Kirsten van den Hul on Historical Taboos

What's your national taboo?

Our national taboo has a name: Piet. Let me explain. Every December, Holland falls victim to a bizarre virus. Kids cannot sleep, parents go nuts and entire blocks are closed off for traffic. No, I'm not talking about a terrorist threat or the latest Harry Potter hype. I'm talking about one of the most popular Dutch traditions: Sinterklaas.

An old, bearded guy wearing a red dress, who supposedly lives in Spain where he owns a palace full of presents. Each year, he takes his gift-loaded steamer to visit Holland, dropping presents through chimneys. He does vaguely resemble his Anglosaxon brother Santaclaus, though Sinterklaas prefers a horse over raindeer and …  black slaves over elves.

Black slaves? Yes. Loads of them. “Zwarte Piet” (Black Pete) has been Sinterklaas' loyal servant since he first entered the story in 1850, when Amsterdam-based school teacher Jan Schenkman wrote the first illustrated Sinterklaas children's book. He depicted Black Pete as a More, wearing 16th century clothes, carrying a whip and threatening kids to put them in a bag and take them back to Spain, if they misbehaved. Poor Pete is sent up the roofs to drop off the presents, has to carry Sinterklaas' cane and looks after the old man's horse. In other words, he's his slave.

Shocking? Not in 1850. When Schenkman wrote his book, the Dutch colonies had not yet abolished slavery (that wouldn't happen untill 1863) and most Dutch people had never met a free black person. Now comes the shocking part. Today, in 2012, when, thanks to post-colonial migration, our country is a multicolored mosaic, kids still grow up with Black Pete. White men in blackface wearing 16th century clothes still acting as Sinterklaas' loyal servants. And that's not all. Black Pete is depicted as stupid (he always gets lost), dependent (he needs Sinterklaas to help him out) and scary (cause bad kids still have to fear being put into his bag, back to Spain).

What I find most shocking, is that most Dutch people refuse to acknowledge this is in fact a racist stereotype disguised as tradition. Any debate about the abolishment of Black Pete is nipped in the bud “cause it's part of our culture.”

Don't get me wrong: I have nothing against tradition. I even have nothing against Sinterklaas. But I strongly object to the perpetuation of painful racist stereotypes through this shameful show we put on for kids each year. Let's get this straight. It's stupid. It's unneccesary. It's time to move on.


How can this taboo be ovecome?

Freeing Piet is easier said than done. It all starts with an acknowledgement of the darkest page of Dutch national history: the role we played in trans-atlantic slave trade. That means: including chapters on our colonial past in history books, making space for a more inclusive approach towards national history. Secondly, Piet can only be free once companies join the liberation movement. That means: no more offensive images of Piet (including big red lips and other racist sterotypes) on packaging, ads and visual merchandising. Thirdly, parents need to realise that Piet is painful for many of our fellow citizens. Each year, I hear stories of children calling dark skinned people Black Piet. So why not introduce a new Piet, who can be white, brown, yellow or black. The story has it he climbs through the chimney. Fine, then have Piet wear smudges of soot on his cheeks. But I've never heard climbing through chimneys results in afro wigs, red lips and silly accents, have you?

What would change?

What would change once Piet was free? In order to answer that question, we need to ask ourselves another question, underlying the Piet-pain of those who feel offended, hurt, marginalized and mocked by that so-called tradition I described in my previous entry. Ultimately, this Piet-pain is not about wigs, earrings or make-up. It is about lack of empathy and historical perspective. So the real question we should be asking ourselves is: what would change once Europe came to terms with its colonial past? Let me limit myself to my own country, the Netherlands, which is still struggling with those darkest pages of our national history. 

Did my history books include pages on our role in transatlantic slave trade, on the conditions on Dutch plantations overseas? They didn't. Do kids these days know who Tula was, and how he tried to free the slaves on Curacao, inspired by the French Revolution? Do they know why there is a fortress in Ghana which still bears a Dutch name, from where thousands of slaves were shipped to far away shores? The answer is as simple as it is sad: no.

“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity”, said Martin Luther King Jr. Indeed, ignorance leaves people puzzled, and somehow, the pieces of our national puzzle have yet to find their place. In Amsterdam, this becomes painfully visible, right around the corner of my house. Oosterpark is an interesting place. One of the oldest city parks in Amsterdam, it houses the national slavery monument, where every July 1st, a small crowd gathers to commemorate the abolishment of slavery in the Dutch colonies. A few hundred meters on, in the same Oosterpark, there's another monument called “The Scream”, erected in remembrance of Theo van Gogh, the controversial Dutch filmmaker who was killed in 2004 by an angry young Dutch-Moroccan who was offended by one of Van Gogh's films on Islam. Keep walking through Oosterpark and you'll run into the impressive building of the Dutch Tropical Institute and museum, with its vast collection of cultural heritage from Surinam, Indonesia and other former colonies. Right across the street, you will find NinSee, the Dutch National Institute for for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy, currently fighting to stay alive amidst budget cuts and austerity measures. Around the corner, you can eat the best Surinamese roti in town (if you're willing to wait in line). The Dutch mosaic in a nutshell. All in one square kilometer, all connected, and yet worlds apart, safely tucked away in their own little corner of the park. 

So what would change once Piet was free, once our children grow up knowing about those shameful shiploads our ancestors sold, once people know the full story of our “Golden Age”? 

There would be less ignorance, more empathy. There would be more people visiting the national slavery monument in Oosterpark. And there still would be a line for the best roti in town. 

Only when the Dutch own up to their role in transatlantic slavery, will this country be able to start putting the pieces of the puzzle together. Time to check, double check and come clean! 

What was Europe’s biggest learning moment? What should we do with what was learned? 

Ask a young person in the streets of Tunis, Havana or Willemstad where they'd rather be, and chances are they will tell you: France, Spain, Holland. Last December, I asked a young man in Cairo this very question. “Greece”, he replied.  “Are you sure?” I asked, wondering whether he realized that Greece was not exactly in the best of shapes. “Yes”, he said. “I am sure. It's still Europe, isn't it?” I couldn't argue with that. Risking their lives on rafts and boats, these drifters are sailing on the winds of fear. Fear of having no future, no job, no livelihood, no freedom. Anything better than home. 

Ironically, fear is also what is leading a growing army of populist preachers in those very countries those youngsters in Tunis, Havana, Willemstad or Cairo are dreaming of, to call for higher walls around Fortress Europe. 

But how many of those populist preachers have ever asked an immigrant about the why behind their big move? How many of them realize that only half a century ago, most of North Africa and Latin America was still under colonial rule? 

Many of the sans-papiers who risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean or spend their life's savings on a trans-Atlantic flight, think they are on their way to paradise. Can you blame them? They were brought up to believe that Europe is the center of the world. School books in formerly colonized countries are more often than not still in the former colonizer's language. Supermarkets, satellite tv, sports teams and superstars keep selling the European Dream. Dolls are white, blond and blue eyed, cremes with names like Fair and Lovely promise lighter skin and, therefor, success. When a baby is born in Cuba, the first thing parents check is whether (s)he has “pelo bueno” (good hair) or “pelo malo” (bad hair).  Sad? Yes. Surprising? No. As Frantz Fanon argued: “The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country's cultural standards.”

Again, it's time to check, double check and come clean. Only when Europe owns up to its role in colonization of the minds of millions of Arabs, Africans, Latin-Americans and Asians, will Eurocentricity be replaced by more realist expectations, on both sides of the pond.