0

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).

Advertisements
1

A bushy tail to a hairy story

Last week’s story about the hairy-women scale was triggered by something a friend said.

We were watching Life of Brian. Enter a naked Brian and Judith. At seeing Judith my friend commented: ‘I feel like we’re watching a 70ies porn movie’.

It was disturbing enough to find out that my friend, in his thirties, categorises women primarily according to the kind of porn they might feature in.

But the point here is of course that he was referring to Judith’s bushy triangle. In his voice: a mixture of ridicule and anger. Apparently, a woman’s body is impossible on a woman these days; a prepubescent girl’s body is what’s needed. Now I know that body aesthetics in the media have been shifting since Life of Brian was made, in 1979. But I was still surprised to see a university-educated, grown-up man uncritically repeating what he sees on the telly.

The scene shows well what it's all about: something with fear and shame and being brave.

The scene itself shows just what it’s all about: fear and shame and being brave.

This is exactly what I argued last week: outside of science, too, most people chime in with old-fashioned doctors and ethnographers in shaming ‘women’ (as identified by them) for not being ‘women’. As nice a bit of circular reasoning as ever you saw.

Many people contend that what you do with your body hair is your own business. But this is not true. Unsolicited criticism like my friend’s turns it into a social business. A recent article on the experiences of women in the south-west of the US convincingly shows this.

The UK, 2016. Photo by 9×6. Clearly, the beauty industry has a stake in this debate.

 

When asking women why they remove hair – mostly that hair associated with ‘hirsutism’ of the previous post – the response by and large was: ‘because I choose to’. When asking them to respond to other women who did not engage in conventional shaving or waxing practices, however, they expressed a strong disgust: these women were ‘dirty’, ‘gross’. A quote from one of the interviewees that shows this contradiction:

I think it’s a personal preference. [When they] don’t shave their armpits […] it grosses people out. Typically, if you’ve got a lot of hair, it looks like a man and it’s not very attractive on women, but I don’t think I make total judgments on it. I might just stand ten feet away from them! (Fahs, 171)
That already sums up nicely that some women exert strong pressures on other women. In other words, shaving is not a free choice at all.
In the same study, women who let their hair be, reported similarly contradicting reactions by others. From boyfriends for example:

First I got, ‘‘Ew, no. I won’t let you do that.’’ Then I got a joking but upsetting ‘‘I will not engage in any sexual acts with you until you shave.’’  […] he went on to say how ‘‘it was pointless’’ and ‘‘women can do whatever they want now because it is 2011.’’ (Fahs, 174)

Women also invent excuses to justify their hair removal. One woman in the study argued that pubic hair would be dangerous for her partner: ‘You can actually hurt the other person’. That’s quite a different story from the warnings by one GP that shaving in fact introduces health hazards.

Luckily, counter-activity is in the air. With the Free Your Pits movement, for example, with hair dyed in outrageous colours.

Perhaps I should take my friend to the hairdresser’s.

 

The article quoted is Breanne Fahs’s ‘Perilous Patches and Pitstaches: Imagined Versus Lived Experiences of Women’s Body Hair Growth’, published in 2014.

0

Contravertising

It’s always amusing to see a David outwit a Goliath. If anywhere, that is true in the world of business and consumption.

At this time of year, with Christmas and all the other winter celebrations passing the calendar, big brands urge us even more aggressively than usual to eat, to buy, to consume. At such times, it is uplifting to come across small businesses taking advantage of the big ones – even when they do not set out to do so.

Image000

On this market in Britain for instance, a fast-food chain has been trying to ‘boss’ the situation. (Its campaign is part of an eating contest which challenges shoppers to gobble down one of their meals as fast as possible. Would that be to avoid tasting it?) That is to say: the image on the poster aims to bring food on our minds. And yes, if hamburgers are your thing and you pass this advert around lunchtime, it may stimulate your appetite.

But who really benefits on this market? The jacket potato seller who always has his stall on this spot, could not complain about attracting sufficient patronage that day. Who had bossed it now?

Another example:

Image005

On the outside of this independent sandwich shop, a chain store has stuck a yummy poster for… sandwiches.

In as far as consumer ads are meant to enhance your appetite for this or that product, it does hardly matter what shop you buy this product from. The nearest shop or brand will benefit. Even a somewhat similar product will often do. When I see a well-made, effective commercial for coke, for example, it makes me thirsty, and it can even make me get a drink from the fridge or the tap – but that drink won’t be coke.

And so, without any effort, these adverts are turned into contraverts: Coca Cola advertises for home-made iced tea, Marks and Spencers for sandwiches from the shop around the corner, and KFC for local cheese spuds.

The general trend in our capitalist economy is for bigger companies to exploit the resources of the smaller. But sometimes, things get turned on their heads.

1

The perfect gift for…

Spring-time is here again (on the Northern Hemisphere). All over the world, countries get ready to celebrate Mother’s Day.

In Britain, a large household retailer has found a striking way of using this day to remind mothers of their duties.

shop window of large chain of household goods, 12 March 2015

Shop window of British chain of household shops, 12 March 2015.

It’s not altogether clear here who needs to get set: children, by buying a gift? Or mothers, by making everyone look their best on this festive Sunday?

Either way, we all know a happy mother is a mother dallying around the home. And her children are urged, by this shop, to help her remember in case she forgets.

Or should we assume that British mums are still pounding, rinsing and mangling their beloved’s blouses and bloomers by hand? In that case, they will be truly delighted with this gift, as it will open the way to an ocean of leisure. No better present imaginable.

If you are a particularly dirty child or spouse, you can even buy her three. Or give one to each mistress.

With thanks to my mother.