In Britain, the idea of dressing up as a comedy black person is – obviously – an absolute no-no. In the Netherlands, however, they haven’t got a problem with it. At least, that is the case when Christmas comes around.
The Dutch version of Father Christmas is called Sinterklaas. He arrives before Christmas and parades through town, riding a white horse and wearing a red bishop’s mitre. He used to be accompanied by a jester symbolising the devil. But in the mid-1800s, when the Dutch were major players in the global slave trade, this changed. To this day, Sinterklass turns up with Black Peter, or Zwarte Piet, a subservient, child-like, simpleton character in black face paint, red lipstick, and an afro wig. To get a feel for the degradation this involves – if you have a strong stomach – watch the video above. The unvarnished racism it portrays is nothing short of breathtaking. Not only is Black Peter forced to carry out demeaning domestic chores, he is led down the street on a lead and shown scrabbling for dog food on the floor. At one point, a Victorian illustration of slave masters beating black slaves is flashed onto the screen, to the sound of laughter from the audience. Cultural differences or no cultural differences, this is beyond the pale. It is astounding that in 2012, this is part of mainstream Dutch culture.
Writing for This Is Africa, the journalist Siji Jabaar mounts a formidable evisceration of the tradition, in which he forensically lays bare the history and evolution of Zwarte Piet, and demolishes one by one the arguments in favour of the practice. For example, he addresses the following objection: “It’s harmless fun. We don’t see Zwarte Piet as a black person, and neither do kids. They see him as Zwarte Piet.” By way of answer, Jabbar writes: “Why, then, do some white kids call black Dutch people Zwarte Piet? Some are clearly making the connection. And why do you have white adults calling out to their black colleagues, ‘Hey, our very ‘own’ Zwarte Piet!’? . . . If the Dutch government thinks that Zwarte Piet is correct, just invite Barack Obama over for dinner on the 5th of December. But we all know they ain’t gonna do that; they ain’t that dumb.”
“What on is going on with the Dutch?” he continues. “How can such an abhorrent anachronism exist in a seemingly modern and progressive country? . . . Millions of black people were killed or enslaved by white people over four centuries, and millions more continue to suffer discrimination all over Europe and in the States, so this Zwarte Piet character is about as funny as wearing a swastika.”
The practice is not without opposition in Holland. In 2011, four people wearing T-shirts saying “Zwarte Piet is Racist” were arrested; in 2006, NTR, the Dutch public broadcasting corporation, advocated changing Black Peter to Rainbow Peter. But the public appetite for such innovation proved weak. While the Dutch Belgians in Flanders took the step of reversing the tradition so that Sinterklaas is black and Pete is white – crude, but at least it’s something – the next year, people all over Holland blacked up again. And they have been doing it with gusto ever since.
In Britain, we have become so over-sensitised to phrases and images that may cause offence that the phrase “political correctness gone mad” has entered the lexicon of cliché. There is a temptation to roll the eyes and grumble that people need to get a sense of humour. But this indicates how Britain is relatively clean of racism in the public sphere. By comparison, Holland is stuck in the dark ages.