Why would anyone think that blacking up is a suitable way to mark Christmas?
Opinion: The important question is not are you allowed to do this but why would you want to do this?
A child dressed as “Zwarte Piet” or “Black Pete”watches a parade after St Nicholas, or Sinterklaas, arrived by boat in Amsterdam last year. Photograph: AP
To attempt any neat summary of a nation’s habits probably constitutes a class of soft racism. Germans are often funny. Italians are often subdued. The Irish are not drunk and stupid all the time. Still, it’s hard to shake those simplistic stereotypes. Consider this story about Dutch people “blacking up” for Christmas. As a lazy dunderhead, I prefer to class all citizens of the Netherlands as enormously tall, endlessly tolerant liberals who seethe with enthusiasm for racial harmony and the free sale of high-grade cannabis sativa. (If that’s what it’s called. I don’t know. I just go there for the herring.) Not quite.
News arrived last week that a UN working group is to look into the Dutch tradition of dressing up as “Zwarte Piet” (Black Pete) during the Christmas season. The background to the habit reads like some particularly horrid episode of The League of Gentlemen. One telling of the Santa Claus story has a figure named Sinterklaas travelling with black slaves who wallop naughty children and drag them off to their master’s lair in Spain. Why not? Let’s take a dig at the poor Spaniards while we’re at it.
It seems that all those decent Dutch parents – rucksacks, sturdy bicycles and affordable creches – now tell a slightly different story to their offspring. Black Pete apparently gets his colour from the soot he picks up when shimmying down the chimney with gifts.
I seem to remember, back in the 1970s, the producers of the Black and White Minstrel Show arguing that the blacked- up singers weren’t actually pretending to be African-Americans. This was just some ancient tradition. Like bear-baiting. Or dunking women believed to be witches.
It’s not entirely clear what the UN plans to do about this. So far, the body has denounced the tradition for “stirring racial differences as well as racism” and suggested that it may be unable to include the Sinterklaas festival in “the Unesco list of immaterial cultural heritage”.
A representative of the Dutch government wrote back to acknowledge that the habit could be seen as offensive and – rather amusingly – to clarify that they had made no request for a place on this mysterious list. “Ooo, no! No immaterial cultural heritage for us. Whatever will we do?” the Dutch did not really sarcastically reply.
Nonetheless, the story has built up so much steam in the Netherlands you’d think that men in blue helmets were about to storm the borders and drag sooty children into detention camps. Last weekend, several hundred people protested in The Hague and Nijmegen to “keep Black Pete black”. The prime minister has made a statement.
“The working group cannot understand why it is that people in the Netherlands cannot see that this is a throwback to slavery, and that in the 21st century, this practice should stop,” Verene Shepherd, head of the UN party, commented.
It hardly needs to be said that she is entirely correct. Similar traditions involving the caricaturing of African pigmentation have long ago drifted out of fashion elsewhere. It seems faintly extraordinary that, until relatively recently, a major food manufacturer used comical depictions of black people to market its preserves (and that those creatures’ generic name cont- ained a genuinely offensive racial epithet).
A fine recent documentary on the Royal National Theatre reminded us that, within the last half-century, Laurence Olivier thought it proper to don blackface and wield a slightly absurd west Indian accent when playing Othello. Anyone who remembers reciting “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” in the 1970s will agree that there was more where that came from. The folk who argued that “no offense was intended” were rarely people of colour. Such casual racism demeans insidiously.
None of which is to suggest that many of the hundreds protesting in the Netherlands harbour any sinister attitudes towards black people. What we see is a knee-jerk defence of something called “tradition”. The fear is that some outsider is going to stop them doing what they have always done.
One is reminded of the Orange Order’s squalid efforts to march through Catholic areas of Northern Ireland. Maybe the loyalists did have the right to walk down what we called the road and they called the “queen’s highway”. Maybe they really have done it since dinosaurs ruled the Earth. The important question (in both cases) is not: are you allowed to do this? The important question is: why would you want to do this? Why would you want to annoy your nationalist neighbours? Why would you want to make black people feel uncomfortable?
In short, the story is (or should be) all about good manners. No gang of government enforcers eliminated The Black and White Minstrel Show. It was eventually decided that the show seemed impolite. It would be nice if Dutch people voluntarily found another way of celebrating Christmas. It is, after all, the season of goodwill.