I don’t want to labour a point which, I think, is obvious, but it is profoundly disturbing to stand amongst a crowd of happy families and watch a parade of white people ‘blacked-up’ to resemble a stereotyped black person. To then see this same parade reported on TV news, not as a national outrage but as a joyful national tradition, in a country generally regarded as being one of the most tolerant on earth, well, it’s pretty confusing.
Notting Hill Carnival it is not.
Perhaps truth is best heard from the mouths of children, after all, defenders of Zwarte Pete insist it’s a harmless tradition for children. One of my non-Dutch colleagues told me of how she never felt comfortable with Zwarte Pete, but took a ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’ approach. Then, walking down the street one day, she was mortified when her 3 year-old daughter pointed at a black man and loudly said, “It’s Zwarte Pete.”
Adult minds are moulded by childhood experiences, social norms and education. Do people really want their children growing up associating non-whites with the simpleton caricature that is Zwarte Pete? This is the stereotyped caricature passed down from colonialism to justify a European land grab. The difference now? Europe has fundamentally changed and is home to significant minority communities.
It’s the same caricature that existed for generations in Britain. When I was growing up a well known manufacturer of jams used images of golliwogs to promote its sugary products. You could collect golliwog tokens and get a golliwog doll or badge in return. Characterised by black skin, white-rimmed eyes, clown lips and frizzy hair the golliwog was a 19th Century racist construct that survived well into the 1990s.
When the Robertson’s brand discontinued the use of golliwogs it announced, “We are not bowing to political correctness, but like with any great make we have to move with the times.” I’d suggest the times have changed sufficiently for Zwarte Pete to be discontinued as well. After all, ‘golliwog’ is the origin of the racist term ‘wog’, and when I see Zwarte Pete (and I recently saw 600 of them walking down a street in The Hague), I see a golliwog.
It is unimaginable to me that a Zwarte Pete parade is an acceptable part of life in a liberal and tolerant society in the 21st Century; so why do so many Dutch people not just accept it but actively defend it? Some of my Dutch acquaintances are dismayed, not by the inherent racism, but that people want to stop or change the tradition. But why be so fearful?
Traditions are, after all, nothing more than creations that we as a society find acceptable, instructive or compelling at a particular period in history. Traditions are supposed to act as guides for life, sometimes as moral lessons. When traditions no longer remain relevant, when they stop being instructive or socially acceptable, we change them, we create new traditions, more aligned with the ethos of our own time. We cannot live in the past, but we can learn from it.
Some traditions don’t deserve to survive. In a multicultural society, Zwarte Pete is one of them. In Britain there is an ancient law allowing the English to shoot with an arrow any Welshman found inside the walls of the town of Chester. We don’t kill innocent Welsh people who are visiting Chester to do a little light shopping. To do so would be insane, just as selling jam in 2014 using a golliwog as a mascot would be insane.
Do I think people who support the tradition of Zwarte Pete are racist? For the vast majority, absolutely not. Quite the opposite in fact. This begs the question of why people tolerate something many minority communities find deeply offensive? If the Netherlands was being honest with itself it would accept that Zwarte Pete isn’t just a bit of fun, it’s harmful. It shouldn’t require a national debate to see the truth of that.