The funny thing about racism is that it’s really not funny. In fact, I find it relatively uncomfortable and when I’m in a state of relative (or otherwise) discomfort, I laugh. Others find this to be funny so it is in this vein that I’m telling this absolutely hilarious story about racism.
If any of you are David Sedaris fans, you’ll know that he wrote, in Dress My Family In Curdory and Denim, about a Dutch tradition whereby Saint Nicholas happens to be followed around by six to eight black men. This happens to be a bit inaccurate, because it’s actually sixty to eighty black men, and if we’re going to get really specific, it’s sixty to eighty white men in black face–either because there aren’t sixty to eighty black men anywhere in the Netherlands or because no self-respecting black man would participate in this event. I’m not sure.
Their formal name is Zwarte Piet which translates into Black Pete, and there are many Zwarte Piets. Here’s the story, at least from their perspective. Sinterklaas is an old white dude–true story. He’s not from the North Pole, but Turkey–obviously a destination known for its exotic isolation and elf population, never mind the wintery landscape. It does have proximity, you have to give it that, and a nuclear weapon or two through NATO’s nuclear weapons sharing agreement.
Sinterklaas is somehow related to our Santa Claus–two jolly white men, only one of whom believes in slavery anymore. Zwarte Piets, who are actually Wit Piets in Zwarte face, follow Sinterklaas around while he leads them on a white horse. In case you’re wondering why this sounds familiar, I would remind you that black men never marched with the Klan, at least not behind them, so it’s not that you’re thinking of. And I’m almost positive those marches didn’t involve roller-blades, but maybe they might now, who knows. What, exactly, do they do? Well, I’m not sure. By this time in history, the Dutch have convinced themselves that the reason Zwarte Piet is, well, Zwarte, is because he has to enter the chimneys before Sinterklaas, hence drenching himself in soot and, apparently, an Afro wig. Whatever helps you sleep better at night. I heard this explanation, by the way, from a bartender who was suggesting that us Americans just have a sordid history of racism to stand behind, and that’s why I see this as racist and not an incredible tale of charity and local legend. Well, that’s fair. I mean, it’s not like the Dutch played any role in what is commonly referred to as “The Dutch Slave Trade” which lasted for a period of centuries.
Fortunately for me, all this came to pass upon my arrival to The Netherlands. Just a few hours (and a few more beers) after I landed, Sinterklaas docked along the canal and marched through the streets in merry procession. Here are a few shots of the event, which strangely enough left a trail of small cookies and Mentos in its wake. I’m totally not kidding about the Mentos. It appears that whatever leftovers we have in the states, which have to be significant because who the fuck likes that candy, are sent to the needy countries of the European Union, to pass out to their Aryan children instead of Tootsie Rolls and Snickers, the supply of which the U.S. had clearly exhausted the month prior when we’re busy dressing up in silly costumes and Afro wigs.
Who needs reindeer when you have a boat?
And my ultimate favorite …
Better with the white mask on or off?