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Monday, December 2, 2013

Joachim Stroink's Zwarte Piet problem

Plenty of nice people cluelessly embrace racist "traditions."

Posted By on Mon, Dec 2, 2013 at 5:46 PM

blackface_pic.jpg

The photo above was tweeted approvingly last night by Halifax Chebucto MLA Joachim Stroink. "Giving some love to Zwarte Piet and Sinterklass thank you to the Dutch Community for putting this event on," wrote Stroink.

Within minutes, Allison Sparling, who was voted "Best Twitterer" in The Coast's Best of Halifax poll, tweeted her objections, and posted a lengthy blog post, laying out her argument.

Today, the story has gone national, and "blackface" is trending in the part of the Twitterverse Halifax occupies as the town discusses the photo and its implications.

Stroink himself has offered the following explanation:

Yesterday, my family and I participated in a Dutch cultural event that marks the unofficial start of our Christmas season - this event has been taking place in Halifax for a number of years now. Families from all over Nova Scotia and New Brunswick attend each year.

Christmas in my culture is a tradition focused on Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pete has always been his side kick, much like Santa's elves. While the history of Zwarte Pete and the blackface have contributed to perpetuating negative stereotypes, to ignore or to disavow Zwarte Pete would be to ignore that history within the Dutch community. In recent years issues have been raised in some communities, but to my knowledge never in Halifax or NS, with this cultural celebration.

As a child growing up and celebrating the Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pete tradition, the blackface did not lead me to think less of my African NS neighbours and friends, and as such I was not sensitive to the potential to offend through my participation, with my family, at Sunday's 2013 Sinterklaas event held in Halifax.

While it is certainly uncomfortable to be in the lime light for what was intended to be a fun community event for the family kicking off the Christmas season, the resulting conversation, highlighting the underlying issues with black face and how it has played a role in suppressing people of African heritage, is a worthy and necessary one. It is important we embrace discussions like this as a broader community.

Given the controversial nature of my tweet, I will be removing the image from my profile.

Thank you for your collective passion and opinions.

Joachim.

In 2011, blogger Flavia Dzodan, who describes herself as "half Hispanic, half Eastern European," and who lives in Amsterdam, wrote a long piece detailing the racist origins of Zwarte Piet, and its continued racist connotations. Here's part of it:
The above, for those not familiar with our local “traditions”, are popularly known as “Black Pete”, or “Zwarte Piet” in Dutch. These “colorful” characters are the helpers of Sinterklaas, or more formally Sint Nicolaas/ Sint Nikolaas or Saint Nicolas in French. Sinterklaas is a children’s Winter holiday celebrated every year in The Netherlands, Belgium and some cities in the North of France. According to tradition, the Saint arrives to The Netherlands a few weeks prior to the celebration, in a boat, carrying the gifts he will deliver to children. The “Black Petes” are his helpers and they carry candy and control children’s behavior (children who misbehave supposedly get no presents from the Saint). Again, according to “tradition”, these helpers are Moors, or North African slaves. This “tradition” has evolved throughout the years, partially due to increasing protests from groups that find these depictions offensive. Nowadays, it is claimed that the Black face is due to the fact that the helpers have gone through chimneys and as a result, their faces are covered in soot. What again, nobody can clearly explain, is what kind of soot leaves such a uniform and evenly spread residue. Or worse, why these “chimney dwellers” speak in a fake accent that parodies the Black population of the Dutch former colony of Suriname.
I know Stroink, and have interviewed him. He's a good guy. Helps kids, donates to charities. On a personal level, I haven't witnessed any overt racism on Stroink's part, and I doubt I ever will. Stroink himself assures us that he his not racist, by re-tweeting his former roommate's defence of Stroink:
screen_shot_2013-12-02_at_7.52.59_am.png

But the issue is not how Stroink treats this or that black person, or what's in his heart and head. That's almost immaterial to this discussion. Racism is much, much deeper than a black guy and a white guy being good friends, and so that's the end of it. No, racism is NOT about how this or that white person treats this or that black person, or vice-versa. Rather, racism is a societal disease, a pervasive beast that pops up again and again, in governmental policies, in how companies do or do not police their workforce, in segregated schools, in housing discrimination and more.

I was born and raised in the American south. Just five years before I was born, the powers-that-be in my hometown of Norfolk, Virginia shut down the schools rather than desegregate them. As I was growing up, segregated water fountains were still being removed.

I won't bore you with the overt racism I saw growing up. Frankly, it embarrasses me, and doubly so because I benefitted from it.

But I was a first-hand observer of southern racism until I moved to California (where I found a different kind of racism) when I was 23, and then again when I took a one-year stint as a daily newspaper reporter in Arkansas, before moving to Halifax in 2004. I can tell you this: a unifying theme of it is the Confederate flag.

There are a lot of, well, straight-up racist assholes flying the Confederate flag, but I've met plenty of southerners who are nice people, refined, educated, contribute to charity, etc, who also fly the Confederate flag. This latter group assure us they're not racist, and it's just part of their "heritage" and "tradition."

Like these nice southerners flying the Confederate flag, Stroink doesn't intend to cause offense with the Zwarte Piet. It's just tradition, something he grew up with and un-thinkingly reenacts each year. But it's precisely this cluelessness, this unexamined playing out of "tradition" and "heritage" that is the problem. It lays out there in the world, part of the day-to-day symbolism that black people in our society have to put up with: "Hey, it's just tradition! You know, that tradition where we enslaved people that looked like you. Don't take it personally!"

Undoubtedly, many black people would be perfectly fine with Zwarte Piet if in return they got equal employment opportunities, the end of profiling while in stores and driving and so forth. Alas, that deal won't be in the works. That's because one is connected to the other: the symbolism and cultural representation of black faces is inexorably linked to the societal racism against black people.

All of which is to say, I don't think Stroink is a bad guy, but I urge him to think this through. He's right to say the discussion his tweet has generated is worthy. I just hope he listens to it.

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