Zwarte Piet: A Racist Caricature?

I wasn’t going to originally post anything on Zwarte Piet but after seeing discourse after discourse on the holiday of Sinterklaas, I decided to write about it. Ah, where to begin. I celebrated Sinterklaas as a child. Since my parents were from the Dutch Caribbean, we would go every December 5th to the Dutch consulate in New York City and eagerly sit with the other children (we were usually the only children of color) while Sinterklaas handed out our presents. And, of course, to accompany Sinterklaas, this saintly white man who represented a bishop, were his ‘helpers’ or Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes). These would usually be men, or women, dressed up in blackface with an Afro wig and bright red lipstick. the legend goes that if you’re bad, Zwarte Piet will take you in his burlap sack to Spain. So naturally I was mortified of Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) as a child. You mean to tell me that this dude who dresses flamboyantly and has this jet black makeup on his face is going to collect me and ship me off to Spain with him? OH HELL NO!!

As I grew up and learned about Golliwogs and Minstrel Shows, I started to notice a pattern. This beloved holiday that I celebrated as part of my ‘heritage’ seemed to overlap a lot with blackface in America. The similarities are undeniable. Originally Zwarte Piet was a representation of the devil. He had no name but the dichotomy between Sinterklaas and the devil figure were supposed to represent the good and evil aspects of Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas was modeled after a 4th century bishop, Saint Nicholas, from what is now modern day Turkey. The opposite of Sinteklaas was the devil, whom it is believed Sinterklaas captured and made his slave. The first mention of Zwarte Piet comes in 1850 when Jan Schenkman decides to add his own spin to the story and changes the devil to Zwarte Piet, the enslaved Moor from Morocco. His book, Sint Nicolaas en Zijn Knecht (Saint Nicholas and his Servant) is what is used for the modern day celebrations of Sinterklaas. This is also where you start to see the present day representations of what Zwarte Piet looks like.

Then around the 1950s, they changed him to his servant. All in all, Sinterklaas is supposed to come from Turkey and Zwarte Piet is supposed to be a Moor from Morocco (interesting how some Dutch have negative attitudes towards Turkish and Moroccan people presently due to Geert Wilders’s racist views on Muslims). But now Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet reside in Spain. When people try to start a discourse of the racist aspects of Zwarte Piet (Afro wig, blackface- even though Moors were lighter skinned Arabic, big bright red lipstick, some even speak in a faux Surinamese accent) proponents for Zwarte Piet say that opponents are the racists because they bring in American imperialism and that it’s not a racist image at all. Or they say that Zwarte Piet doesn’t represent black people, he just went down a chimney and got dirty from the soot. I’ve seen Mary Poppins and Dick van Dyke’s character Bert, a chimney sweeper, is dirty from a chimney. Not Zwarte Piet.

So, I’m going to dispel the asinine reactions that you get about Zwarte Piet when you say it’s a racist depiction.

Reason 1: Zwarte Piet does not represent black people. You’re racist for thinking so.

Answer: By wearing a faux Afro Wig, blackface and red lips, who are you supposed to be representing? Unless there is a new ‘race’ out there that has the same stereotypes, I’m sure this is the ‘race’ that is being portrayed. Furthermore, it looks like the golliwogs and blackface of the US that were very prevalent around the time Schenkman’s book came out.

 

Reason 2: He supposed to be a Moor, that’s why we dress like that.

Answer: Historically, the Moors came from Northern West Africa, typically Morocco, to conquer what is now modern day Spain and Portugal. Aside from the stereotypical depictions of Othello and other Moors, Moors were primarily of Berber and Arab descent. This means that they look like what Moroccans look like today, fair skin, somewhat straight hair, no bright red lips.

Reason 3: Zwarte Pieten are black because they go down the chimney and they are black from the soot.

Answer: Unless they have a magical fabric that doesn’t get dirty, this doesn’t prove why his face and hands are evenly toned with black makeup or why his clothes are not dirty. Also, it doesn’t explain how he magically gets a Afro and outrageous red lips if he is just sliding down the chimney. Once again, Bert from Mary Poppins- dirty from going down a chimney. Zwarte Piet- not so much.
Reason 4: You’re the racist one because you bring your American racist attitudes towards our progressive country, Holland. Those images of blackface and golliwogs couldn’t possibly have made it to Holland because it was the 1800s and there wasn’t any technology to bring those images.

Answer: Well, unless Jan Schenkman and other Dutch people were living under a rock, these images could have easily made it to The Netherlands. The Dutch at the time were very influential in the slave trade and all sorts of goodies were being sent and brought back from the New World to the Old. It has been historically proven that racism becomes prevalent during colonialism.  This includes racist stereotypes.

Reason 5: It’s not that serious, it’s just a children’s holiday.

Answer: Well, when children are being brought up with racist stereotypes, it is a big issue. Especially when a protester gets arrested like this:

It’s a big issue because when people, such as Quinsy Gario, get arrested by having one officer dig a knee into your side and another into your neck, it’s a big issue. Or when you are dragged by four policemen into an alley, it’s a problem. The girl in the background speaking in Papiamentu is saying that it’s messed up what they did to this guy because he was just standing there in a tranquil manner when they arrested him. She also said they she believes that they assaulted the other person that he was with (not seen in the video). The guy is saying that he knows that if this was a Dutch person it would have been a different story. Gario and others decided to protest the coming of Sinterklaas by wearing “Sinterklaas is Racisme” t-shirts during Sinterklaas’s welcoming celebration. It is not clear exactly what went on before the video but regardless his arrest was uncivil. He didn’t resist arrest (according to what is seen in the video) yet they treated him like a common criminal. So it is a big issue and perhaps while we are in the Sinterklaas season (ending on Decmeber 6th), the Netherlands can finally have a proper discourse on Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. He was not originally part of the tradition so there is no excuse why they can’t find common ground to dispel this racist imagery.

Here is another article explaining the situation: http://www.frontaalnaakt.nl/archives/blackface.html

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Bevenue

It’s raining in the mountains. That was my first thought in Guadeloupe. Actually, that was my second thought. My first thought was that they had some awesome graffiti pieces. That was really a surprise because I did not really expect that coming straight from the airport.

Also, so far Guadeloupe seems to be diverse. I don’t know whether it has to do with my experience in Guadeloupe being primarily in the airport up until this point but I saw all different types of “races”. Very interesting to see how that plays out. I’m really excited about this trip; their are so many different scholars here from the Caribbean and just hearing some of the informal dialogue really makes me excited about what’s to come.

Well signing out for now to figure out my hotel, food, and sleep situation.

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Inspiration

As I am grading work from my students, I often tend to get sidetracked and procrastinate a lot.  While on my procrastination binge, I wandered over to the racialicious blog and wondered if they updated anything to distract my mind for a bit.  I came across this new venture, entitled: “AfroPolitan”.  Because my procrastination beckons like an unwanted addiction, I decided to check it out.  And I was floored.  I loved it.  It instantly reminded me of another documentary: “This is my Africa”.  You see, in these documentaries and basically movements, Africans are reclaiming to origin and identity.  What does it mean to be an African?  This is literally awesome.  Sort of a regenerating stance on what is Africa.  It’s not just poverty, “backwardness”, and civil wars.  It’s sounds, colors, people, and beauty.  And it is done wonderfully.  

A couple of months ago, when I first saw “This is my Africa”, I thought about doing a documentary on the Caribbean in that fashion.  Showing what the Caribbean has to offer.  The music, the people, food, colors, sights, sounds.  We have this amazing blend and outside a few academics and Caribbean enthusiasts, no one knows about it.  My like Africa, we are pigeon holed into the stereotypical notion of being exotic tourist getaways with reggae and Black people.  Oh, and if you’re Haiti, poverty. And if you’re Jamaica, outside of all-inclusives, violence. People rarely see beyond that rough exterior.  I want to show it to them something different.  What is it like in the Caribbean.  Aside from the US, we are the best and the worst of what colonialism left over.  We should for once have a say in how we are portrayed.  And done in a way that people will take notice.

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UnNOTConfused: Some Final Thoughts of an American visiting the Netherlands

So it’s been about two weeks since I have been back from the Netherlands and I have a lot of thoughts on my mind. I’ve been meaning to document my experience while there but I was too busy having so much fun, which is a relief. But unfortunately as an anthropologist, I do have some lingering thoughts that tend to penetrate my mind incessantly.

I’ll start with this. My research is primarily on the creole language Papiamentu/o and it’s role within education and culture. More generally, I am interested in creole languages in the Caribbean. But interestingly enough, from time to time, my anthropologist hat tends to wander to the theme of race. Within anthropology “race” is seen as a social construct created by those in power to classify its subjects. Meaning that it can be deconstructed. While this is true (you can be one “race” in one country and another in another country), it is still very prevalent within today’s society. Unfortunately, in order to deconstruct race, you must first deconstruct colonization. And while decolonization is plausible (just look at some of the signs in the Occupy Wall Street movement), it is harder to implement. This is especially true for Some Caribbean nations.

Which brings me back to my original thoughts. While in the Netherlands, I was astonished to see the lack of concern over race issues. In fact, when I brought it up, I was always seen as someone who talked to much. But I digress. This lack of concern shocked me because while did not talk about, they DEFINITELY were living it. I must mention as well, this discussion includes issues of religious and ethnic intolerance. I mean really. People were blatantly racist or anti-Muslim/Turkish/Moroccan and seemed fine with it. I even got the “I’m friends with a Muslim person so I’m that racist; it’s just the way they are” line. And what’s even more astonishing is that many of the people that I spoke to we’re from the former Netherlands Antilles. This was a whole new aspect for me. I think it was at that point when I realized that I wasn’t in the United States anymore. Even though in the US many people of color are racist to other people of color, they do understand the dynamics of what racism is and how it works. In the Netherlands it was completely different. There were two types of racist people of color. The first were the ones who identified with feelings of being marginalized yet sided with the allochtonen. The second were the ones that assimilated completely to the Dutch way of life and marginalized all persons of color; including their own. The latter surprised me the most due to their idea of identity and nationhood. They were the ones that lived in the Netherlands for so long that they identified with being Dutch first then with bring Curaçaoan/Aruban/etc. When I stated to the specific person that I was speaking to that her comments towards Turks and Moroccans were generalizing and that the same was said about her people, she immediately dismissed it by saying that they were right about certain aspects of Curaçaoan people yet they were ever as bad as the Turks/Moroccans. While I do not live there and therefore can not comment on the generalizing behavior or the the Turks/Moroccans, I can say that as a outsider, they were being discriminated against. I can not recall any moment during our trip where someone had something nice to say about them. There was an exception though. One person did note when we saw a discriminatory act that the reason was because he was “Muslim looking”. It was a new experience for me to see what constituted ideas of identity.

This brings me to my second observation. Because I am a linguistic anthropologist, I also tend to look for language use in any given situation. While there I mostly spoke Papiamentu with my cousins since neither my sister or I spoke Dutch. We all knew how to speak Papiamentu since many us were either born in Curaçao or grew up with Papiamentu in the home. My cousins could speak English and tried to sneak it in wherever possible. But I always forced myself to speak Papiamentu, unless I was having an intellectual argument. I articulate myself best in English. But I felt pride in Papiamentu. It resonated within me and it made me feel more Curaçaoan and Aruban and less of a “ignorant American” (as many people in Europe tend think we are). I was vehement about not learning Dutch because I saw it as the language of the people who oppressed my people in the Caribbean (although I do have Dutch ancestors). It is a language that still oppresses the people of Aruba and Curaçao to this day. Dutch, instead of Papiamentu, is used as the language of education even though over 80% of the people in Curaçao and over 60% of the people in Aruba claim it as their mother tongue. Since my research focuses on the perceptions of Papiamentu in education, which still gets negative views by some, I was apprehensive about the Dutch language. I didn’t care for it. What made it worse was an incident that played out during a family get together. While I was sitting with family listening to stories of our parents’ youth, my cousin’s Dutch boyfriend and other cousins came to into the house after returning the bikes we rode that day. He as well as others were enthusiastic about hearing the hilarious stories. My aunt, who was telling them with such vigor, was speaking in Papiamentu. During my research two years prior, many participants stated that through Papiamentu stories come to life. Papiamentu has a cadence that can animate any story. But to get back to the original story, when my aunt saw him, she immediately started to switch between Papiamentu, Dutch, and English before settling completely into Dutch. This immediately annoyed me because a) I couldn’t understand what was being said and b) why didn’t she switch into English? Everyone in that room spoke English. Only two people couldn’t speak Dutch and only one person couldn’t speak Papiamentu. During my research I had heard of this phenomenon but I didn’t believe it to be true until I saw a real life example. As I sat there fuming, I pondered to myself: why doesn’t she just speak English or better yet leave the stories in Papiamentu. They are ten times funnier in their native language than this allochtonen language. So I hypothesized and hypothesized until I figured out some theories. I first concluded that perhaps it was a status marker to speak in Dutch. Historically, those on the islands who spoke Dutch were given jobs and were seen as more intelligent. This prompted to add to this theory. What if, unconsciously, they still strived achieve his status marker. But speaking Dutch it affirmably means that YOU can. In effect, you are able to function in society. While my cousin’s Dutch boyfriend did not actively spur this code switch, his mere presence awakened the need to assimilate. The need to make them feel as comfortable as possible. I wasn’t comfortable, in fact I was just pissed. While everyone was laughing at the wonderful stories, I had to pretend to understand and that annoyed me. It really pissed me off.

A few days later as I was standing in Schiphol ready to go to my gate, still pissed about the Dutch vs. Papiamentu vs. English situation, I hand the security my American passport. He looked at me strangely and I realized I was suppose to give my Dutch passport. You see, I have dual citizenship and I came in as a Dutch citizen rather than an American one. So naturally, I’m supposed to leave as a Dutch citizen. The next step in my journey literally stopped me dead in my tracks. Up until this point I have been passing pleasantries with the officer about the Netherlands. I truly had an amazing time and I told him how I wanted to visit again. When he saw my Dutch passport he face immediately turned and he asked me rather sarcastically why I didn’t know how to speak Dutch. He even went on to say that he spoke English even though he wasn’t American. What I wanted to say back to him was that English is a universal language and that I had no real need to speak Dutch (my ignorant Americaness I guess). But instead I told him the few phrases I learned and that I knew a dirty phrase that I didn’t want to repeat in a crowded airport. But it dawned on me at that moment. I wasn’t be true to myself. As a linguistic anthropologist, I should not be prejudice to one language based on its past or present status. I should help to deconstruct the notions of intolerance while helping to elevate the marginalized language. While the hegemonic language Dutch still has an upper status connotation, that shouldn’t deter me. I should know all sides, especially the hegemonic side in order to help break down the walls of colonialism. And he also proved a point that I was trying to establish in Curaçao and Aruba for years. I was and is still upset when I see a Dutch who lives on the islands for years and who refuses to speak Papiamentu just because they know that they can communicate with others on the island in Dutch. Well the same should go for me. If I have a Dutch passport, I should know how to speak Dutch. I shouldn’t hold the Dutch to a double standard. But at the same time neither should they. If they say that they are diverse and then turn around and condemn those who aren’t, they should practice it. Aruba and Curaçao is as equal a partner as the Netherlands, which means that the language of the people of Aruba and Curaçao, Papiamentu, should have an equal status as Dutch, the language of the Netherlands.

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Eindelijk Aangekomen (Finally Arrived)!!

First things first, I’m not really sure what I’m doing with this blog. I feel like it’s all over the place but oh well. Here we go.

So, we landed at Schiphol and we are finally in NL. I had mixed feelings about going to the Netherlands. Not so much because I didn’t want to see my family but because I have strong feelings about the Netherlands itself. Having my current research work focus on Aruba and Curaçao and seeing their long history with the Netherlands, I sometimes feel as if I want to shout in the middle of Amsterdam “JUSTICE!!!!!”. But alas I cannot do that because a) they did not personally participate in the Dutch West India Company and b) sometimes you have to let things be. Also, my class is reading about the horrors of the Caribbean’s beginnings and it is painful to even think about the long term effects it has had on the people of the Caribbean (colonial mentality).

But in any case, I am kind of digging Holland a little bit. I feel like a foreigner, which is a new feeling for me. This intrigues me. I want to learn more about the cultures that uneasily blend in this maritime land.

We will see what tomorrow has in store for us.

Peace

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The Next Trek in this Adventure

So, I know I haven’t written in about a year and a half but a lot has happened since then.  After interviewing, transcribing, coding, and writing 117 pages, I graduated with my Master’s (inserts applause track).  It was long and tedious and at times painful (definitely due to my lack of concentration for periods at a time) but I schlepped through it.  And although I felt I could have done better some insightful points came out of it so hopefully it serves a purpose.

As for the present, there were some minor setbacks recently that definitely could have taken me a different route.  But holy smokes Batman, thank cheezus I am getting out of my funk.  I have some new ideas lined up and revising old ones so look out world, I will be back and better than ever.  Hopefully

Welp, we will see how the rest of this week goes.

Side note:  I need funding.  Really people I need funding.  So if anyone reads this and has some ideas, let me know.  If not, comment anyway.

Peace

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Keeping with the theme “Hello World”!

I feel the need to share what this blog is about. This blog is mainly going to be about my escapades, idleness, and randomness that occurs during my study to become an anthropologist.

Right now I am in Curaçao doing some research work for my thesis. Didn’t really get a chance to start yet but tonight hopefully I will get my chance.

Oh about me and what this blog will eventually become. Welp, I’m about to become a second year grad student, going for my Master’s of Art in Anthropology. Right now I started my thesis so I’ll be interviewing people in Aruba and Curaçao. It should be a lot of fun, hopefully nothing to major or disastrous will happen. This is where I try to keep a positive attitude so that my research down here will go well.

Right now I’m at Fundashon pa Planifikashon di Idioma (FPI). They basically make sure that there are materials available in Papiamentu such as books for school and leisure books. I’m so excited that I am able to use their resources to work on my thesis. The only problem is that I wish that I could do something here for them, so I can say that at least I worked on a project here. Well whatever, we will see what happens.

The interesting thing that I found so far is that so many people that I am trying to interview are referring me to people who are experts on the Papiamentu language. And they always see themselves as not worthy enough to be interviewed. Why is this?

Well we will see how the first interview goes tonight.

As is customary of my randomness I will end with a sidenote.

Sidenote: Why is it when I looked up dope in the urban dictionary, the sample sentence read: “Yo foo that new stereo system is dope!” [Food for thought]

Yo I’m outy son,

Peace

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