Is Zwarte Piet racism?


Great Economist article summarising this current Dutch debate.

I’d suggest the resolution to the issue comes down to the intention of the costume/tradition/wearer. We can test this by asking how a white person would react to a black person approaching them with genuine concerns about the tradition.

If the instinct is to dismiss those views entirely, with no room for compromise (or modification of the tradition) then I’d suggest we have the beginnings of an argument that at least that person is racist, and that (maybe) the tradition is the root of that or a significant cause of it. We can then try to extrapolate upwards to see if this kind of approach is shared widely across Dutch society, and, if it is, more readily conclude that indeed the tradition is racist.

Arguments that because the tradition was borne out of colonialism, is a still practised tradition and that therefore it is a racist tradition are superficial and wrong-headed. Something that began 100+ years ago in a wildly different context says little to nothing about whether the it is currently racist, even if it is still practised as a fancy dress exercise.

Some have, however, reacted badly and somewhat dismissively. Nevertheless, this only goes some way to making the argument. Some is not the same as all; it’s not the same as society. This comment from the article sums it up quite well, in my view:

It should be noted that the current discussion was provoked by a researcher posing as an independent UN investigator, who basically told an entire country to throw out one of its most loved traditions. That doesn’t excuse the racists now showing themselves in these discussions, but it does lump all the non-racists in with them.

From my perspective, as silly as it may sound to some, the ‘soot-covered’ argument sounds fine. Indeed, the stereotypical Zwarte Piet image is a man with *blue eyes*. As a child, I never once associated Zwarte Pieten with black people – they were a supernatural phenomenon, just like Sinterklaas himself. Does that mean it can’t be construed as racist? No. And maybe there’s something to be said for allowing more hairstyles, at least, considering it adds to the stereotype.

But the point is, for most people there’s no racist *intent* here. Having someone tell you that you’re being racist is offensive if you’re not aware of any harm – it should be fine to suggest changing the tradition in some minor way to be more politically correct, but it doesn’t surprise me that people go on the defensive considering the way those against the practice have gone about it.

Ultimately I’d submit that, on balance, Zwarte Piet isn’t a racist tradition. It may have been the product of an era we now regard as racist, but if anything, I think that if you ask any Dutch person, of any race, few will say they treat Zwarte Piet as an assertion of colonial racism manifest in modern Dutch society. The only ones that seem to be suggesting it is are, somewhat ironically, the currently staunch opponents to the tradition – much like those who take a wholly dismissive view of the issue while labelling an entire society as prejudiced and discriminatory.

Perhaps there is an argument that regardless of the practice’s affect on conscious racism, it may form the basis for a less overt form of subconscious racism. I don’t, however, see how such an argument can adequately be shown empirically, absent widespread racial discrimination and racist attitudes within the society or similar.

Indeed the tradition may even form the basis of reminder of the nation’s past, – a past few would honestly believe is worth returning to, let alone remotely close to what modern life in the Netherlands is like.


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