On Being Black in Europe and Confronting Zwarte Piet

Seeing blackface in photos from my childhood helped me make sense of the anti-black racism I grew up with.

Dec 22 2017, 5:48pm

Image via Wikipedia Commons

The question,“Woher kommst du?” (“Where are you from” in German) is one I remember answering constantly, with the most visible reaction being people’s dissatisfaction with my answer. My mom is white, my dad is black and I was born in Oldenburg, Germany. I grew up there constantly feeling like I was on display in public places, hyper-aware of the stares on me as I walked.

When I was six years old I was playing on a jungle gym in Kindergarten (where I was the only non-white person) when a group of three or four white boys, who were maybe two grades above me started spitting into my hair. I told the teacher what happened but she didn’t want to make the effort of going through each grade and finding out who the boys were so the situation was never really addressed. I remember desperately wanting to look like the other girls and have their hair. Around the same time as the spitting incident a classmate told me that if I took good shower and scrubbed really hard my skin would become clean after. This led to a conversation between the teacher and my classmates parents, but the incident was never visited again. I know my mom was really upset about what the girl said to me, but in spite of all of this I was a happy and confident child.

Image courtesy of author.

When I later moved to Wiesbaden, I was again the only black person but I was surrounded by other people of colour. People from Nepal, Afghanistan, Morocco, Turkey, Italy, Iran and Kosovo, with white children being the minority. I started getting bullied mostly because of the fact that my literacy skills were some of the most advanced in my class. I began putting errors into my work, just so I would be bullied less for being smart. It was in Wiesbaden where I had the most open confrontations with my blackness. I used to have after-school tutoring and I remember being called mop-head and pulling chewing gum and spitballs out of my hair. I knew I was different but I didn’t consider myseIf black. The references of blackness I had I could not relate to. I was not an immigrant, one of my native tongues is German and I came from a higher socio-economic status than the other children around me. I also didn’t quite look like my dad, who is black, and that was a great point of relief for me. It was comforting to know that I had this white side in me. My childhood ended when I left Oldenburg. Or maybe not ended, but I know my childhood shifted when I moved to Wiesbaden.

It was a few years ago when I found the picture of me and the little girl who is in blackface, which was taken while I was still living in Oldenburg. This was an incident I had not remembered until I saw that picture again. When I was about four we had a Kindergarten party and I wanted to dress up as something. My mom had read The Star Talers to me and I really liked the pictures in the book, so I dressed up as the lead character. My mom made me a tulle cape and an all white dress covered with stars. I remember that day being special because I wore my hair open and I never wore my hair open. My mom was always afraid I would get lice. I don’t remember much about this time because I was very young, but I remember not feeling good when I saw the girl in blackface.

This picture validated all my questions and feelings about racism and it gave me the context I needed to talk about the overt experiences of racism in European countries. Whenever I had tried to raise conversations on race amongst my friends they would always say I was looking at things wrong or it wasn’t really that way. Two years ago I moved to Holland, where I was able to see the Zwarte Piet tradition right in front of my face.

Every year in the weeks leading up to Christmas, from early November till the end of the festive season, hundreds of Zwarte Piets (Black Pete) line the streets of Holland, Aruba, Curacao, Belgium and Luxembourg to celebrate the legend of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) and continue a European tradition that is over 400 years old. According to folklore Zwarte Piet first began as an enslaved devil, scorched in fire and it was around the 19th century that he emerged as black man wearing clothes associated with the Moors. I now go to school in Holland, and in my university the whole tradition of Zwarte Piet became a topic of conversation during one of my classes. You have mostly white Dutch and white Belgian students defending the “tradition,” saying racism wasn’t a valid argument because children are told that Zwarte Piet is black only because he came through a chimney. But then if it’s just soot why is he wearing an afro? Why does he have creole earrings? And why are they over lining their mouths with red lipstick to make them look bigger?

As a black person born in Europe, the use of tradition as a veil to cover blatant acts of racism is an experience I know intimately well. The first time I saw a Zwarte Piet parade was last year and it was the most disgusting thing I have ever seen. In the parade the Zwarte Piets are the ones who look silly, act funny and have no kind of agency. One of the Zwarte Piet’s came up to me, trying to make me laugh and I just pushed him away. It was a whole parade of just blackface.

I found it ironic that I rediscovered this picture five years ago, a month before Christmas, and I found it funny because it was during the same time that I had started analyzing race and broadening my understanding of race relations.

When I look at the phenomenon of Zwarte Piet I see Dutch colonial roots. And in the whole context of Holland, I see a fear of losing the power to control a narrative created through colonialism. The problem with anti-black racism in Europe is that it was never officially institutionalized with overtly racist practices like South Africa's apartheid system and The Jim Crow and segregationist laws in the US.

The irony I also sense in this childhood picture is that even though I never felt unsafe in Kindergarten that picture shows me that in white spaces, there is always a threat against black people. I also study at one of the international programs at The Hague which is a place where I am meant to feel safe. The fact that fellow students could so vehemently protect this tradition and want to vehemently wear blackface shows me that I am also not safe there and that a threat is always present.

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