Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Zwarte Piet

Zwarte Piet is one of those curious cultural phenomena that defy explanation and understanding...

Kind of equivalent to America's Christmas elves, or Sweden's holiday jultomten, or Ireland's feisty leprechauns... Holland's Zwarte Pieten ("Black Pete"s) are good-natured-yet-mischeivious figures of holiday legend. They serve as helpers for Sinterklaas -- forming the crew for his steam boat, caring for his horse, running his errands, delivering his gifts and holiday sweets... Call them servants, helpers, slaves -- call them what you will, they're a classic mythical archetype that seems to work its way into many different holiday celebrations around the world.

But the strange part about Zwarte Pieten is that the classic portrayal of this Dutch legend is a white person in blackface minstrel-fashion cariacture. Dark face paint, big red lips, bushy black hair -- it seems a pretty harsh contradiction to the typical tolerance, accommodation, and pragmatic relativism of most Nederlanders. Yet Dutch people (even many people of color) will insist that Zwarte Piet is not a remnant of colonial racism and opression; rather, it's just a fun tradition that brings joy to so many...

I'm willing to trust the intentions of my Dutch friends, and I don't want to be critical of a culture that's not my own. But if such a tradition were to be observed in America, I can only imagine the stern statements of reprimand issued by Jesse Jackson... the scathing comedy routines by Chris Rock... the general sense of public outrage (from both blacks and whites) at such tradition. Thus, it is points such as this that I feel myself most accutely caught between cultures.

Zwarte Piet scared me at first and made me feel very uncomfortable. In the time since, I've been slowly charmed by his antics and brought around to an understanding of his appeal. But mostly, I just feel confused. And cautious. And curious...


At 5:59 AM, Blogger HSBCHVJVSGA said...

Yeah. I feel the same way and I have only been there twice!
Hey Eric, Tim from Missouri (the Sea Palace guy). Every time I see Zwarte Piet I feel a sense of dread, expecting the ACLU to jump outfrom behind the nearest corner with a lawsuit.

You answered several of my questions.


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