Quotidian 3-1 (February 2012)John Helsloot: Zwarte Piet and Cultural Aphasia in the Netherlands

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In recent articles American historian Ann Laura Stoler has introduced the concept of ‘aphasia’ for describing metaphorically the cultural ‘inability to recognize things in the world and assign proper names to them’, especially in matters relating to the colonial past in Western societies. Taking this concept as a lead, the author analyzes an incident in the Netherlands in November 2011, when two young black Dutchmen were arrested for wearing a T-shirt on which the phrase ‘Zwarte Piet is racism’ was printed. Zwarte Piet [Black Peter] is the imaginary character in blackface acting as the helper of Sinterklaas, the central figure in the Dutch ritual of gift-giving thas has its apex on 5 December. For some decades now, there has been a debate in the Netherlands as to the precise nature of this blackface. By and large the Dutch deny, as was again the case in the aftermath of this arrest, any relation to a portrayal in caricature of a black person, producing instead associations that are difficult to grasp. After presenting the arguments of opponents of Zwarte Piet that there is such a connection, termed racist, the author focuses on the performance context of Zwarte Piet’s presence, in order to try to understand why Dutchmen generally fail to make this connection. In an epilogue the author makes a plea for going beyond the mere conclusion that Zwarte Piet is contested. Sharing himself the protesters’ perception of Zwarte Piet being racist, in his view the metaphor of cultural aphasia obliges professional ethnologists to re-associate this connection as well, and to make this known to the general public.