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Offensive Words and Ways in December

December 24, 2011

This December, in the Netherlands in particular, there are expressed concerns about customs and language that offend many, especially Americans.  The offensive ways are related to Christmas; the insulting words are related to a muscian; and it all smacks of racism (and sexism).  Here are three reports.

First, this week, Esquire online reposts the David Sedaris piece (from December 2002) in which the author recounts his education from his Dutch guide Oscar, who tells about Christmas lore in Holland.  The focus (as per the title of the piece, “Six to Eight Black Men”) is on the Dutch Santa’s “helpers”; Sadaris describes what his acquaintance tells him this way:

The six to eight black men were characterized as personal slaves until the mid-fifties, when the political climate changed and it was decided that instead of being slaves they were just good friends. I think history has proven that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet times beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility. They have such violence in Holland, but rather than duking it out among themselves, Santa and his former slaves decided to take it out on the public. In the early years, if a child was naughty, Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men would beat him with what Oscar described as “the small branch of a tree.”

What Oscar and David Sedaris are talking about, of course, is Zwarte Pieten.

Second, then.  If you go to wikipedia to read about Zwarte Pieten in the legends, then you find a very recently updated entry. The bit that gets at the racism is in the section labeled “Current Affairs.”  That reads this way (with all the wikipedia hyperlinks removed below):

During recent years the role of Zwarte Pieten has become part of a recurring debate in the Netherlands. Controversial practices include holiday revellers blackening their faces, wearing afro wigs, gold jewellery and bright red lipstick, and walking the streets throwing candy to passers-by.

Foreign tourists, particularly Americans and Brits, often experience culture shock upon encountering the character (to dress in blackface is considered offensive in the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries). Since the last decade of the 20th century there have been several attempts to introduce a new kind of Zwarte Piet to the Dutch population, where the Zwarte Pieten replaced their traditional black make-up with all sorts of colours. In 2006 the NPS (en: Dutch Programme Foundation) as an experiment replaced the black Pieten by rainbow-coloured Pieten, but in 2007 reverted to the traditional all-black Pieten.

The tradition continues to be popular in the Netherlands, though some activists have been moved to protest against it. Four people wearing t-shirts saying “Zwarte Piet is racist” were arrested in the second weekend of November 2011.

The largest Sinterklaas celebration in Western Canada, slated for 3 December 2011 in New Westminster, British Columbia, was cancelled for the first time since its inception in 1985 after clashes of opinion surrounding the traditional character Zwarte Piet or “Black Peter”. Rather than leaving out Zwarte Piet, the organizers decided to cancel the festivities as a whole, because, as spokesperson Tako Slump of the organization said:

“We got a lot of replies back from our customers in the Dutch community,” he said. “It became pretty clear to us that we love Sinterklaas and we can’t have it without Black Peter. Those two go together,”

Third, reporter Maike Winters, for the English language section of Radio Netherlands Worldwide online, has this story:

“This week Dutch fashion magazine Jackie published an article on Rihanna” in which the “singer and fashion icon” was referred to by an offensive racist and sexist English phrase.  Winters discusses the debate and posts a minute-long video in which a “Dutch TV correspondent in US explains why you can’t use the word.”  The video is in Dutch with English captions.  And Winter’s own title for his article begins with the offensive phrase [which I omit], and ends this way:  “____ ____ incident: lost in translation?”  (Readers of this blog must go here to read this and to watch this video.)

I’m just going to end this post (as another English speaker, as another traveller of the world, in America, in December, the night before Christmas) with one of David Sadaris’s lines:

One doesn’t want to be too much of a cultural chauvinist, but this seemed completely wrong to me.


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