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

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The context of cultural aphasia

‘I am sick and tired of these one-dimensional subtleties bent upon torpedoing a piece of Dutch folklore’, a participant in the internet debate stated.[27] To ethnologists too, claims of a ritual having only one specific meaning cannot be but unsatisfactory. Theoretically, but also on empirical grounds – as in this case, people dressing up as Zwarte Piet seem to communicate a more complicated message than of exclusively representing, by their blackface and ritualized behaviour, a black person in caricature. And their audience does appear to perceive it as intended. Clearly, they first and foremost relish in their carnivalesque dressing up, Sinterklaas being one of the ever more numerous occasions in today’s Western societies (Braun 2002) to do so. Their beautiful costumes combined with their blackface appear to have effectuated their ‘ritual transformation (…) into a being of another order’ (Crumrine 1983, 1). As Dale Cockrell (1997, 53) wrote in his book on American black minstrels: ‘In fact, it appears that in the culture of common people, masking in blackface was making a statement more about what you were not than about race. (…) Of course, on one important level blackface minstrelsy took as its signature characteristic the representation of black people, but in the ritual background loomed more profoundly Otherness, the accumulation of centuries of metaphorical use’. It can be argued that in the present-day’s Netherlands too, the blackface of Zwarte Piet is also expressing this sense of ‘otherness’, which emerges and is experienced during the performance of the ritual itself (Hughes-Freeland 1998, 15). Most likely it was, in part, at the basis of the creation of the Zwarte Piet character itself (Helsloot 2008, 100-101). This otherness is, of course, hard to articulate. There is a tension between ‘reflexivity in ritual and reflexivity on ritual’ (Köpping, Leistle & Rudolph 2006, 28; cf. Turner 1967, 27; Lewis 2008, 52). The blackface of Zwarte Piet through performance seems to have acquired new emerging or ‘operational’ meanings, more or less disconnected from its origin: its ‘exegetical’ meaning (Turner 1967, 50-51). In such a case, ‘meaning would be found in temporalized “structures of experience” (...) rather than formal categories of thought’ (St John 2008, 4).

This is favoured by the overall carnivalesque atmosphere in which Zwarte Piet and his audience participate. A further reflection of this is that many a Zwarte Piet is actually a woman (Pleij 2009, 71). Thereby blackface and cross-dressing are combined as carnivalesque devices in this ‘cultural travesty’[28]. Unrecognisable as a result, the Pieten experience a sense of freedom and otherness,[29] ‘encouraged’, as Terry Gunnell notes on cross-dressing, ‘by the athmosphere that this particular “inappropriate” costume opens up’. ‘Indeed, the surrounding atmosphere of humour and entertainment (…) reflects the fact that what has been brought into being is an essentially comic situation’ (Gunnell 2009, 214).


Fig. 3: Sinterklaas entry in Oostzaan, November 2009. Photo: John Helsloot.

These experiences, gained by performers and audiences alike, over time become fixed, and as memories ‘are “sedimented in the body”’ (Mitchell 2006, 389, quoting Paul Connerton). The physical disgust often felt and expressed over criticism of Zwarte Piet testifies to this. The low degree of reflexivity in ritual, the effect of ignorance, and in turn producing it, may explain the easy recourse taken in retrospect to the already mentioned secondary explanation of the soot in the chimneys causing the blackface, and in general, the testimony of the majority of Dutchmen that in their view, the blackface of Zwarte Piet has no racial or racist connotations. They simply do not experience it that way, and are thus prevented from engaging in a dialogue. Combined with a general indifference in Dutch society towards the history of slavery (Oostindie 2010, 170-172), they are able to uphold a regime of truth in this respect by their sheer numeric preponderance. Their perceptions have become ‘biografied tall tales’, as Konrad Köstlin wrote about participants in German Fastnacht that proclaim a festive sense of freedom similar to that of those engaged in Zwarte Piet performances. ‘Biografied folklore works from a public awareness of history, that must be positive and optimistic’, ‘free of contradictions and free of conflicts’, and that ‘blocks taking into account other groups than those in a power position to define the ritual, or other pasts’. ‘The monistic schemata of interpretation are without alternatives; they do not tolerate a “counter culture”’. Those unwilling to sympathise with these views ‘are framed as atypical outsiders’ (Köstlin 1980, 70-71).

This mentality, perceptively diagnosed by Köstlin, is by and large also typical of those unable to see Zwarte Piet as ‘racist’. They hear the shaking of the door that locks and guards their views, and refuse to open it.[30] The present cultural climate in the Netherlands, of course, is not particularly helpful in persuading them still to do so. Questioning Zwarte Piet is widely felt as an attack on Dutch national identity (for a comparable case, Capo Zmegac 2008; see also Van Ginkel 2004; Bronner 2005). Because of that, Zwarte Piet has grown into a key or master symbol of Dutch society, ‘a way of talking about’ (Wolf 1958, 34,38) the Netherlands.

A year before the ultimately cancelled August 2008 anti-Zwarte Piet demonstration in Eindhoven, in april 2007, right-wing populist politician Rita Verdonk, at that time representing one sixth of the electorate in virtual polls, had publicly stated that an unspecified ‘they’ – clearly meaning black Dutchmen and by extension immigrants in general – were intent upon abolishing the St Nicholas ritual. In an indirect reference to Zwarte Piet, she ridiculed the emerging memorialisation in the Netherlands of slavery as a shameful part of Dutch history. In the discourse about the 2008 Eindhoven protest march even a link to Dutch Muslims was established, and with them also to left-wing, elitist politicians; because the march was instigated by an art museum. Over and over again it was repeated, that Islam and Muslims are taking over Dutch culture with the blessing of their leftist cronies, that ‘we’ are giving in endlessly by tolerating ‘their’ strange ways, but now it’s time to say ‘enough is enough’ and to draw the line: any attack on Zwarte Piet is the death blow to Dutchness. In this still prevalent neo-nationalist mind-set, essentialising ‘national tradition’ and denying ambiguity is the only option. It is, of course, a phenomenon only too well known to ethnologists (Anttonen 2005, 86,103; Gingrich & Banks 2006). As Reginald Byron and Ullrick Kockel (2006, 14) stated: ‘This encourages the absolutization and concretization of those cultural attributes that are held to be the essential stigmata of difference. Once created, these stigmata become integral to the group’s raison d’être. They must not change (…) Questioning their legitimacy, or subjecting them to any sort of objective scrutiny, comes to be regarded as a kind of blasphemy.’ However, ‘Gatekeeping of this kind (…) hinders the discussion and negotiation of things that ought to be discussed and negotiated in open and liberal European democracies’.