface with a curly black wig, preparatory to the Dutch celebration of pakjesavond on 5 December when Sinterklaas and his assistants visit houses to bring presents to well-behaved children and to chastise the naughty.

Of course, observers outside the Netherlands and even within have come to take increasing offence at what they take to be the implicit racism of Zwarte Piet. Things came to a head during last year’s go-round, what with an intensive level of international press attention and even street-disturbances in the city of Gouda on the occasion of Sinterklaas’ “arrival” there. Recently, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination released its (non-enforceable) judgment that the Netherlands should dial Black Pete back.

It’s possible that last year represented, to coin a (not easily repeatable) phrase, peak Black Pete, as Amsterdam and various other Dutch cities have taken steps to minimize that racial dimension, and have banned Black Pete entirely from their schools. Of course, we’ll have to see when the time comes – in a little over a month – just what the differences will be between the new Black Petes and the old. For there will surely still be Black Petes: there remains considerable resentment among man-on-the-street Dutch people at what is perceived as outside interference in cultural practices that (in their view) do not harm anybody and are ultimately no one’s business outside the Netherlands.

Make that outside the Netherlands or Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, where they also celebrate Sinterklaas (although their pakjesavond is on 6 December*).

ZPiet
“Come on down to Antwerp,” is the message. “We keep our Black Petes black!”

This bit of touristic promotional work comes from alderman Koen Kennis, who represents in Antwerp the N-VA or Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie party, a right-wing, strongly Flemish nationalist party whose key demand is for Flanders to secede from Belgium entirely.

Of course, the Netherlands certainly has its own parallel party to the N-VA, namely the Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV) headed by the notorious Geert Wilders – one which certainly books healthy gains in its electoral support with every such Zwarte Piet controversy. As one would expect, Wilders has been unyielding in his “Leave Black Pete alone!” attitude, but his party is nowhere strong enough in any municipality to push that through as city policy. Things are different – for now – in Antwerp.

* Note to children with family connections in both the Netherlands and Flanders: the two territories are of course adjacent, so keep in mind the “double-dipping” possibilities of presents north of the border on the evening of the 5th, then presents south of the border on the evening of the 6th!

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