With bright, dusty India in the rear view mirror, we are settling in for a few weeks in lush, green and cool Holland. A greater contrast could hardly be contrived.
We come to Holland as often as we can to visit my husband's family. They are a humorous, gracious, and strong bunch of individuals and have always welcomed us warmly. The annual "Family Weekend" we are here to attend is really an amazing testament to family affection and dedication. I love coming here.
We were at a party, meeting new people. Inevitably, our globetrotting life becomes a topic of conversation. My husband has left Holland and never moved back. We left America and became Australian citizens and then returned to America again. It can require much explanation for curious listeners. One family member who knows us well volunteered "part of the attraction of Australia is that there is much less daily racism there, in comparison to America." The sympathetic listener shook her head. "It's so sad that America has such a race problem. We just don't have racism like that in Holland." When she received some push-back she conceded that some people from some backgrounds might have some racist views, but it is definitely not the norm. I listened to the conversation in Dutch, trying to parse the nuance, and decided not to jump in.
That evening I went to lie down with my boys, talking the day over, and settling towards sleep. Small Sun told me that during the party he had been playing with the other kids, and he was pretending to be Sinterklaas (like Santa Claus) when one girl insisted, "no, you're Zwarte Piet!" (Black Peter) Almost too perfect an illustration of unchecked stereotype I discovered that the little girl insisting my Black son could not be Sinterklaas, but only Zwarte Piet was the daughter of the mother who believes that there is no racism in Holland.
We had a gritty discussion about black face, the tradition of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, intent versus impact, the necessity to live amongst people from different backgrounds, and how unchecked stereotyping can blossom to full blown ignorance, which is a dangerous thing. Finch, who is seven, was hearing the history of black face for the first time. His heart hurt and he struggled.
"So many white people in Holland insist that Zwarte Piet isn't meant to be a racist depiction, and it doesn't bother them at all. I believe that the most relevant voice to listen to, is the person being depicted, the Dutch people with dark skin. What do they think about Zwarte Piet?" I said.
"Yea.." Small Sun agreed. "It's like the people who need the power the most, don't have the power to say how it is for them." Too true, wise son, too true.
Over breakfast the following morning I read this story in the paper.
"The House of a Moroccan Woman is Vandalized"
"No Foreigners" has been painted on her windows. She has been experiencing this kind of racist vandalism in her home for years and is requesting a move to different housing.
But no, there is no racism in Holland. Racism is lynching and burning crosses on lawns.
A climate of anti-foreigner couldn't qualify as racism. Ignoring the voice of the minority community standing against black face isn't racism. Allowing our children to only see people as stereotype isn't racism.
*I always engage these intercultural discussions with the admission that I can only see these things through MY lens. My knowledge of America's history of black face. My roots in a country that was built on the framework of slavery. I am willing to hear from other lenses, and I don't deny my own.