Dr. Anya Topolski, geboren en getogen in Canada, is associate professor in de Politieke Filosofie en Politieke Theorie aan de Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen.
Why Zwarte Piet Ruined My Sex Life
The discussion on “Zwarte Piet” (Black Pete) the aid of Saint Nicholas, started again in all its intensity. Although the debate is more politicized in the Netherlanfds, Belgium is not far behind when it comes to white supremacy. MO* Columnist Anya Topolski wonders why white people stick to this racist tradition.
Yes I am fully aware that this is a first world problem and that I am privileged enough to have nothing better to complain about than this and that it would be much much worse if I wasn’t white but nonetheless, I really really had hoped I could write about anything else this month than about the Flemish/Dutch holiday of Sinterklaas. The truth is that it’s been occupying my time, day in, day out for the past week (and it’s still 10 days until December 6th) and I’m politically spent, but I’ll come back to that (and to my title, just please be patient).
I’ve been living in Flanders for 16 years and thus, in theory, have observed the ‘celebrations’ of Sinterklas enough to form an educated opinion which cannot simply be brushed away by the comment, “oh you Canadians see racism everywhere” or “you didn’t grow up with it so you can’t understand”, “it’s just a tradition, your country is too young to have those” (it is worth noting that most of the time people see me as an ‘integrated’ Belgian, these moments seemingly are thus exceptional).
Nonetheless, and yes I am ashamed to admit this, it didn’t really start bothering me enough until it came into my home, literally. On December 6th 2008, my eldest child came home from kindergarten and said “why are all the kids afraid of Kenan?” “What did Kenan do wrong?” “Is it because he looks different?” Kenan was the one black boy in his class, one of three black children in his grade (which had approximately 100 kids).
I was speechless, to be honest in tears. How is it possible that my child, just 3 years of age, could have asked such questions. After speaking to my son, ok more like indoctrinating him with the phrase ‘black is beautiful’ and reminding him about all the things he loves that are black and explaining that Kenan hadn’t done anything wrong, I marched over to the school (I was too upset to sleep on it) and cornered the teacher.
I’m sure parents can all share this experience, there aren’t really good schools and bad schools (at least not in Flanders), and to be honest unless your child is having serious issues, your real point of contact is the teacher. And like with everything there are good and bad teachers.
To this day, I look at this teacher and smile. Her reaction was the one I needed. She was as shocked as me, and at first as confused. After she told me how the ‘holiday’ was celebrated at school we were able to piece together a probable explanation for why my son had made these connections.
When she realised other children might have as well, and also paused to consider how Kenan might have felt, she realised why this ‘tradition’ was problematic and had to be adapted. While there are many different arguments for why this tradition is one that needs to be changed, the fact that it is a means of implicitly teaching white children to be afraid of people of colour and teaching people of colour, especially children, that they are to be feared, is an argument that anyone should be able to understand.
The problem is that apparently it’s not. None of the many arguments are. The more arguments one gives, whether historical, psychological, political etc., the more people seem to irrational cling to the tradition as if its central to their identity.
And please don’t use the argument that it’s a kid’s tradition, kids, no matter how great they are, just want one thing – gifts. I’d like to think it’s about the celebration but let be honest we live in a capitalist society and our kids have already internalised this … they want the gifts. As long as they get the gifts they won’t protest the fact that they weren’t delivered by Zwarte Piet. It’s the adults (and yes some teachers), who want to hold on to this tradition. The question we need to ask is why?
Why if the Sint comes from Turkey (or if you prefer the much more explicitly racist version created by Schenkman I 1850 when the Sint arrives from Spain with his ship full of slave boys), must we depict him like a white Western European man? Why is it so essential that he has black helpers that have short curly hair, gold earrings and big red lips? Why are people so upset by these questions? Why does the suggestion of slightly adapting the tradition seem like such a personal affront?
I’m starting to believe that holding on to this tradition is unconsciously holding onto the racism that is so beneficial to so many here in Flanders.
8 years ago I wouldn’t have considered this possibility, sadly during those 8 years I’ve done more and more research on racism. I think the reason why I’m politically spent this year is because I’m starting to believe that holding on to this tradition is unconsciously holding onto the racism that is so beneficial to so many here in Flanders. I’ve said it in previous months but maybe not so explicitly, structural racism is fundamental to secular liberalism, it is the norm rather than as we have been taught to believe, the exception.
To illustrate this point, that white pro-Christian supremacy is the norm in liberal secular, and anti-racism the exception, let’s consider what happened in the Netherlands when the Sint docked in Dokkum (for all the details please read the full story). Peaceful organized demonstrators of diverse backgrounds and colours, with permission from the mayor of Dokkum to protest (it still strikes me as odd that you need to ask permission from the state and police to protest in a supposed democratic state), were blockaded by cars in the middle of a highway.
Not only were their lives and all those of every person in a car on that highway endangered by the illegal actions of the anti-protestors (who had neither permit nor permission), they were also intimidated by the anti-protestors and then lied to by the police – who showed up late (apparently because they could not get to the scene because of the blockaded highway) who told them they were being safely escorted to join the protest (when in fact they sent back to Amsterdam).
Not only did many of the people whose lives were disrupted on the highway give the anti-demonstrators the thumbs up, implicitly saying whiteness trumps democracy, but the police, who claim to be neutral, expressed their sympathy with the illegal anti-protestors. They were not arrested (unlike 200 anti-piet protestors the previous year who had not committed a crime), nor were they fined, until over 24 hours later when the media caught wind of the story.
white privilege is actually white Christian supremacy albeit masked in a discourse of secularism.
While we, again part of our “white innocence”, like to think of the liberal secular state as fair and just, this is an illusion only we get to have. This story makes clear that the law, the police aren’t neutral. Liberalism, the rule of law, as embodied by the state in the Netherlands, enables and empowers white-supremacy. And as I argued last month this white privilege is actually white Christian supremacy albeit masked in a discourse of secularism.
I’m also wondering why people aren’t more struck by the irony of a country like the Netherlands, whether defined in terms of secularism or Protestanism, holds so dearly to a tradition based on a Saint? Wasn’t one of the central struggles of the Reformation direct communication between people and G-d? Weren’t the religious wars fought to end the rule of the saints, so why does Sint Nicolas get to stay?
While this struggle may be more politicised in the Netherlands, I don’t think Belgium is far behind, in terms of holding onto white-supremacy.
The state seems to permit Zwarte Piet (look what I saw at the library this weekend) in public places and yet isn’t there a law that requires that people’s faces are clearly recognised? Why doesn’t the anti-burhka law apply to Zwarte Piet worth noting the anti-burka laws of most municipalities have Carnival exceptions, I guess they’ll have to add Zwart Piet exceptions now.
The question remains when you have so many ‘Christian’ exceptions, isn’t it in fact the implicit norm? This law is masked in neutral language but we all know its directed at the approx. 270 women in Belgium who wear burkhas (More than 50% of them are white Belgians who have converted to Islam and freely chosen to wear a burkha. Is this absurd law a means to punish them for betraying their loyalties to whiteness? )
Racism is essential to the liberal ‘secular’ state
Once you realise this and begin to do research, its confronting to realise how long I went without seeing it, firstly because I could and secondly, probably because I didn’t want to see it. Racism is essential to the liberal ‘secular’ state (if you are actually willing to consider this here are four essential books to read). It’s a way of creating the necessary homogeneity that is necessary for ‘unity’ of the nation-state.
While we, and our media, are more than happy to make these claims about Trump in the USA, we seem to fail to see that it applies as much at home as far away. Just as with colonialism, we focus our gaze upon the atrocities far away as a way of not considering our own. Maybe its human but that doesn’t make it acceptable. The great thing about humanity is that we, like traditions, can change.
So, you might still be wondering where does the title come from, I did after all promise to explain if you were patient. The simple answer is that trying to motivate people to speak up and demand change is exhausting and isolating work, and this alone leaves one little time for dating.
What however keeps me going, other than the few people who are encouraging me, is the fact that all meaningful political change requires this kind of struggle. Women didn’t get the right to vote by calming asking for it and being patient (and if you believe they did, it’s time to learn some history).
Real political change happens on the streets, or in this case, at the schoolport. This sentiment has now been made famous by Martin Luther King Jr’s quote: “There is no gain without struggle”. So the question you should ask yourself is when we finally realise how racist our societies are, and it will be through seemingly insignificant struggles such as these (for those who benefit from the racial state), on which side of history do you want to be?
 Balibar, Etienne, and Immanuel Wallerstein. 2011. Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities Verso., Goldberg, David Theo. 2001. The Racial State. Wiley-Blackwell., Mills, Charles W. 1999. The Racial Contract. Cornell University Press. and the one i most recommend: Sheth, Falguni A. 2009. Toward a Political Philosophy of Race. SUNY Press.