by Andrew Moskos, Saskia Maas, Pep Rosenfeld and Greg Shapiro
After 20 years of commenting on the Netherlands and Dutch people, Boom Chicago is in a unique position as outsider-insiders to weigh in on the Zwarte Piet issue. The solution is so obvious, we am surprised the pragmatic Dutch can’t see it. Unfortunately, both sides have adopted an American politics style of shouting but not listening. What we need is more polder model: realize we’re all in this together, have a long meeting, and reach consensus.
The question isn’t whether Zwarte Piet racist or not (Answer: well intentioned, not racist, but inappropriate), but why not make small modifications to preserve the Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet tradition for our kids?
The reason this debate continues each year, and has escalated this year is because both sides have extremist positions. On the anti-camp, the Quinsy Garos want to end the tradition. On the pro-Piet side, the counter offer is Absolutely No Change to Our Perfect Tradition. That inflexibility is why we have the debate every year. Each side shouts the loudest and refuses to see that the other side has good points. Are we celebrating a holiday or trying to pass an American budget?
Apply this thinking to the debate about extending shopping hours years ago. It’s as if one side said, we would like supermarkets to open in the evenings and on Sundays. Oh, responded the other side, so you want everything opened 24 hours and people to have to work all night long? That’s crazy! No, it turned out we just wanted a compromise: Supermarkets opened to 10 in the cities and 9 in the towns.
So let’s pass out the broodjes kaas, and start the Dutch meeting:
To the anti-camp, we say you have a point. We understand that Piet is not supposed to African, just covered with soot from the chimney. Well he must’ve bumped his lips on the way down, because they are comically red. And did those gold hoop earrings and the afro in the chimney too? If you believe that, we’ve got some magic pepernoten to sell you…
Hell, while we’re being not-offensive, let’s add new helpers for Sint who are affected by the chimney. How about Hebrew Harry? He’s not Jewish, heavens no – he’s just a guy who bumped his nose on the chimney on the way down, and now it’s all swollen and huge. And that Hasidic beard? It’s just soot from the chimney!
And we can add Chinese Charley – he’s not really Chinese,it’s just that the smoke from the Chimney makes his eyes look slanted like a movie from the 1930’s. And that’s not a Chinese peasant hat – it’s the top of the chimney!
To the pro camp, we say of course Dutch intentions for this children’s celebration are good. Even Jesse Jackson has said he does not feel there is malice in Dutch people concerning Sint and Piet.
But things can change and if we don’t compromise, we risk a more severe solution. What are the dangers? First, if forced to decide between the current situation and none, a liberal government like Amsterdam finds itself forced to choose none. That could happen as early as November 4.
Second, International pressure could intensify. This week it is the United Nations, but which international black superstar will be the first to tweet his or her disapproval? We know it’s “none of their business,” but what will we say when Oprah, Beyonce, Chris Rock or Drake decide to make this a pet cause? Is anyone preparing an answer for that lose-lose situation? This bad PR will hurt Dutch interests and tourism in a way that was much harder before social media.
Third, companies could and will (quietly) lead the change. HEMA, Ahold, and other international companies don’t want to get caught if the controversy gets worse. Pieten are already banned at Schiphol. It feels like there are fewer Pieten in Dutch stores each year and that they arrive in shop windows later. Commercial interests are already quietly leading the charge away from Zwarte Pieten without any political decision.
But we should not adapt the Zwarte Piet tradition for international reasons. We should do it for Dutch reasons.
Here is the compromise proposed by Nederland Wordt Beter and supported by Boom Chicago: Color Pieten with ash, since they are supposed to be dirty from the chimney. Wear the same costumes, but keep your own hair and no red lips. Explain that Sinterklaas chooses helper Pieten from the neighborhood to help with their activities. That is why a child might recognize Uncle Kees.
Voila, the children’s tradition continues exactly the same as today. Sint and Piet survived “Hulp Sinterklazen” and the disappearance of chimneys in modern houses (somehow children didn’t mind moving their shoes to the door). We can certainly survive a slightly different form of makeup.
To those that say no changes are needed and it’s just a children’s party, we say: If it’s just a children’s party, why not make these few, slight changes? The children obviously won’t care. Obviously it is something deeper than just a children’s party. It’s Dutch eigenwijs-ness, the desire to be against something just because someone tells you you should do it. Eigenwijs-ness: that is the true Dutch tradition. And this whole Zwarte Piet issue could use less eigenwijs-ness and American shouting, and a little more Dutch compromise.
Andrew Moskos and Saskia Maas are directors of Boom Chicago’s Delete Zwarte Piet Niet. Pep Rosenfeld and Greg Shapiro are the writer/performers.