Pop Around the World: Paint It Black

A racist tradition is cherished in the Netherlands

When you think of the Dutch contributions to pop music, you might find yourself drawing a blank, albeit perhaps one decorated with some tulips, marijuana leaves, and gay marriage. There’s no reason to, really, you only have to listen to the Van Halen boys (who share my hometown, as I recently found out), the fantastic “Radar Love” by Golden Earring, or Morrissey favorites Shocking Blue, a 1960s combo whose songs were made famous by bands as diverse as Bananarama (“Venus”) and Nirvana (“Love Buzz”).

Things become more annoying when we examine the work of Dutch songwriter Father Abraham or the more pernicious tracks produced since the 1990s’ first house, techno, and trance heyday. The blunt-headed populist approach these songs take (see also this particularly explicit Dutch commercial for a language school that uses an American track that actually charted in the Netherlands back in 1994) gives a more accurate overview of the music popular in the Netherlands today. After a brief flirtation with music performed in our more arcane dialects (Frisian, Tweants, and to be culturally imperialistic, Flemish), mainstream music in Holland — when I encounter it on brief visits to my fatherland, at least — sounds mostly homogenous, tall, and blond. It sounds like a society that finds it entirely okay, CHERISHES it even, that videos like this exist.

I’ll let you catch your breath there for a second while I tell you that cover of the most internationally popular Korean pop song ever is aimed at children. This strange display of blackface, is, as David Sedaris will explain, a very normal Dutch phenomenon that comes around every year in late fall as the Lowlanders gear up for the celebration of Sinterklaas, an awfully Christmassy (minus all the Jesus or tree bits) holiday revolving around giving people gifts and showering them with hard candy. Instead of Santa, we’ve got Saint Nicholas (sound familiar?), who in his bishop’s mitre rides a white horse over the Dutch roofs to pass out gifts to the children who’ve been good in the year so far. Like Santa, he is wise and gentle, but unlike the American Saint Nick he does not employ a race of polar elves to do his bidding.

Instead, Saint Nicholas has a large crew of ‘Zwarte Pieten’ [black petes], who are played by black-faced white people during the holiday parades and daily TV ‘news’ updates. They are ubiquitously represented on wrapping paper, candy wrappers, etc. as wide-eyed, big-lipped, kinky-haired Africans in mangled 17th-century servant garb of the kind you find in Rembrandts. Now, the part of Santa’s little helper is nigh universal throughout Europe (the devilish creature Krampus in the Alps, Père Fouettard in France, Knecht Ruprecht in Germany), but only in Holland was he made out to be so obviously African in origin; a face that would slightly scare children (if it wasn’t for that colorful garb and all the candy they’re throwing around) and body language that leans towards the simian (much silliness and minor acrobatics, as well as, again, all that candy-slinging).

As you can imagine, this hasn’t always sat well in public opinion. Each year, voices decry this clearly racist parody that reduces race to a ‘costume’ available to white people once a year and, perhaps more importantly, cheerfully neglects the Dutch people’s long and pernicious involvement in both the slave trade and in colonialism in general. (Need I remind you that the Netherlands still have colonies in the Caribbean? Or that they violently tried to strike down the fight for independence in Indonesia mere years after themselves being liberated from Nazi occupation by the Allied forces? Or that they were long the only country allowed to trade with Japan because they helped the Japanese quell a Christian uprising?) This year, however, marked an absolute low point in the Dutch isolationist and small-minded public debate, with a so-called ‘Piet-ition’ to save the blackface custom from the hands of meddling multiculturalists, reaching more than two million likes on Facebook.

Here I was, suddenly faced with presumably otherwise rational and sane friends and family members sharing their online outrage over the possible outlawing of Zwarte Piet, and what’s worse, posting ‘joke’ images like this one, which suggests Saint Nicholas had to resort to hiring Poles. (Eastern Europeans being the latest minority to be casually derided and belittled in a Dutch society that is only too happy to hire Polish workers to do all the jobs Dutch people are either to ‘expensive’ for or are no longer qualified to do – much the same way they treated Greek and Turkish immigrants back in the day, as long as they don’t overstay their welcome).

The government, meanwhile, washes its hands of the whole affair, pointing instead to the so-called Sinterklaas committees in charge of all the different holiday parades in cities large and small. After long discussions, the Amsterdam committee, for one, has recently decided that the status quo should be maintained. Minus the traditional hoop earrings, that is, as they too clearly refer to the chains that once shackled slaves abducted from Africa on Dutch ships. It’s still completely acceptable to dress up as a black person, though, as that is not racist at all, the committee claims. A more enlightened group in the northern city of Groningen decided they would, instead of smearing Piet’s face black, paint their faces in all the colors of the rainbow – a decision that was immediately reversed when the committee started to receive threatening emails and phone calls. A right-wing local councilman responded that Verene Shepherd, the chairperson of the UN’s Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent and in charge of researching the Zwarte Piet phenomenon for the UN, should just come and have a look, see how harmless and wholesome the tradition really is.

In a horrific twist, 30 or 40 stragglers of a 400-person strong pro-Piet demonstration in The Hague (home of the International Court of Justice, you’ll recall) bumped into a lone black woman there to protest (former Dutch colony) Indonesia’s ongoing genocide in West Papua, only to immediately assume her to be an anti-Piet protester. When she tried to explain she had no Piet-affiliation, they sang Sinterklaas songs to silence her and harassed her until she was escorted away by police officers. “Arrested.” “Serves her right”, the protesters said.

When a recent article and book by Colin Woodard praised the original Dutch settlers in the US for leaving a strip of counties stretching inland from New York with a culture of tolerance and “unflinching commitment to the freedom of inquiry”, my eye was struck by two more ambiguous virtues the Dutch supposedly taught their American descendants: materialism and a liberal aversion to discuss “great moral questions”. That sounds more like us.

Tolerance is not a necessarily moral stance, it is also a prerequisite of the free market and it can easily coexist with racist ideas. Just because you tolerate people doesn’t mean you actually have to see them as equals; it can also mean you simply want to maximize your customer base. Similarly, where freedom of inquiry is concerned, just because (and especially when) everybody’s opinion is said to be equally valid, there is no real forum to discuss moral questions; “but that’s just what I think” or “but it’s a tradition” are not opinions, they’re ways to evade any discussion. Being pro-Piet is not a neutral stance (it’s not Pepsi vs. Coca Cola), it’s a moral position that sees black identity as inferior.

What makes matters worse is that the Dutch like to see themselves as the moral compass of the EU, nay, the universe, eagerly taking other nations to task about issues such as gay rights. In their increasingly solipsistic cocoon, the Dutch have, I believe, completely shed the pragmatic humility that arguably once made them such great traders in our Golden Age. In its stead is a vapid collection of radio stations, magazines, and TV networks espousing the ‘glory of Holland’ with nary an eye on the country’s increasingly diverse population or its increasing irrelevance on the stages of the EU and the world at large.

While people’s opinion on the subject is clearly ‘evolving’ (one of the higher-brow newspapers even came out against Zwarte Piet this year), a serious discussion about why the practice is wrong-headed and insulting is apparently not yet possible in the Netherlands — what with death threats being tweeted and self-righteous parents getting up in arms. Yet there is one slight ray of unracist hope: the recent ‘rediscovery’ of kaseko music from the troubled former Dutch colony of Suriname. Released by Dutch hip-hop label TopNotch, the infectious compilation Sranan Gowtu boasts this great almost-cover of Dillinger’s “Cokane in My Brain” by the Happy Boys, sung in both Dutch and Papiamento.

Top image courtesy of CC Flickr user Charles Hutchins