Blackening Up for the Festive Season

As in earlier years, the controversy on the significance of the figure of ‘zwarte piet’ cropped up again. On those earlier occasions, we have posted both blogs arguing in favor of the ‘tender Dutch tradition’, and blogs stating that the arguments about the ‘innocent custom’ simply won’t do. This year we again, simultaneously, publish two contributions, by Duane Jethro and Rhoda Woets, questioning the guiltless-ness of the figure of zware piet.

By Duane Jethro  It is that time of year again when, slowly, the Netherlands is being invaded by those loveable effigies of dark-skinned, red-lipped ZwartePieten. From Albert Hein to the Kapsalon, Rotterdam to Maastricht, little dark Pieten are colonizing inches of display space, as all across the Netherlands children wait anxiously for their white, bearded boss-man, Sinterklaas, to arrive from Spain and steam into cities and towns this November.

In keeping with the annual celebration, I have been asked to engage with the significance of the commemoration of Sinterklaas. I hope to use this opportunity to embark on my own intocht into the tradition, with the intention of dishing out intellectual snoepjes and cadeautjes that hopefully will add to the annual Standplaatswereld debate about the significance of that mercurial of Dutch folk characters, Zwarte Piet.

The timing of the request could not have been more fortuitous since, in South Africa, another similar controversy about blackened white subjects has recently been thrust into the public eye through the audio-visual exploits of the popular South African band Die Antwoord. In the music video for their single, Fatty Boom Boom, Watkin Tudor Jones, aka Ninja, and Anridu Toitaka, Yo-Landi Vi$$er, take a fictional character that bares a striking resemblance to Lady Gaga, on a tour of a phantasmagorial African city, complete with wild animals roaming the streets.

In this mash-up of Western fantasies of modern Africa, the band appropriates and inverts these naïve, stereotypical images of Africa and African cultural style and re-deploys them into a global entertainment circuit to deliver a critique of Western audio-visual pop culture. Parts of this glitzy, beat-banging critique are, however, driven by scenes featuring a blackened up Yo-Landi Vi$$er, which has led Adam Haupt to raise questions about the ethics of subaltern representation and pop cultural creative expression.

What is it with white subjects blackening themselves up and masquerading as black subalterns? Believed to have been popularized in the 1830’s in American minstrelsy stage shows, blackface is the theatrical, cosmetic tradition of employing white actors to play black characters, which often but not exclusively,  entails the parody of stereotypical or folk images of black subjects. Think Robert Downy Jnr in Tropic Thunder.

Harmless, humorous fun, right?As Adam Haupt points out, one of the main problems with the practise is that it disempowers black subjects from having control over their public representations. Negative black images are therefore reinforced in the public domain, and come to service the very system that makes it possible for this to occur, for indeed white subjects are in positions of material, discursive and ideological power to be able to do so, while the converse is more difficult.

Reading Zwarte Piet through the primary blackface discourses of entertainment, and creative expression may help us to take the debate a little further. It is likely that because of its playful, aesthetic historical grounding in performative caricature that it remains palatable. Why? Because framed in this way, Zwarte Piet shifts the stakes of public representation of racialised bodies, power and denigration into the realm of art, performance and taste.This would help to explain why blue-eyed Dutch citizens, who consider themselves to be tolerant and understanding upholders of values of fairness and equality, often claim that the continued celebration of Zwarte Piet is not racist because whomever views it in that way are reading too much into the fun and make-up: the racist undertones of Zwarte Piet is merely skin-deep. I think the protestors flattened by the police during last year’s festivities would disagree.

It is therefore not hard to understand why it is difficult to have a conversation about the problems surrounding Zwarte Piet. Situated in the realm of popular cultural expression, as part of performative tradition aimed at the building of families through humour, merry-making and good will, racism is a difficult punchline to grasp.

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