Monday 28 October 2013

Opinion: How Zwarte Piet is a Subject of Culture, History, but Rarely Race

Some quaint traditions
A number of exchanges on Facebook regarding the Sinterklaas tradition which is the Low Countries' equivalent though contrived of Santa Claus had me rummaging through the memories of my almost 13 year sojourn in the Netherlands.
The topic concerned the helpers of Sinterklaas called Zwarte Piet (Black Pete). These are usually Caucasians with blackened faces in clothes of flamboyant contrasting colours somewhat modelled on the Moors as Sinterklaas is said to visit the Netherlands from Spain.
Much as I understand that the blackening of faces might present a culture shock to foreigners observing this tradition for the first time, it does not remotely pertain to outright racism apart from the general idea of a master-servant relationship between Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet.
Know your history
What bothers me is the tendency for certain people to arrogate to themselves either real or imagined histories of figures and traditions they have no affinity with and in the process they begin to personify the victim complex of those cultures.
On the broader issue of our humanity, we do recognise that we all have a responsibility to seek the institution and enforcement of broad human rights for freedoms and the pursuit of happiness.
However, it is also important that we recognise our core identities such that we do not appear to race ahead of the discussion that pertains to the rights of others in groups that we do not essentially belong due to many factors beyond race and residence.
Too diverse for colour to matter
My view of the black race is that it is just as diverse as any other race. Though we might have shared histories of oppression and indignities suffered through centuries, it is important that we recognise the differences in our history within the compendium of many histories in Africa, in the Caribbean, in North America, in South America and now recently in Europe.
Whilst centuries ago, Africans might have shared in the broader cruel history of slavery towards either the Middle East or the Americas, each destination developed a divergent history where the commonality of race is the only affinity between us after which we are all very different people.
In Africa, Blacks might people the Anglophone, Francophone, and Lusophone parts of Africa, but within those countries that make up these groupings, we are radically different in culture, tribe, tradition and histories that the artificially cobbled-together nations we belong to are mostly geographical expressions that we have learnt to live with.
How to join a struggle
We can identify with and join a struggle for the liberation of other oppressed members of our race, but we must be careful that in our identifying with a cause we do not lose our identity and history to complete assimilation, uprooted from the ancestry and moorings of who we are.
Other Africans joined together to fight Apartheid, but we fought as free people seeking the freedom of our brothers and sisters; we did not become South African and put ourselves under the influence of Apartheid to stand in the face of the shootings in Soweto.
Quite heterogeneous
In Britain, the tendency to see the black race as homogenous is dangerous. The majority Caucasian indigenous and growing foreign population though white, rarely identify that strongly along racial lines as Africans, African Americans, Caribbean or similar people of colour do.
They have their languages, culture, histories and strong identities linked to regions, customs, traditions and many other common traits that sets each grouping out as unique.
I sometimes fear that we coalesce and school together like fish on issues where we are essentially birds of a completely different feather.
Zwarte Piet is hardly the problem
It is why I could not countenance the apparent righteous indignation bordering on apoplectic rage, of African residents of England to Zwarte Piet. The debate is ongoing in the Netherlands about cultural and politically correct elements of retaining that aspect of the Sinterklaas culture.
It is healthy, interesting and robust, but it is nowhere near the zest for insurrection demonstrated by racial impostors from abroad, who might have found another roller coaster bandwagon to hitch a ride on.
We indeed must have debates about racism, racial equality, race relations, race history and probably revisit history for understanding, appreciation, recognition and reparation of wrongs of the past and present – I do not think that debate can be had with wrestling Zwarte Piet to the ground in either horseplay or mortal combat.
The fight for dignity is paramount beyond race, but we lose focus when we decide to take more offence on issues where our affinity with the people we presume are not liberated is tenuous at best.

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