Quotidian 3-1 (February 2012)John Helsloot: Zwarte Piet and Cultural Aphasia in the Netherlands

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It is precisely such a discussion that the two Dordrecht protesters, yet again, tried to open before they initially were stopped so violently. They were primarily interested in getting the Dutch public to acknowledge the ‘racist’ origins of Zwarte Piet. Ideas for adapting him, for instance leaving his face white with only a few brushes of soot, they considered a matter of secondary importance.

As an ethnologist, specialising in ritual, I consider it to be my job to describe and analyze a ritual character like Zwarte Piet and the debate, continuing for decades now, surrounding it. In the previous section I tried to understand how this character ‘works’ in the Sinterklaas festival, and how it remains immune to criticism. Taking notice of both sides of the divide, my position, as a professional, for some time has been that it must be considered ambiguous what Zwarte Piet represents. Siding with one of the parties engaged in this ongoing battle of recognition, fighting each other by strategic essentialism – of black identity and Dutch cultural heritage respectively, would collide with my professional ethos. This said, however, I claimed my right to express myself on this issue as a common participant in Dutch society. Thus framed, I denounced Zwarte Piet’s presence in the Sinterklaas ritual as objectionable (Helsloot 2009, 83-84, and in several public debates in November 2011).

The reading of Ann Laura Stoler’s recent articles has prompted me to reconsider this neat, and relatively safe, distinction between professional and private positions, and to go against pressures (e.g. Paasman 2002, 11-13; Oostindie 2010, 175,178) to take a balanced and differentiated view in matters of the history of slavery and colonialism. Merely establishing that Zwarte Piet is contested will in my private as well as my professional opinion not do. I concur with Walter Leimgruber’s (2010, 178) comment that ‘Raw, discriminatory, insulting, or degrading forms of cultural expression should be taken seriously as manifestations of societal default lines and conflict zones – taken seriously not in the sense of contended acceptance, but in the sense of critical analysis’. Here I was struck by the acuteness of Stoler’s analysis, which I think is an eye-opener in the case of Zwarte Piet as well. As Polish anthropologists Dagnoslaw Demski and Kamila Baraniecka-Olszewska (2010, 15) write: ‘ethnic caricatures sometimes fall outside dispassionate analysis’ and ‘force researchers to defend or to present their world view, their interpretation of the history of the nation – that is to respond to those stereotypes’.[31] On the one hand that might be considered a ‘failure as an objective, value-free scientific approach’. But on the other hand it seems ‘obvious that any analysis of ethnic stereotypes cannot be free of the author’s own point of view on those stereotypes’. In the case of Zwarte Piet, my private and professional views coincide. The ghosts of the ethnological past, fraught with awkward wrong positioning, must make one very wary in taking a step like this. But as Regina Bendix (2008, 119) and Albert van der Zeijden (2011, 378-379) recently argued; ethnologists sometimes do have an obligation to make their voices heard in current debates in society.

Here in particular I have in mind the situation after the ratification by the Netherlands of UNESCO’s Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage. As was to be expected, the Dutch St Nicholas Society (Sint Nicolaas Genootschap Nederland) announced that it will strive to give the Sinterklaas ritual a prominent position on the upcoming national inventory of intangible cultural heritage in the Netherlands, and, in cooperation with its Belgian counterpart, even on the representative list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity. If in doing so their agenda would be to isolate the ritual from change or criticism – aphasically[32] the chairman of the Dutch St Nicholas Society seemed intent on fixating the explanation of Zwarte Piet’s blackface from the chimney soot[33] – they would be misguided. Of course, this is not the way the Convention is intended, or how the upholding of tradition takes place. The director of the Dutch Centre of Popular Culture and Immaterial Heritage (VIE) Ineke Strouken repeatedly has stressed that also under the UNESCO regime, traditions like Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet will evolve and adapt to changing circumstances. I do hope that those responsible for executing the Convention in the Netherlands will listen to, give voice to, and wholeheartedly support, the justified denunciations and demands, by what is now still a minority, for the eventual dismissal or substantial modification of Zwarte Piet. In this respect, an information campaign, based on existing and new research and supported by a rich visual documentation, aimed at raising public awareness and countering cultural aphasia and re-associating resemblances between Zwarte Piet and caricatures of black people, would be well-suited.