When my son was 5 years old, I took him to see the World Press Photo exhibition. I took it every year since he was a baby, but this year – 2015 – he was visibly more aware of what he was seeing and had many more questions.
The recipient of the World Press Photo Multimedia Award was the video of the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the Staten Island Police, which my son watched with some confusion. "Who are the men dressed in black?" The police. "Why do they hold this man down?" They stop him. "Why will not they let him breathe?" Because he is black.
I did not say that, even though it was the most immediate and honest answer that came to my mind – it seemed too much to ask a 5-year-old. Talking about racism to children is a complex task – and, according to Margaret A. Hagerman, sociologist and author of "White Children: Growing up with Privilege in a Racially Divisive America ", when white parents raise white children in largely white communities, talking is not enough. Instead, says Hagerman, we must inculcate compassion and openness to diversity through our actions.
We live in the Netherlands, a country that is generally proud of its liberal tolerance and its "post-racial" identity. There is a blind attitude to race, which makes racism in the country an impossibility. Political sensitivity is perceived as a typically American response based on the sad racist history of the United States.
Incidents such as the murder of Garner throw an undeniable light on the racial divide of the American race, but other signs of racism are more subtle. In the Netherlands, we entered the season of Sinterklaas, a major Dutch holiday – similar to Christmas in the United States – that is increasingly attracting criticism for its racist tone over the past decade, both inside and beyond the Dutch borders.
The tradition is as follows: On the second Saturday of November, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) arrives in the Netherlands on a steamboat from Spain, accompanied by Sinterklaas, an imposing, lean and richly dressed figure. Hundreds of people gather to watch the steamboat arrive. Piets dance and wave the music of brass bands until Sinterklaas lands on a white horse. Piets walk by his side to greet and offer treats to the children. The ritual is repeated in various cities of the Netherlands until December 5, day of the feast of St. Nicholas.
Piet is, according to folklore, an assistant of Sinterklaas and of Moorish descent. Traditionally, since his first appearance in a children's book in 1850, Piet is described as a very dark-skinned character, with big red lips, curly black hair and giant earrings. When the Piets appear in person, they are described by volunteers in black.
Unlike Santa Claus, who comes one night a year, Sinterklaas and Piet stay for a few weeks, leaving children with presents every night, wearing shoes left by the fireside. A nightly news program – "Sinterklaasjournaal" – covers the adventures and hard times of Sint and his servants and makes the experience both magical and credible for children.
But we are also inundated with news of protests and riots among those who support the Piet tradition and those who wish to see it disappear. And the discourse between Dutch politicians and international bodies such as the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which urged the Netherlands to end racial stereotypes and blackface, is less cheerful . As a parent, I want my children to participate in local customs and enjoy them with innocence and wonder. But I also want them to be sensitive to others and, of course, not to racists.
I arrived in the Netherlands as an expatriate with the intention of staying a few years. Having children and deciding to raise them here has made me an immigrant, and one of the unspoken rules of this status is to make an effort to integrate as much as possible into your adopted country. , its customs and ideals. For the most part, it's easy to do here.
But during the Piet season, it's not so easy. In some areas, black and black makeup has been replaced by a less disgusting appearance (the story is that Piet is dirty after climbing into chimneys to offer gifts), the origins of the character and its appearance remains steeped in racism. And explain racism to children in the context of one of their most famous characters – most children want to disguise themselves as mischievous Piet, very little like the more serious Sint – looks like explaining the exploitation of animals across the prism of Santa's reindeer.
I recently asked my son, now 8 years old, that he thought blackface was offensive. He has no real sense of what racism is, no concept of "black face" as a tool for perpetuating unflattering racial cartoons, and he still believes that Zwarte Piet actually exists rather than being a dutch white makeup artist. So, her response was a bit like Megyn Kelly's feeling that Blackface was acceptable when she was a child: "as long as you dress like a character." He also offered that while he had never seen someone in "whiteface" he would not do it. find it offensive as much as weird. I told him that I thought it never went, what he seemed to accept but not quite understand.
You often hear that Piet is not supposed to be offensive and that it is not so. I have the choice to treat it as a harmless tradition that the Dutch have enjoyed for generations and that is very expensive, or to explain to my kids why the blackface is never acceptable.
My children (I also have two girls ages 5 and 6) do not care about Piet's color. They love the character and the holidays and have no idea why they hurt and offend people. It's my job to explain the problems without spoiling the magic. I therefore allowed my children to dress in Piet – in a Renaissance outfit with a feathered hat – but I drew the line with the black face. And I always have a visceral reaction to seeing Piets everywhere around me.
We keep the parts we like and we do not allow them to participate in the parts we do not like – even if it makes me look like an American too sensitive to sensitivity. No matter where we live and what others find acceptable, my children must first learn from the example given by their father and me. If I ignore something that I believe to be wrong, I fail.
Tracy Brown Hamilton is a freelance writer and mother based in the Netherlands. Find her on Twitter @brownhamilton.
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