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A year ago, I remember reading for the first time about the Dutch holiday tradition of Sinterklaas. I happened across the Slate article written by Jessica Olien, an American new to the Netherlands at the time, where she described her first encounter with Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Piet celebrations, which she calls “Holland’s favorite racist Christmastime tradition. She puts it pretty bluntly,

In Holland, Santa doesn’t have elves. He has slaves.

For those who do not know, Sinterklaas is the Dutch version of Santa Claus. But According to the background story, Sinterklaas is a Turkish bishop who arrives in Netherlands via steamship from Spain every late November. He is assisted by Zwarte Piet, or literally, “Black Pete”. Every year, hundreds of people dress up as Sinterklaas’ helpers by painting their faces black, coloring large red lips on their faces, and donning curly black afro wigs and gold hoop earrings.

Sinterklaas Arrives in Curacao in 2012. Photo by Karen Attiah

When I first heard about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands, I was 2 parts shocked, 1 part disgusted, 1 part angry, and a dash of saddened to learn that such a stereotypical image of black people was not only allowed, but celebrated. Even the word “celebrated” doesn’t do it justice. Since coming to live in Curacao, I’ve learned just how ingrained Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet is to the collective Dutch culture. It is a huge children’s event. My Dutch friends tell me that growing up, most children believe Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are real. There is a Sinterklaas news channel that documents his journey into the Netherlands. Famous Dutch national actors play the different Zwarte Piets. Every year Sinterklaas parades into a different city, greeted by thousands of families with eleborate ceremonies. Its like Santa Claus on steroids. All for the kids.

A toddler in a Zwarte Piet hat waits for Sinterklaas to arrive in Curacao. Photo by Karen Attiah

Even more peculiar to me, is the fact that here in Curacao, a former Dutch colony of mostly African descendants here in the Caribbean, celebrates Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet as well. I went to the Sinterklaas arrival this past weekend in Willemstad, and when I saw local black Curacaoans painting their own skin darker, their own lips redder and bigger and donning the Zwarte Piet costumes, I was equal parts surprised and confused.

Sinterklaas parades into Wilemstad Curacao, flanked by a helper playing “Zwarte Piet” dressed in blackface. Photo by Karen Attiah

The parade was HUGE. Well, as huge as a parade can get for a small island. Okay, the parade was island-sized huge. Hundreds of parents brought their young children out early Saturday morning to wait for Sinterklaas and the Zwarte Piets to arrive to Curacao. Kids were dressed up in Zwarte Piet hats.  And arrive he did. Curacao’s Sinterklaas was not on a white horse, but a pony led cart in the Brionplein area of Otrobanda, on the edge of Curacao’s famous harbor. The celebration was a bit like Christmas meets Carribean carnival. I have to admit, if I was a child, the celebration is a blast. Drumming Zwarte Piets performed on drums, while dancing Zwarte Piets entertained the crowd with acrobatics and choreography. Other Zwarte Piets toss out candy for the children, while Sinterklaas sits on his big throne on the stage and watches the show entertained by the Zwarte Piets and their acrobatic skills.  Young performers danced and sang to welcome Sinterklaas to Curacao. Here in Curacao, Sinterklaas is greeted by a mayor, and addresses the crowd in Papiamento.

Local Curacaoans don black facepaint and curly afro-wigs to play “Zwarte Piet” Photo by Karen Attiah

But how can an island that boasts a population of 85% African descendants celebrate a character that for many is reminiscent of the offensive minstrel shows of Black Sambo? How can parents line up every year to watch community play Sinterklaas’ goofy, mischievous helpers, who always screws up something with the presents, and requires an overseer Piet to to supervise the rest of them? How can Curacao, an island where many locals blame Dutch neo-colonialism and slavery for the island’s problems, still celebrate what many think to be one of the most racially insensitive traditions out there? It was eerie to feel like I was watching a 2012 Holiday Minstrel Show, in the Caribbean. Watching Zwarte Piets dance and be goofy while Sinterklaas runs the show reminds me of this clip from the Cotton and Chick Watts Blackface Comedy Routine from 1951. (Forward to the 2:45 mark)

I’ve had conversations with Dutch people here on the island about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, and many of them cannot find anything wrong with it. In fact many have gotten downright angry and defensive at the suggestion that Zwarte Piet is a racist caricature for black people. Common responses:

There’s nothing offensive about it. Zwarte Piet isn’t black, he’s Moorish! ( Okay, that makes it all better if Zwarte Piet is a North African Muslim.)

Children love Zwarte Piet! It’s not like we hate him or looked down upon. All the kids want to be like Zwarte Piet. They are a little more afraid of Sinterklaas. Do you want to ruin the children’s fun? (Using children to justify maintaining Zwarte Piet is the most common. But it is the adults who create the tradition and perpetuate it, right?)

Zwarte Piet isn’t a slave, he’s a helper! It is not a race thing. (If he is just a helper, does it matter what color he is? Why is he black? *Note* Holland tried to introduce non-black Piets in the past, using other colors. People did not receive it too well and that was the first and last time they used colored Piets)

Zwarte Piet is black because he got dirty from falling down the chimney, not because he is black! (Then why aren’t his clothes dirty? And why is Zwarte Piete’s hair always a black and curly Afro wig? Did the chimney change Zwarte Piet’s hair? Did it make his lips bigger and redder too?)

It can’t be racist. Black people and locals here in Curacao paint their faces blacker too. And they sometimes they paint their skin whiter to play Sinterklaas! (Doesn’t make it okay.

Americans are just too sensitive! You have no right as an outsider to judge our traditions if you don’t know the story. And if 95% of the Dutch population sees that there is nothing wrong with Zwarte Piet, then who cares what the other 5% say. Don’t Americans celebrate Thanksgiving and the slaughter of Indians? That’s worse than Zwarte Piet! (Usually if the conversation has come to this point,  it signifies the end of the hope of a productive dialogue.)

Zwarte Piet Enthusiasts in Curacao for the arrival of Sinterklaas. Photo by Karen Attiah

Zwarte Piet would never happen in the States, my friends say. Others ask how it is possible for Curacaoans to also celebrate a character that is so demeaning to black people, while at the same time claiming that they desire to be free of Holland and its neo-colonial attitudes towards its former colonies.

I asked a local Curacaoan blogger Jermain Ostiana, about the Sinterklaas celebrations. He been quite vocal on Twitter about what he calls the “coonfest” that is the Zwarte Piet celebration here in Curacao. He told me that last year, the only form of protest against Zwarte Piet was a banner hung on the walls of Fort Amsterdam. “Nobody is going to risk sticking their necks out here, its sad but true here.”

Curacao is the same island where the controversial Dutch comedy “Only Decent People” that depicts Surinamese women, as loud, fat, oversexed, ghetto welfare queens opened to crowds. The producer of the film offered free tickets to large dark skinned women here in Curacao. And people bought in. This is also the same island where little media attention has been paid to the fact that a major motion picture about Tula, the slave who led Curacao’s biggest revolt in 1795 is currently being filmed here. This is also the same island where on the 2 year anniversary of Curacao’s autonomy from Holland on October 10th, which was a national holiday (Dia di Pais), there were basically no celebrations.

Could it be that social, political and cultural apathy has allowed the Zwarte Piet caricature to thrive here in Curacao? I hope that is not the case.

Yes, Zwarte Piet is colored black. But it is more than just the skin color. The black curly hair, oversized red lips, and goofy character is not unique to “Dutch tradition”, but rather were/are common mockingly stereotypical images for dark skinned people that have appeared in various narratives for children, from Herge’s The Adventures of TinTin comic books in Belgium in the 1930s, “Black Sambo” in Britain in the late 1800s, and Jim Crow and the various minstrel shows in the Americas. The reason why Zwarte Piet resonates with “outsiders” or alloctoons is because they have seen Zwarte Piet before. We have seen the exact same character to represent non-white people in other historical narratives. Zwarte Piet actually is nothing new. In most other places, that character has been recognized to be a relic of a racist time long gone by (or so we think) and is no longer in use in public. Why Zwarte has been fiercely guarded and protected by people living in the Kingdom of the Netherlands to this day in the name of “tradition” baffles many people.

A Zwarte Piet In Curacao. Photo by Karen Attiah

 

This is my second week here in Curacao, and I’m glad to report that things have been going pretty well so far. This go-round is actually my fourth time to come to the island this year. In the beginning, for the first few days, I was definitely in vacation mode. Sleeping, eating, playing with my 8 year old neighbor, and some beaching were all I wanted to do in order to de-tox the New York from my system. After a few days, however, it began to set in that I needed to switch off from vacation mode and turn to “I-actually-live-here-and-need-to-get-a-job” mode. And living here has been, and will prove to be, an interesting experience.

By the Fisherman’s Wharf in Wllemstad

I come to Curacao as an outsider in so many ways. Linguistically, I don’t speak much Dutch and I don’t speak Papamiento (the local language of Curacao, which is a mix of Dutch, Spanish, English and Portuguese). I can definitely get by in English here, but my inability to speak Dutch and Papiamento makes me feel like I have to contend with a double language barrier here. Despite the assurances of both Dutch and locals that English is sufficient to survive and get a job on the island, I suppose I’m looking to do more than just “survive” here. Most Dutch people speak English, and many are kind enough to switch their conversations to English when I am around, but I do admit I’m conscious of the fact that they are switching to accommodate me. But I am lucky that my Dutch boyfriend and his circle of friends have done an amazing job of making me feel welcome and have agreed to speak “Dinglish” to me so that I can start speaking nederlands little by little.

Culturally, I admit I had never really met a Dutch person before coming to Curacao this year. My experience with the Netherlands had be limited to countless KLM layovers at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport en-route to Ghana. I have probably been to Amsterdam   Schipol near a dozen times by now, but I was never adventurous enough to go explore the city. So oddly enough, my time in Curacao has been my introduction to Dutch culture, Caribbean-style. They love potatoes, mayonnaise on their french fries, being tall, efficiency, honesty, being VERY punctual, and cheese. Not necessarily in that order, of course. It is clear though, that there is a separation between the Dutch community and the local community. More on that later.

Curacao does not have a huge diaspora to the United States, so being here is the first time that I have been introduced to their culture. This is my first time really learning about Caribbean culture in general. That week long Carnival Cruise my family and I took to the Carribean when I was about 10 or so hardly counts as real “experience” in the Caribbean. I find the Caribbean to be under-reported in America, and even more so the Dutch Caribbean.

Now, there is of course the question of how I interact with the local people here. Even the words “local” vs. “native” is tricky. There are Dutch Europeans whose families have been here for generations. There are people from Colombia, Venezuela, Haiti, and Jamaica. The question of who is a yu di Korsou, (literally means a “child of Curacao” in Papamiento), or a true Curacaoan, is a bit of tricky question of identity.  Because really, the way I see it, whether they are the descendants of the African slaves brought by the Dutch, recent migrants from South America or other Caribbean islands, everyone here is from somewhere else. (The actual native Amerindian tribes that were on Curacao either migrated out, or were subdued by Europeans). For the most part, I see “local” as referring to non-white European inhabitants of the island. Despite my dark skin, people can immediately tell I’m foreign. Most people assume that I’m Jamaican. I don’t know why. It is true that not as many Americans visit the island. Maybe for people here, “English-speaking black foreigner” = Jamaican.

It’s difficult for me move between local and Dutch worlds here in Curacao. Despite the incredible diversity of peoples here in Curacao, there is a serious lack of interaction between the Dutch communities and non-white locals in my opinion. Lack of interaction contributes to a near absence of integration. The capital city of Willemstad is divided into two parts separated by the large natural harbor. One side is the Dutch side, of Punda, and Otrobanda, (which literally means “other side”) is where the locals live. There are Dutch friends of mine who have been here for years and cannot speak Papamiento, and who can count the number of local friends they have on one hand. I hear Dutch people saying that the locals are lazy, not professional, never on time, aren’t educated, and are ignorant of the world outside tiny Curacao. There is also a sentiment that anti-Dutch sentiment has increased on the island in last few years, and some say they are even afraid, as a white person, to go to certain areas. (Granted, I normally ask what they are afraid of, exactly. Well, of being attacked! “Really? Have there been reports of racially motivated attacks on Dutch people or something?” No. Not really. So then where is the fear coming from? I don’t know, that’s just what people say! The locals don’t like us and don’t want us here!) I’ve heard too many times, “They (locals) and their culture is just too different from ours. We cannot mix well, so we stay apart.”

Talking with some locals, of course there is the perspective that the Dutch people are arrogant, condescending, and racist. Locals here are accurately aware that numbers of Dutch people (as well as politicians in the Netherlands) see Curacao as a backwards banana republic headed by incompetent and corrupt politicians. Of course, not every Dutch person feels that way, and many live here and love the way of life and the culture. But locals seem to feel that the Dutch come here to make their money and live their island paradise lives without making any attempt to contribute to the long term human development of the locals on the island. There is a sense among locals that the Dutch refuse to acknowledge or recognize the economic and human exploitation of the past, and that those past exploitations and dependencies were, and still are, systemic. But there is a sense of increasing nationalism and an attempt to assert a Curacaoan identity apart from the Dutch that is here.

“Stop Dutch Apartheid” stickers in Willemstad.

Being black outsider isn’t such a bad thing.  As an outsider to both the locals and the Dutch, I suppose I take a bit of an observer role. But its almost like I can physically feel a deep rooted mistrust and tension between Dutch and local populations here. To me, it is obvious that there is a lack of cultural and physical spaces for meaningful discourse and dialogue between the Dutch and local people. It’s incredible, and a bit tragic that such hostilities and resentment can exist on such a small island, and judging from the impending elections here in Curacao, it is possible that things could get worse.

I will say, that many people find me to be interesting. Again, not many Americans come here, and I think that people, both local and Dutch, appreciate that I took such a risk to come here and learn about the island and about cultures totally different from mine. Plenty have told me that they are interested in my perspective as a non-Dutch and a non-local. I will definitely continue to share my thoughts here so, watch this space!

So far, so good in Curacao!