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Dutch blacking-up about to change

In ‘Racism in blue‘, I referred to an article I was writing for The Conversation. Here it is (slightly changed):

After decades of activism, the scales are finally tipping for the figure of ‘Black Pete’ in Dutch winter celebrations. Within a few years’ time, opinion has shifted from an utter failure to understand anti-Pete protests, to attempts at change. But how did the Dutch manage to be blind to the offensiveness of this type for so long? Is Dutch culture perhaps more racist than its progressive reputation suggests?

To start with the last question: yes, Dutch society is suffused with racism – as is western culture generally. Yet it is one of the fundamental characteristics of racism that it is perpetrated mostly unawares. Most racism – ‘everyday racism’, in the words of researcher Philomena Essed – takes the shape of casual remarks and unconscious judgments. In the Netherlands, one of the forms this everyday racism has taken in the twentieth century is Black Pete: ‘Zwarte Piet’.

Black Pete is part and parcel of the feast of Saint Nicholas, the country’s largest annual celebration. It elicits more eager anticipation and mobilises more public and commercial institutions than King’s Day and Liberation Day put together. The festival peaks on 5 December but officially starts halfway November already, and it takes possession of the shops as early as late summer. It is primarily aimed at children, and the memories it inspires are among the fondest childhood memories many (pink people?) have.

Black Pete’s position in these celebrations has never been fixed, but in the last few decades he seems to have been fulfilling the role of mediator. During the festivities, which have moral overtones of reward and punishment, it is Pete who mediates between the anxious child and the Godlike figure of Saint Nicholas. Whereas the latter evokes a degree of fear, Pete is approachable and loveable. This explains part of the attachment many Dutch feel towards Pete.

nikmorriszwartepiet

Photo by Nik Morris, ‘Zwarte Piet bij de Bijenkorf, Amsterdam’, 2012 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Clearly, however, depicting Black Pete is no innocent business. The figure has a dual ancestry as both servant to and antagonist of the Saint.

In many parts of Europe, Nicholas is accompanied by an anti-Saint or devil, making sure that both reward and punishment remain on the minds of their audiences. Sometimes, this devil carries a chain as a sign of his final submission to the power of good.

The chain returns gruesomely in the more recent tradition, beginning in the nineteenth century, that portrays Pete as an African man in the service of a European saint. Although dark servants in the Netherlands were not technically enslaved, slavery did very much exist in the overseas territories of the Dutch empire. It is this history that most activists point to as being silenced by the uncritical acceptance of Pete in his existing shape.

This shape is of course that of the ‘Sambo’. Whereas nineteenth-century depictions of Pete still show a ‘neutral’ man of African descent, in the twentieth century Pete merged with the international Sambo caricature, including red lips, golden earrings, and silly behaviour. The endurance of this figure always comes as a shock to Americans or Brits who thought of the Netherlands as a fair and open country. Anti-racism activists in the Netherlands have made grateful use of this cultural disjunction between the anglophone and the germanic world (blacking up also occurs in countries such as Belgium, Germany and Austria) by confronting their compatriots with the judgment of international experts, or even the British vox pop.

This approach, coupled with demonstrations and judicial action, seems to be having effect. Although there have been protests since the 1960s, these were never picked up by mainstream media or in national politics on the scale we are seeing now. This year, an unprecedented number of Dutch intellectuals and celebrities spoke out against the stereotype; national politicians have taken a stance; and sellers of seasonal sweets and decorations have deemed it wise to change their marketing strategy.

So why has Pete been able to mask as innocent for so long? Apart from the associations with childhood and friendship mentioned above, at least two factors play a role. Lacking a civil rights movement like the one in the US, including subsequent educational reforms, the Dutch have not learnt to recognise the racist Sambo character.

But various academic studies have noted a second factor: the cherished Dutch self-image of being an open and fair society. A large part of the Dutch public as well as the political establishment, including initially prime minister Mark Rutte, has responded to the criticism with outright denial. They refuse to let their fond memories be tinged with the hateful epithet of racism. Anger at ‘accusations’ of racism has been running so high that riot police had to be on stand-by for this year’s opening of the festive season.

A final note on where this tradition may be going. Because much of the critique has been focusing on blackface in the narrowest sense, there is now a tendency to erase representations of Pete as a brown-skinned man altogether – so not just (belittling) representations by pink actors. In children’s books, for instance, Pete is increasingly pale, and a large Dutch internet company has even completely eliminated Pete from its adverts, now only showing the old white saint.

These steps run the danger of replacing a racism of ridicule by a racism of marginalisation. Surely, it is not Pete’s colour which is racist, but the servile and subhuman features of Nicholas’s ‘cheerful little help’ that existing depictions have associated with that colour for so long.

This winter in racist Europe, I encountered a popular representation of a dark-skinned man, not as a slave or servant, but as King.

dsc03973

Three Kings celebrations in Alcalá, Spain, January 2016 (photo by the author, CC BY-NC-SA).

More on the ancestry of Black Pete can be found in Allison Blakely’s standard work Blacks in the Dutch World: The Evolution of Racial Imagery in a Modern Society (Bloomington, 1993).

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Racism in blue

I was writing an article about the way the fictional character called ‘Black Pete’, part of Dutch winter festivities, is changing under pressure from anti-racism activists, and I came across a cartoon that illustrates the present challenges very well.

Briefly, Black Pete’s role is to assist Saint Nicholas on his annual visit to the children of the Netherlands and Belgium. Anyone who likes to know a little more about this character can find it in this earlier post.

zoetnetpietenIt is a good thing Black Pete is changing. The concern I have, however, is with the way he is changing.

The central problem with the character as he has been portrayed over the past hundred years, is the association of a particular group in society – in this case people with African roots – with a set of negatively valued characteristics – in this case: silliness, clumsiness, docility, and interchangeability. To explain this last point: hundreds of figures are all called ‘Pete’, and if one is absent, another simply takes his place.

The association that chains this group of people to this set of characteristics has been fabricated by European colonisers, European-American plantation owners, and similar ‘white’ groups around the world to help justify slavery, colonial exploitation, and paternalistic re-education. Obviously, this chain needed to be broken.

At the moment however, this oppressive chain is still personified in the figure of Pete. Yet many people are attached to Pete, and would like to keep him as part of their winter festivities. So the challenge is to create a new Pete – which may also entail creating a new Saint Nicholas – in which this racist chain is broken. Therefore, one of these two things needs to change: either Pete’s identity as someone with African roots, or Pete’s presentation as a silly, clumsy, docile and interchangeable person.

Most producers of Pete & Nicholas plays and images in the Netherlands so far, have been opting for the former: Pete has been growing increasingly pale.

Yet I think we should seriously consider the second option (this is what I argued in an article in Dutch newspaper Trouw).

I recently came across an image that supports my argument. The image forms part of a Flemish cartoon, popular in the Netherlands:

grammehuurlingracisme

from: Willy Vandersteen, De Gramme Huurling (1967-68)

In this cartoon, the main characters fly to Africa where they find a lazy, dirty, and bickering population with a defective grasp of language. At first, the locals try to cook the European heroes in their pots. But after liberating themselves, the Europeans build proper houses and schools for them, thereby risking their own lives. By the end of the story, the locals are grateful for their intervention. In other words: every racial stereotype present in Europe at the time is depicted, and apparently without irony. (Note that at the time of the cartoon, Belgium and the USA were saving what they could from their power and revenue in the Congo, where independence had been declared in 1960.)

But, you might say: the locals in this cartoon are not Black, they are blue! Yet does that remove the racism from this cartoon? Does removing the Black from Black Pete really solve the issue?

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China: 44640 minutes of fame

This is the third episode in a series on freedom and China. Previous posts were about the elegant carelessness I found in Chinese culture and about feeling safe: two causes of the sense of liberty I experienced while visiting the country for a month. I want to discuss a third factor here – one with less positive overtones.

Last time I spoke about anonymity. This time I’ll speak of celebrity.

The more billboards, adverts and shop-windows we saw on our journey, the clearer it became that a European look is a sign of beauty in China. A big proportion of the models promoting the clothes and jewellery, cars and real estate on sale, is of European lineage.

In other cases, I only thought they were European at first sight. On closer inspection, they had been made up to change, for instance, the shape of their eyes. Extra lines and glue create the impression of a ‘double eyelid’. Many East Asians even resort to plastic surgery to achieve this extra wrinkle. The same applies to other eye characteristics and to noses – which are supposedly prettier when they are bigger. Another technique, which we could study in detail in the sleeper trains we took, is to try make the skin whiter as well as ‘younger’ with (toxic) creams, electric devices, and old-fashioned slapping.

To a large extent, these beauty ideals show the influence of North American pop culture, and of the history of European colonialism. Some of it – such as the whiteness ideal – may also be a much older home-grown desire, based in class politics and the division between those who had to work (in the sun) and those with leisure. But a large part of this beauty ideal that we found in Chinese cities is clearly a form of racism that values a European appearance over an East Asian.

To me, these practices and desires were frankly horrid. And yet I cannot deny I benefited from them.

Throughout my stay in China, I was showered with a inordinate amount of attention. And so were my European-looking co-travellers. Some would no doubt give us attention because they were curious or sincerely interested or because they like to mock a foreign tourist. However, much of the attention we got was clearly positive and amounted to admiration. The blonder, the taller, and the bigger the nose, the better.

We posed for literally hundreds of photos; more than I have of ourselves. (I wonder what happened with them?) On one boat trip, an actual queue formed of people wanting to talk to us and take our photo. For our fellow tourists – our Chinese fellow tourists – we had become an attraction in our own right.

CelebrityinChina

We had become ‘iconic’ indeed. On the left: someone from our group. All the others in the photo: unacquainted tourists. Of course, by taking this picture, I placed myself in their company.

Shy boys and giggly girls would come up to me for a chat. At the conference, a boy confessed he was a ‘fan of both your work and you as a person’. One waitress took the trouble of asking her colleagues to write a note in English, with which she approached me after dinner. It said: can I have a photo of us together? And so on. Never in my life have I had so many girls tell me I’m beautiful. (Another thing Northwestern Europeans can learn from people in the rest in the world: how to be less skimpy in their compliments.)

There’s nothing like receiving compliments from strangers at any moment of the day, for boosting your confidence. And there’s nothing like confidence for making you smile and feel at ease. And, as one in our group remarked, the effect spirals upwards because the more you smile and feel at ease, the prettier you will be.

China’s European bias – who knows how long it is to last? – therefore added another layer to my sense of liberty there.

I had not expected to find something which I detest so deeply – privilege rooted in racism – leading me to feel so good.

True, part of the reason that large chunks of my journey made me laugh and smile, were precisely because I was aware of this ridiculous situation; because I had the feeling I had stepped into a period drama, set in the age of empire. Having grown up in the place I did, I had never encountered such ostentatious privileging in real life. The situation was overly familiar, but only from books and films, which made it almost fictional at times.

Have I now also got a taste of the dangerous attractions of real imperialism?

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Mimic women

Yesterday I heard a talk that made me wonder whether a much-used concept for men might not in some instances better apply to women.

Braia's wall stencil of a man with umbrella. Look how the ink really only pictures his costume (and some shadow in his face): his flesh blends with the wall and could be of any colour.

Braia’s wall stencil of a man with umbrella. Look how the ink really only pictures his costume (and some shadow in his face): his flesh blends with the wall and could be of any colour. N.B. this photo was taken by SliceofNYC (CC) on Flickr, but I do not know Braia’s own stance on the copyright of their work.

 

[A]lmost the same but not quite

[…]

Almost the same but not white

This comes from Homi Bhabha’s essay ‘Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse’. Post-colonial writers like V.S. Naipaul and post-colonial theorists like Homi Bhabha have studied the phenomenon of the ‘mimic men’: colonial administrators who would function as ‘translators’ between the colonisers and the colonised of the eighteenth- to twentieth-century world. ‘Indigenous’ men from India, for example, would go to school in London, clothe themselves in black suits, carry around umbrellas, read the Times in the rush-hour underground (this is how I picture it: it is not in Homi Bhabha’s essay)… and so they would come to mimic Englishmen, continuing this mimicry after their return to India. In spite of their transformation, however, there always remained ‘the difference between being English and being Anglicized’:

Mimicry is […] the sign of a double articulation; [1] a complex strategy of reform, regulation and discipline, which ‘appropriates’ the Other as it visualizes power. Mimicry is also [2] the sign of the inappropriate, however, a difference or recalcitrance which […] poses an immanent threat to both ‘normalized’ knowledges and disciplinary powers.

This is what makes the phenomenon so important, historically. Although stimulated by the colonisers, it also scared them. The act of mimicking showed the emptiness of the English (French, Dutch, …) colonist’s own identity:

Mimicry conceals no presence or identity behind its mask: it is not what Usaire describes as ‘colonization-thingification’ behind which there stands the essence of the présence Africaine. The menace of mimicry is its double vision which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority.

It undermined colonialism by

articulat[ing] those disturbances of cultural, racial and historical difference that menace the narcissistic demand of colonial authority. It is a desire that reverses ‘in part’ the colonial appropriation by now producing a partial vision of the colonizer’s presence; a gaze of otherness, that shares the acuity of the genealogical gaze which, as Foucault describes it, liberates marginal elements and shatters the unity of man’s being through which he extends his sovereignty.

In other words, the colonisers felt themselves being watched by their own image in the mirror.

Yesterday, I heard an inspiring talk by post-colonial historian Coll Thrush. It was about Indigenous travellers from North America, Australia and New Zealand visiting London, from the sixteenth century through to now. Their presence and their activitiy ‘indigenised’ the city. (As soon as his book will be finished, we will once again be better able to feel their presence in London, with the help of the walking-tours that he is creating for the book!)

Engraving of Pocahontas or Rebecca Rolfe by Simon van de Passe, 1616. Digital image from Wikimedia commons after a print in the British Museum, London.

Engraving of Pocahontas or Rebecca Rolfe by Simon van de Passe, 1616. Digital image from Wikimedia commons after a print in the British Museum, London.

Coll Thrush also showed images of many of these Indigenous visitors. Strikingly, many of the men he discussed were dressed in the Indigenous clothes they (in most cases) grew up with. In contrast, most of the women on these pictures wore British clothes (like Pocahontas on the picture above).

This reminded me of the widely-researched idea in sociolinguistics that women use more prestigious forms of speech than men. More often, they avoid slang and ‘working-class’ pronunciation, for example. (see footnote)

In my own work, I have seen Dorothy Wordsworth’s pride in applying the German that she had learnt in the German-speaking lands of central Europe, and so blending in. On the whole, both female and non-elite travellers of nineteenth-century Europe seem to talk the local language of the places they visited more than did male elite travellers.

Of course, men learnt languages as well, and women were often keen to affirm their difference from locals, rather than their similarity. But perhaps, in cases when the locals had a high social and political status, women had reason to want to look and sound like the locals – and perhaps they had somehow more reason than their male companions?

Of course, the women I have mentioned were no colonial sub-administrators, who had gone to school in the ‘centre’ of their empire (London, Paris, etc.). So they were not quite the familiar ‘mimic men’. But they played important roles in the translation of knowledge across cultures. Some of them already had a higher status than the people they visited, but many of them were in some way marginalised, and thus comparable to the mimic men. And all of them apparently had their reasons for wanting to blend in. They inevitably held up a mirror to the people they visited – though a distorted and sometimes a disturbing mirror, no doubt, in the eyes of the locals.

So perhaps it is fruitful to consider the existence of ‘mimic women’?

 

Note: See Peter Trudgill’s seminal article ‘Sex, Covert Prestige and Linguistic Change in the Urban British English of Norwich’ and Elizabeth Gordon’s ‘Sex, Speech, and Stereotypes: Why Women Use Prestige Speech Forms More than Men’, both published in the journal Language in Society.