Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Zwarte Piet

Just like the Americans have their War on Christmas, in the Netherlands we have our annual debate about whether Zwarte Piet is racist. What both debates have in common is that it is only one side that is doing all the "debating"; the sane majority needs nothing more than a resounding facepalm in reply.

Normally I would tend to take the same approach, but today it occurred to me that there is a simple, systematic way to think about this question, almost as if it were a legal issue. (Which it isn't, yet. Thank God for small graces.) So I thought I'd lay it out.

In my view, something can be racist by intent or racist by effect. (I know, I spend too much time doing European competition law.) It is intuitively obvious what it means for an act to be motivated by racist intent, whereas a racist effect means that the act has an unreasonable disparate impact on different races. Of course, in practice that disparate impact will often be intended on some level, but it is still useful to distinguish the two cases. (And, speaking of European law, note that in Common Market Law discriminatory intent without a discriminatory effect is not unlawful, although in practice it will be difficult to prove.) I fail to see how something can be inherently racist if it is neither motivated by racism nor has any kind of disparate impact.

This means that we can simply look at them each in turn. The first prong is quite simple. No one that I am aware of is claiming that the tradition of Zwarte Piet persists in order to promote a racist ideology, or otherwise because of racist intent. The tradition is observed by people of all ideologies and ethnicities, including a large majority who cannot plausibly be accused of being racists. Of course, I'm sure there are those who are batshit insane enough to suggest that one can be a racist without knowing it, but I'm not even going to dignify that with a response. (And even if that were true, how could such an unsuspected racist belief be the reason for any conscious choice?)

Note that blackface is an American tradition that has no equivalent in the Netherlands. The Zwarte Piet tradition dates back to around the same time as blackface, the mid-19th century, long before anyone in the Netherlands knew what blackface was or why it is unavoidably connected to a tradition of racism to the point of being per se racist. (By which I mean that anyone using blackface is deemed to know this tradition, and accept and intend the racist connotation of that institution.) Calling Zwarte Piet an example of blackface assumes the conclusion, and is therefore illegitimate as an argument.

That leaves disparate impact. This one is a bit more tricky, because it is unquestionably true that some black people are genuinely shocked and hurt at seeing Zwarte Piet. I'm still ruling it out, though. The problem is that, hurt feelings aside, there is no disparate impact. Again, this is - to my knowledge - undisputed. And the emotional impact that the Zwarte Piet tradition might cause is caused entirely by the (subjective) meaning that the person in question gives to what he or she sees. Specifically, people are hurt because they believe Zwarte Piet is racist. But this simply shows that the argument is circular: Zwarte Piet is racist because some people interpret it as racist. All it takes is for them to pull their heads out of their assess and educate themselves about the tradition and its meaning for people today, and the problem would be solved.

Unfortunately, my compatriots' love for White Liberal Guilt is much to great for them to be able to resist asking the question, so I'm sure this debate will continue year after year for as long as I shall live. Nevertheless, I will continue to treat the question with all the contempt it deserves.

The same goes, by the way, for the recent choice in Amsterdam to take the cross off Sinterklaas's hat, in order to avoid offending the Muslims:


Anonymous said...

Great analysis. We white Dutch should stick up for our own traditions! People that are offended by white Dutch people dressing up as a black slave need to take their head out of their ass!

martinned said...

Whether "we" are "white" has nothing to do with anything. The Sinterklaas holiday, with all its associated traditions, belongs to the entire Dutch people (and Belgians, and in different forms to other nations as well). Let's please keep it that way. Making distinctions based on race is unhelpful and nonsensical.

Jasper said...

You are confusing the actions of a person with cultural beliefs of a group of people. When looking at a single person, you can indeed distinguish intent from effect. The issue of racism of Zwarte Pieten is about how society looks at it as a group, not about whether an individual intends to be racist by either being or supporting a Zwarte Piet.
In history, their are many examples of racism which were not with intend, but racism nonetheless. For example the Blackface theater phenomenon in the USA which was part of the racist policy of not allowing black people to be actors. But I can imagine the individual actors or spectators of a Blackface theater were not all racist: they could just have a jolly good time and claim they have nothing against black people. You can even say that some would be ignorant of the fact that Blackface theater is racist. Which counters your point that it is not batshit insane to be racist without knowing it. Ignorance is no excuse for doing stupid things.
Similarly, in history there have been other societal beliefs and practices that are now considered wrong: such as sexism, animal cruelty, child abuse. As society progressed, values changed and beliefs there were considered harmless are now seen as wrong. Jokes about women are still being made, but everyone is aware of the fact that those jokes and wrong and sexist (and fun). But wrong nonetheless.
With society becoming more globally connected, I expect the Zwarte Pieten tradition to change in the same way. And we better do it pro-actively as a country, than being shamed by others.

martinned said...

It might be a professional deformation, but I don't know how to morally evaluate people, actions or institutions other than at the level of an individual. What does it mean to juxtapose "looking at a single person" with "how society looks at it"?

(Even apart from the fact that there is no doubt in Dutch society that there is no racist implication in the Zwarte Piet tradition.)

I've allowed the exception of a situation where the racist implications of an action should be apparent to everyone but aren't. But this is necessarily only the case for a few people, who are ignorant of what everyone else knows, and who are therefore morally culpable for their ignorance. But this will only be the case in rare circumstances, and I see no reason to apply that approach here, given that Zwarte Piet has no obviously racist past or present.

mike burnett said...

Hi Martinned. It is not nonsensical. It is fact. The entire scenario of the white master dressed in regal clothing surrounded by his silly looking black slaves is about as clear a depiction of slavery as you can get in an annual tradition. the guy above gave unwittingly a perfect rejection of your very flawed reasoning by summing up how racist many Dutch people are. (And it is true... they don't realise it)

Your easy dismissal of the impact zwarte piet and Sinterklaas (don't forget Sint who is the fulcrum of the whole thing) have on people, not only black, speed that you actually haven't really thought about this subject at all.

mike burnett said...

No obvious racist past??? Are you kidding? Take a look at photos of slaves and their children from the 18th and 19th century. Can you not see that Zwarte piets are the slaves and Sinterklaas is their master? To me it is blatantly obvious.