Marly Pierre-Louis spotted them out of the corner of her eye. She was sitting on the train in Amsterdam one winter day and did an about-face the second she stepped on the platform so that she wouldn’t have to get a full view of the ridiculousness.
“White Dutch people in blackface, curly hair and red lipstick,” Pierre-Louis, a 31-year-old black American living in Amsterdam, sneered. “It’s as ridiculous as it sounds.”
She’s talking about Zwarte Piet. It’s the Netherlands’ version of one of Santa’s elves, except the Zwarte Piet costume requires that white people wear blackface, a short Afro wig and then, to add insult to injury, fire-engine-red lipstick. It’s as if the Dutch literally snatched a page right out of the minstrel-show playbook.
When Pierre-Louis asked her Dutch friends what was the deal with the Mantan-looking characters parading around Amsterdam during Christmastime, they reassured her that the Zwarte Piet costume meant no harm and carried with it no racial connotation. As the story goes, Zwarte Piets have their faces blackened because of the soot inside people’s chimneys. Lest we forget, Pierre-Louis was told, they’re tasked with making their way up and down chimneys, and in and out of fireplaces, delivering toys to well-behaved Dutch kids during the holidays.
It’s a pretty convincing explanation that Pierre-Louis told The Root she has a hard time believing. When asked if she was perhaps looking at an innocuous Dutch tradition through an American lens—as ethnocentric Americans tend to do—Pierre-Louis insisted that her black Dutch friends reassured her that her racism meter wasn’t completely off.
“When you talk to black Dutch people and hear their stories about being teased as kids, and called Zwarte Piet, no one can tell me that it’s not related to race,” Pierre-Louis argued.
Am I being objective here, or looking at this through America’s racial lens?
It’s that kind of consciousness—one of “Am I being objective here, or looking at this through America’s racial lens?”—with which Pierre-Louis sometimes wrestles. But not often, because she says she’s never really had a pronounced experience with race in the nearly two years she’s been living in Amsterdam. Originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., she, her husband and son, now 3, moved to the Netherlands in 2013 when her husband landed a great coding gig in its capital city, Amsterdam. The Dutch pride themselves on “not seeing race” and being “tolerant” (as if ignoring race eliminates racism, Pierre-Louis noted), but other than that, race isn’t really a biggie in her new life.
She does foresee it becoming an issue when she thinks about where she and her husband intend to raise their son. A large part of that discussion hinges on what kind of racial identity, or lack thereof, she wants her son to have.
The Dutch don’t have a gun culture, Pierre-Louis explains, so one’s black kid is less likely to get shot in the street because someone finds him “suspicious,” she said, referencing Trayvon Martin. She cringes at how “structural racism” in the U.S. is so real, and so blatant, that sometimes it carries with it life-or-death consequences.
“‘So my son can just be walking on the street and somebody kills him?’” Pierre-Louis recalls asking herself. “‘Oh no, I’m not going back to the States,’” she vowed at one point.
But then she took a gander at the racial culture in Amsterdam.
The Dutch pride themselves on being far too advanced to drive themselves into a frenzy over a social construct called race, which, on one hand, is a good thing, since again, no one is getting shot or being funneled through an inferior public school system or getting substandard health care. (Pierre-Louis marvels at how even the low-end in Amsterdam is pretty high. The Netherlands’ safety net is on fleek.)
But on the other hand, Pierre-Louis says, the Dutch don’t see her, they just admire black American culture. On one hand, she realizes that everything black Americans have gone through—from chattel slavery to Jim Crow, to being disenfranchised and then fighting for those rights during the civil rights movement and beyond—has led to a demonstrative and rich style in the way in which we express ourselves, our music and fashion that Europeans want to emulate.
But on the other hand, Pierre-Louis says, the Dutch don’t see her, they just admire black American culture.
“I think our history enabled us to be these really powerful creators of culture,” Pierre-Louis described. “It was a beautiful struggle” that created “amazing dynamic people,” she said. Europeans borrow the fashion and use remnants of black culture to make things cool.
But Pierre-Louis describes how that coolness rarely translates into anything substantive for black Europeans. She and a friend went to see an opera recently that had a picture of a black king on its marketing poster. But when the curtains closed at the end of the production, Pierre-Louis realized that nary a black character appeared in the opera. It was an example, she said, of how blackness is “provocative and exoticized” and used as a cool factor to lure Dutch people in, but then that’s where it ends. “Having black people in the show is not something they were interested in.”
Pierre-Louis wants her son to identify as a black American and to revel in black cultural pride in a real and genuine way. But she is concerned that gaining admission to that club involves moving back to the U.S. and having him go through “the struggle.”
“He needs the black [American] experience … I need him to struggle,” she said.
But, as if the gravity of the word “struggle” had sunk in, Pierre-Louis censored herself: “Maybe it doesn’t have to be about the struggle. I don’t think he only needs to be subjected to the struggle of blackness. “I just want him to learn to find power and strength in the madness.”
Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele is a staff writer at The Root and the founder and executive producer of Lectures to Beats, a Web series that features video interviews with scarily insightful people. Follow Lectures to Beats on Facebook and Twitter.