There are worse things than having been racist
The contractor was measuring the ceiling in my lady’s house when he noticed he’d tracked dog poo all over the kitchen floor. It was awkward, but he helped clean it up, cleaned his shoe, and we all went on with our day. He did not go deliberately step in more and lay fresh prints.
What if his coworker had left the smudges before he arrived? Should he say “Well, I didn’t start it” then go find a steaming fresh pile of Rover’s Revenge to spread around? It’s easy when we’re talking about puppy poop, but what if it’s something worse?
In episode 349 of The Savage Lovecast, Dan Savage talks about the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when asserting the virus was an STI could get you in a fight, as people resisted the guilt of having inadvertently caused harm. But eventually they accepted the facts and evolved. He compares this to those who still deny climate change. There comes a time when you have to accept that what you’ve been doing isn’t right anymore, and update.
He doesn’t advocate convictions for past mistakes, or tortured guilt for things done when we didn’t know any better, but to double down and willfully continue them once you do? That’s a problem.
Scaling back from lethal disease and global catastrophe, how about being accidentally offensive? Tonight in the Netherlands, and tomorrow in Belgium and Luxembourg, Zwarte Piet will help Sinterklaas deliver presents to all the little boys and girls. Zwarte Piet (Black Peter) is basically one of Santa’s elves, with one glaring difference: he’s in blackface, big red lips, afro wig and everything.
Controversy over the figure has been growing for decades. The (white) majority says “But it’s our tradition!” (True.) “We don’t mean anything racist by it!” (Good, thank you.) And sometimes “If I meet you you’ll get a bullet through your head.” Charming.
I know people resist changing traditions, but just a couple sentences for perspective:
-Thanksgiving is increasingly about family, and less about genocidal religious extremists, or is that just me?
-Even Zwarte Piet himself didn’t show up until 1850, his name not standardized until the early 20th century, around the same time Sinterklaas stopped kidnapping naughty kids into slavery. And did anyone grow up believing Saint Nick came from Turkey? Well he did, but we changed it to the North Pole (and Sinterklass moved to Spain) without undue rage. So why cling so fiercely to an outdated racist icon?
(Zwarte Piet briefly took over the child slavery racket, though that’s been phased out too. We’ll talk about the function of a black character selling white children into slavery another time.)
This is all very easy for me to say; I didn’t grow up with Zwarte Piet. Also, I don’t really give an enraged caboodle about changing holiday details (no, I don’t watch Fox News’ preposterous War on Christmas either). My lady, on the other hand, grew up in The Netherlands in the days before people saw Piet as racist. She had those happy childhood mornings, when the friendly character threw candies and handed out gifts. She loved that character, but when age and perspective showed her its racist overtones, she adjusted. In her words: “A short moment of nostalgic pain is MORE than worth it for doing the right thing.”
Now want to hear something cool? The Netherlands is showing its impressive character yet again. Not waiting for everyone to find their empathy, they are changing, slowly but steadily. In previous years they’ve toned down the blackface by removing the big red lips (and earrings), consciously avoiding portrayals of him as inferior to the white Sinterklaas, and this year they’re adding other colors of Piet, including cheese yellow and (gasp!) white.
I can only imagine it’s a matter of time until people look back and say “Remember back when we had that awful racist character? Nutty!” (Though I expect the overtly racist and anti-immigration parties like the PVV and Vlaams Belang will cling to their crusty obstinacy far into the future.)
So as America roils, burns, and shatters under the weight of our own racism and malfeasance, the sickness in our system that seems unwilling to change, and I figure out my own miniscule part in it, I’m going to look at the waffle-striped Piet this year with a smile, and hope that the arc of history might speed itself up a bit here too…