By Zoe Neilson
Walking into de Bijenkorf at this time of year is much like walking into the department store of any big city. There are twinkling lights, decorations, a tireless rhythm of music and escalators, a warm hum of bustling shoppers. Yet the comforting familiarity of the scene sharply evaporates when you wander a little further and fall upon an atrium spectacularly decorated with mechanical, moving Zwarte Piets. There are around five ‘Piets’, at least 5 metres in size; robotically heaving themselves up and down ropes ladened with sacks of presents. They sport their ubiquitous outfits, Afros, red lips, and gold hoops. There is an eerie slowness to their movement’s -out of sync with the pumping music and hubbub of the store- an impression of the backbreaking toil of such interminable labour. A kind of spectre of slavery.
The sharp and horrified shock experienced at De Bijenkorf is not the only one that international residents, or visitors to the Netherlands, can expect. They may heartily bite into a sweet treat only to realise they have unthinkingly bitten the head off of a chocolate ‘Piet’, they will definitely meet the piercing blue eyes of a child or adult in total blackface, and their children may return home from school merrily singing songs about the Sint’s helper/slave while they set about their homework of correcting Piet’s foolish spelling mistakes.
The reaction of every non-Dutch person -that I have spoken with at least- who has witnessed this tradition is the same; disbelief, discomfort, disgust. Yet few are willing to voice these sentiments to their Dutch friends, colleagues, classmates. They are fearful that the open door of welcomeness extended to them in this country will be slammed shut with dismissive declarations that they ‘do not understand the tradition’, that they should ‘BACK OFF!!’ Zwarte Piet, and leave the Dutch children’s tradition ‘ALONE!’. The mostly dogmatic, heated, and often-hysterical defence of the Zwarte Piet is intimidating to the newcomer, and so most keep their ideas to themselves. But this should stop.
It becomes clear that this aggressive and territorial reaction –you don’t understand our culture, hands of our traditions!!– extends to those non-white ‘allochtoon’ Dutch who protest against the Zwarte Piet in his current personification. And this is when even louder alarm bells should ring. The anti-Piet movement are a small minority, dismissed and silenced in equal measure in mainstream media and politics within their own country. Within this climate Verene Sheperd’s statement -loaded with the authoritative clout of the U.N- that Dutch people must realise the Zwarte Piet is a throwback to slavery and stop the tradition as it is practised today, came as a victory to this marginalised minority. Her words, and the attention of the international media -who appear more or less united in their criticism of the racist tradition- act as a kind of international affirmation that the Zwarte Piet is racist, that it is shocking. It underlines that the Zwarte Piet, but even more so the defence of the Zwarte Piet -with its subtle and not-so-subtle racist undertones- is a stain on the Netherlands.
Quincy Gario has said, “the world is watching”, but now the world must start talking. Those non-Dutch people living in, or visiting, the Netherlands must speak up. They must become less timid in expressing their objection to the intolerant rhetoric ,and racist symbolism, around them. Why are people quick to publicly condemn homophobia in Russia, or gender inequality in Afghanistan, but hesitant to wade into the injustice and struggle on their doorstep? Perhaps it is uncomfortable, perhaps it leads to unwanted confrontations, but it is necessary. Maybe we are not all the UN’s Verene Sheperd, but that is not an excuse to stay silent.
Most of us, who do not have our heads buried in the sand, can see that the Zwarte Piet tradition -as practised today- does not have much of a future. Those that bring about the change will be the Dutch individuals and protest groups who are challenging the majority. However, non-Dutch international individuals and organisations can, and should, speak up. Perhaps when the majority of Dutch -the Piet devotees– realise that this tradition makes them look like a nation of racists in the eyes of the outside world, that it is utterly at odds with the famous tolerance they attribute to themselves, they will be more inclined to listen to their fellow country men and women’s protests.