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

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Aphasia exposed

Primarily operating in this discourse is a process of ‘active dissociation’ (Stoler 2011, 125). The implicit negative charge of the – unspecified on the T-shirts – concept of ‘racism’ is emphatically denied because of the apparent misfit with inner convictions, emotions, and most importantly, intentions. This then produces a chain of other associations, with questionable degrees of, in Foucault’s model, comprehensibility. The combined argument basically runs along the following lines.

The whole idea of Zwarte Piet representing a real black person is misguided. ‘I have never associated Zwarte Piet with our coloured fellow countrymen. It’s very obvious that Zwarte Pieten are white people in blackface’. ‘He has no African background but is his own species’. The origin of his blackface to people reasoning thus is quite simple: it is caused by the soot in the chimneys as he climbs down from the roofs to deliver the parcels in the children’s shoes. By far this is the most popular explanation of Zwarte Piet’s blackface. ‘It has nothing to with portraying a negroid fellow human being as inferior’.[11] The obvious inconsistencies – Zwarte Piet being already blackface when he arrives in the Netherlands; his beautiful costume showing no traces of soot at all – are ignored without further ado.

The argument shifts to history when it comes down to explaining Sinterklaas having a black companion – to use the most neutral term. How is their relationship to be defined? To the Dutch public at large, the figure now known as Zwarte Piet was introduced in a children’s book from 1850, with rhymes and pictures, written by Amsterdam former schoolteacher, Jan Schenkman. It was titled: ‘St Nicholas and his servant’ (Sint Nikolaas en zijn knecht). Suggestions equalling their relationship in reality as one of slave and master are denounced as lacking a factual basis. Zwarte Piet was a servant ‘of his own free will’.[12] And whatever it may have been in the past, clearly nowadays the relationship is one of – almost – equal partners.

In an effort to have the racism charge hit an impermeable wall which would justify a refusal to engage in any further discussion at all, the Sinterklaas ritual, of which Zwarte Piet is part, is framed as ‘a children’s party’, in addition eagerly qualified as ‘innocent’. It simply makes no sense, it is argued, to interrelate these concepts.[13] The reported sight of so many children’s fondness, if not love, of Zwarte Piet aims at supporting this.

A related argument labels Zwarte Piet an inextricable part of Dutch national ‘tradition’ or ‘cultural heritage’, a domain which is deemed impervious to claims of racism. Opponents should keep clear of this and show respect for a country’s traditions. If not, their Dutchness is questioned. That is why Quinsy Gario and Know’ledge Cesare kept stressing, in the aftermath of the Dordrecht incident, their Dutch nationality and common Dutchness, entitling them to condemn the arrest as being ‘so un-Dutchlike’ (see Balkenhol 2011, 154-159 for the context of this position).


Fig. 2: Sinterklaas entry in Haarlem, November 2010. Photo: John Helsloot.

Further, and to many final, proof of all this is pointing to the public statements, and in fact participation in the ritual, of numerous Dutchmen of Surinamese and of Antillean descent, of their having no problems at all with Zwarte Piet and, on the contrary, of enjoying the tradition (cf. Oostindie 2010, 130,132-133,172; Balkenhol 2010, 79).

By severing links, disassociating and disconnecting,[14] and, to fill the gap, introducing concepts pertaining to other domains, defenders of Zwarte Piet divert the meaning of the slogan ‘Zwarte Piet is racism’ into other directions. From the model of cultural aphasia adopted here, these are unrelated areas, making no sense.