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What's a Wreck?

A Cake Wreck is any cake that is unintentionally sad, silly, creepy, inappropriate - you name it. A Wreck is not necessarily a poorly-made cake; it's simply one I find funny, for any of a number of reasons. Anyone who has ever smeared frosting on a baked good has made a Wreck at one time or another, so I'm not here to vilify decorators: Cake Wrecks is just about finding the funny in unexpected, sugar-filled places.

Now, don't you have a photo you want to send me? ;)

- Jen
Wednesday
Jul082009

Christmas in July: Going Dutch

Ok, sure, it's July, and the last thing on your mind is broadening your...uh...mind...with exposure to international holiday traditions - I get it. However, this particular post was deemed by the powers that be* too controversial to post back in December, so all my hard work and sparkling wit got shelved, its radiance cloaked all these long months.

So what changed?

Well, that's a long story. One involving too many mango mojitos, a Chuck marathon, and a malfunctioning alarm clock. (Ok, so maybe it's not that long of a story...)

But enough intro: you guys ready to have those minds broadened? I promise it will only sting a little.

*meaning me, John, and the cat

In the Netherlands Santa Claus (called Sinterklaas) doesn't have elves for sidekicks; he has Zwarte Piet (meaning "Black Pete"). Zwarte Piet is usually played by a white guy in blackface makeup, a curly black wig, and big gold hoop earrings. (I am SO not making this up.)

Here's a reference photo from Wikipedia:

"Get your hand off my robe; you'll make it dirty."

Zwarte shows up in cake form quite a lot, too, and in less than flattering ways:

However, if this seems a little insensitive to you, Wreckporter Kiki has a perfectly reasonable explanation:

"Dutch people claim Pete is black because of the soot in the chimneys he has to climb down to deliver the gifts."

OH, so it's soot! Ok, I get it. And you're right: this does look a lot like Bert the chimney sweep:


We all know how Bert liked his lipstick.

And dressing up like Aunt Jemima:


This one found by Wouter T. is probably the most wreckish; it looks like the remains of a melting muppet:


Ever heard the expression "in for a penny, in for a pound"? Well, since I'm already stirring up trouble here, I may as well share what Megan H. found at a bakery in Argentina:

They're little cakes called "Africancitos", or "little black men". With bows on their heads. I don't think they're a holiday treat, though, so you can enjoy your little-black-men cake heads any time of the year. "Great for parties!"

(Yes, I've officially crossed the line from horrified disbelief into horrified humor. It's more fun over here - won't you join me?)

To those of you offended by all this, you should know that Zwarte Piet was not intended to be offensive. (Argentina, you're on your own.) And to those of you who see nothing wrong with outdated and racially insensitive traditions, you should take a look at this poster:

« Copyright Unfringement | Main | Who Ordered the Poo Poo Platter? »

Reader Comments (336)

Kate, it helps if you actually know the difference between the badly spelled German you employ and Dutch.

July 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

We have St. Nicholas day here in the USA, too, people...SOME of us don't need the constant reminders of the supposed differences. My kids get a small gift on the morning of the 6th of Dec - because St. Nicholas comes the evening of the 5th. Some of us are intelligent and open minded enough to continue the traditions that came along with our ancestors who crossed the ocean - without, of course, continuing the parts we find distasteful....

July 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDea

roflol ! We've tried to break the tradition of "black Pete" by introducing "blue Pete" Sinterklaas' helpers were painted blue instead of the regular black and it scared the crap out of all the little kids who were confronted with a guy painted blue with a huge affro and ugly hat on!

Anyway, there has been some discussion weather this tradition should be banned, but 99% of all people thought there's nothing wrong with this tradition.

Suzanne from Holland :)

July 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

*Loves Sinterklaas en Zwarte Piet*

I've never had nightmares about Zwarte Piet, he is a kindervriend (childs friend).

*Usually loves cakewrecks*

*Doesn't love Americans that judge other countries traditions based on there own frame references*

*Had to google 'blackface' never encountered the term before*

My neighbour is from the Netherlands Antilles, she once showed me pictures from her celebrating Sint Nikolaas as a little girl. The Zwarte Pieten were not painted, Sint was portrayed by a black man with his face painted white :D

Why is it better to dress up people with Achondroplasia dwarfism up as elves?

July 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRachèl

Oh, The Netherlands. How I love you. I've got a friend whose parents are from there, but I'd never heard about Zwarte Piet! Well, I guess they conform more to North American Christmases now. Hm.

WV: Reedish. Something to put in a woodwind when you've no real reed?

July 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMarlo

Well, every other country on Earth criticizes the USA for anything we do around here, so why the upset when we question ONE thing the Netherlands does??

Not to mention - have ANY of the people upset by the blackface-looking items CLAIMED to support elves???

July 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDea

Glad to see I am not the only sedaris fan here. Six to eight black men is a good piece of his to start with, but he has TONS of hilarious short stories.

July 15, 2009 | Unregistered Commentercourtney

This is soooooo wrong.

*That being said*

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

*CAUGH, SPUTTER, CHOKE, CAUGH, BREATHING IN*

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

*OH, btw, I'm Mexican*

hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha
hahahahahaha.......................

July 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterChica

Actually, having Zwarte Piet isn't as rasist as it looks.
See, what was rasist about blackface isn't white people dressing up like black people, but pretending black people always act in very stereotyped ways, instead of just being normal human beings.
Zwarte Piet may have a wierd fasion sense, but he acts like a normal human being.

July 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterEllen

"Ask a Dutch person about a German sometime." That doesn't have anything to do with feelings of superiority, they just happened to have a tiny little argument about 70 years ago. But unless you ask someone who's over, let's say, 80 years old, they won't really have a problem with Germans anymore. We joke about Germans, yeah, why not? It's a WWII-heritage thing I guess. Even though most of us have nothing against the germans, we were raised by people who saw their families get killed or have been in concentration camps. Humour is one way of dealing with things and maybe we (the Dutch) prefer this way of dealing with things. I mean, you can sit around and cry when something bothers you or just laugh about it, release the tension, and get on with life.

Lauren says weird-looking depictions of black people are different from weird-looking depictions of Irish or women. Why is that? Women have been oppressed all over the world and still are, whereas the oppression of Irish and blacks fortunately is a thing belonging to the past, mostly anyway. Somehow it seems you're not allowed to say anything about black people. The same thing we have in the netherlands with moroccans. If you say you're neighbour is an asswhole and he happens to be from morocco, you kind of have to explain to everyone how you don't mean you hate everyone from morocco, etc. But that, the explaining, is the racist act. Because if your neighbour is an asswhole from, let's say, Norway (I thought that would be a safe example), no one would bother to say not all norwegians are bad. So if you really feel Moroccans, blacks, or any other people are equal to - let's stick to them - Norwegians, you don't have to explain anything.

Grow a sense of humour and learn to get along with each other. Just because I think your food is strange or your clothes are weird or your customs are different from mine, doesn't mean I hate you. And if I don't like you, it doesn't mean I hate everyone sharing your nationality, skin colour or religion.

Oh by the way, whe is everyone offended by the lips? Most black people have relatively big lips compared to white people. Doesn't have anything to do with racism, it's just a racial feature (although I admit I haven't seen a lot of dark men wearing bright red lipstick, but maybe the moors did use 'make-up'? some tribes use paint, and kohl was used in the middle east for protecting the eyes from sunlight I've read, so maybe there's an explanation for this as well?). I wouldn't take offence from a cake of a white woman with extremely blue eyes.

Also I don't get the problem when it comes to the word 'negro'. It just has to do with the latin word for black/dark. The whole PC thing annoys the hell out of me anyway. Same thing with handicaps, like being visually impaired is completely different from being blind. Why does using a term that's three times as long make things completely different?

July 17, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteraliciajennifer

Great post, I laughed in horror. :P
As for the comments... ok, first of all, I dunno the state of racism in most other countries (other than Russia and the US, which I know fairly well since I've lived in both), but I know that people are probably not thinking of racist stereotypes when making stuff like this because of history. HOWEVER... that does not make it not racist in essence, whether they mean it or not (and I'm sure they mean well). People cry "political correctness!" every time someone points out something unfair, but no, it's just called having an opinion about prejudice and recognizing it. I realize that the Dutch don't go around thinking that black people are like this, nor are they necessarily affected by the messages attached to it, but it looks like it has a racist history, at the least. And someone doesn't have to be American to recognize that.
Anyway, as I said, great post.

July 17, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMasha

@ Liz:

Thank you very much. You said what I was going to say in a much more succinct manner.

The cakes made me stare in disbelief. John, it's a great post, because they're Wrecks on sooo many levels.

July 19, 2009 | Unregistered Commentersteeple333

I grew up with this tradition and i only realised how wrong it looked when foreign people gasped at it.

In the children's songs, Zwarte Piet (black Pete) is referenced as a servant who is silly and goofy. There are rumoured to be hundreds of them working for Saint Nicolas, making the presents children get (like Santa's elves). Of course it is easy to see that this referred to a black slave who was portrayed as silly, goofy and happy.

Why blackface? Because untill the end of the 19th century, most locals here had never seen a black man.

Black Pete is the one bringing the presents in the name of Saint Nicolas and used to also punish bad children. (he wore a little whip and had a canvas bag to abduct bad children, i kid you not)

This tradition will not end soon and few people here even realise the racist nature of something centuries old.

July 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Hurray for your site; it's hilarious and I certainly like your witty and intelligent comments.

What makes me sad, is the cockiness and presumptiousness of the americans in general and of the visitors to this site in particular.

Right I am Dutch, yes I'm white, yes I am over 40,Yes I love Sinterklaas, my children and friends do so too - even my "negro" friends find no offense in this tradition and participate happily.

When you don't know about a tradition, you might google it before you start to judge.

I have seen several remarks coming back more than once. That means you don't even read what other people had to say: your opninion, your witty remark is the only thing that counts.

Sint Nicolaas, was a Turkisch Bishop(Myra),who resided in Madrid (Spain). He was the patron of the sailors, the poor, and children in particular. Initionally once a year in winter, when food was scarce, he brought goodies to the families with children who's fathers/husbands had been drowned at sea. He was declared a Saint. We cherish him and his black assistants.

Some parents use them as a threat, to keep the chilrend behaving nicely. That is nothing to be proud of.

I do understand that this tradition is hard to understand for Americans in particular, given their history regarding slavery!

Furthermore I would like to add that you - visitors of this and other blogs and fora - should realize that "other" people visit these sites too, so forget about the protected cosiness of the family womb. You tend to offend us (=the others) more often than you think, not being aware that you're not alone!

btw I don't mind jokes about the Dutch - some are true, some are not
and some are even funny.

Well I feel a lot better having posted this, I do hope you are feeling ok too.

have a nice day :)

July 24, 2009 | Unregistered Commenter7slaper

Actually, Zwarte Piets (usually there are more than one following Santa Klaas around) were his slaves. They weren't "sooty" because Sinta Klas doesn't come down the chimney. He doesn't have flying reindeer. He rides a horse, after taking a short boat ride from Spain.

Nowadays, Zwarte Piet is considered a "helper." He used to be a slave, but now he helps out because he WANTS to. But maybe he's a little passive-aggressive, because he beats and kicks children who are bad. Kinda makes a lump of coal seem not that bad, huh?

Megan

July 28, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

I love the first pic. It honours Santa Claus (St. Nicholas) for who he really is... a Bishop. I won't comment on his helper, as that seems to be a topic too hot to touch.

But thank you for posting that pic. I get tired of seeing "reformed/Americanised" Santas when I'd rather see him for who he really is. An honoured Bishop who prays for us.

Anonymous, he's not a Pope. He is a Bishop. It might help if you researched him. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Nicholas

And if you wonder, yes, I'm American. And obviously Catholic. It stumps me that anyone could just "overwrite" the truth about him just to make him more popular and commercialised for cola.

July 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSr. Mina, BSP

What a great site. Very funny cakes--cakes are just kind of inherently funny though.

On blackface/racism, etc: minstrel shows, aunt jemimah, and other caricatures of black people rely on exaggeration, as do all caricatures: jews with big noses, chinese with slanted eyes, hungarians with big eyebrows. as someone else noted, black people generally have larger lips and the contrast of the whites of their eyes to their skin is more pronounced that such contrasts are on lighter skinned people.

The problem is that in the white dominated western world, black features are not as attractive as white features. as someone noted, no one would take offense to a cake that had a girl with really blue eyes or really blonde hair. the exaggeration of "white" features, even say big pokey ears (Mad magazine) doesn't cause offense because it's not perceived as ugly or unflattering in the same way two oversized red lips are. They don't look good on Ronald McDonald either!

Take a cake that caricatured an Irish person, small upturned nose, squirrely eyes, basically a leprechaun, and most people wouldn't find it racist or even negative. The exaggeration of those Irish features does not cause offense because the underlying features are not unattractive in the western world.

Unfortunately black features are not typically considered as attractive or even neutral (say asian features) and black caricatures make us confront that fact.

There's a mix of other things at work: the extreme liberal types who enjoy being offended as a means of proving their "goodness," the types who enjoy any chance to feign victimhood, those that think that any portrayal of a minority in a position of lower status to a white man should never be allowed.

Racism is real and ongoing. We don't get rid of it (if we do at all) by sanitizing our world. Blacks should be up for caricature just like anyone else. Cakes do not oppress, caricatures do not oppress. There's an analogous fairy tale about a boy who falsely cried wolf one too many times, but fairy tales, it seems, are right out!

July 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Well, it's official Anon, you are an idiot. So it's your position that all black people are ugly, huh? That's an interesting take on the world, what with so many famous black models, actresses, singers, dancers, etc. How is it possible you could be so unbelievably unaware how offensive your remarks are? How is it posible you function in normal society with out repeatedly falling down?

My only hope (please, dear lord, let it be true) is that you are just some pathetic troll trying desperately to get noticed, because you couldn't genuinely believe that just because someone is black they are automatically less attractive, or for that matter there exists in the world such a thing as "black features" or "asian features". You would be hard pressed to line up 100 randomly chosen black people and get half of them with the same height, body type, lip size, skin tone, or any other gross generalization you may come up with in AFRICA let alone here in America.

July 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNookleerman

I arrived here looking for images for my cousin's untraditional wedding. Great blog!

I was browsing your posts and I've found this one. I'm from Argentina. Those cookies are not intended to be offensive either.

We are a country with a very small population of african-descent. Our great-great-parents were more keen to enslave our own native-americans.

Only upper class, urban families had African slaves on their households, because that kind of "commerce" with England and Portugal was prohibited by Spain when we were a colony. Getting slaves via smuggling or pretending to be "gifts" by someone abroad was expensive.

Whay I tell you this? Just because usually the features on the cookies, called more commonly "negritas" than "africanitos" refer to a beloved character, the "negrita lavandera" (little laundress black girl) that's never missing on our children's school plays on national holidays.

The first "libertos" (children of slaves that were stated free at birth) worked on that kind of services, and our school system loves to show off that even on the earlier days of our country there were Free-Birth laws. Of course, they always forget to tell you that Ethics has nothing to do with (just laws against Free-Trade).

The cookies where supposed, originally, to portrait them. They were at first offered around National holidays, like our nations Birthday or our Independence Day. But just like many other holiday-related stuff, now they're everyday treats.

And as every bakery wants to has a different one, there are variants. The oned on the picture have a bone (not a bow) over their head, as if they were from a primitive tribe; some other have big "earrings" made of sugared almonds, some have a red cookie as a nose, and so on.

I think it could be considered as a "racially insensitive tradition". Some weeks ago I've read on a local newspaper that some posh bakeries on "touristy" neighborhoods in Buenos Aires are changing the treats to "Mimos" (mimes) by using only white chocolate on the decoration because of complaints if their patrons.

I guess nobody cares if a mime get chomped!

July 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTeresa

Hi Nookleerman, guess you didn't read my post with any attention beyond satisfying your strawman inclinations.

I didn't say that black people are somehow a priori unattractive, I said that in the western world--a world dominated in population by white people--white features are considered more attractive than black features. this is not to say that *no* black people have ever been considered attractive in the western world, but it seems pretty obvious that certain "whiter" characteristics dominate the western concept of beauty. if you can't concede that whites have, generally speaking, different and identifiable features than blacks or asians do, then we probably can't discuss the issue with any probity. blacks have certainly interbred more since the civil way southern days and are less "black" than they once were, but there are still stereotypically cognizable features to the different races. even if you were right and there were no correlation between skin color and certain features anymore, there is still a public perception that phenotypical distinctions exist, and thus people get upset when certain "black features are played up. for instance, big lips on blacks are always "racist," but wide ears on george bush never are. why not? not all white people have wide, ape-ish ears. the difference is that one feature is deemed "uglier" in the western world, and thus to depict someone or to connect a race with that feature, even if it is on balance just as justified as connecting the white race with wide, goofy looking ears, is worse.

the point is that exaggerating black features is racist because it emphasizes that black people are more connected with certain features that are less attractive to the western hegemony. if you don't accept that, even now after much racial mixing, that white people, asian people, black people, etc, have certain features that are *generally* more predominant within the race that without, we just can't have the conversation. you must think that it's just random that all the racists out there seize, independent of each other, on the same features to exaggerate when they caricature black people. what an odd non-mathematical world you live in then.

July 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Nothing's as mean as giving a little child something useful for Christmas. ~Kin Hubbard

September 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterYan Naing

Oh my god!!! I just look at the "africanitos" and want to run to the bakery. They are ridiculous, but sooooooooooo tasty!!! and the gum bow and gum lips really closes the deal. The best ones are made of chocolate mousse and a heart of dulce de leche (like the caramel filling on Milky Ways)
LOL!

October 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDee Dee

I know I'm several months late to comment, I just discovered the blog (which I love, btw), I just wanted to say that I live in Argentina (for the past 15 years), and I have NEVER seen the "africanitos" at any bakeries, so I'm guessing Megan found some kind of KKK bakery!

March 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Another several-months-later poster here.. I recently discovered the blog, really like it, read the archives, etcetera. I'm also Dutch and grew up with the Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet tradition. Like a lot of other people have already stated, Saint Nicholas was originally a bishop from Turkey. I don't know why he was dislocated to Spain, but it is very probable that Saint Nicholas' helpers (considering the original backstory, I don't think they were slaves in the beginning, but later on that might well have been the case, considering Dutch slavery history) were Moors and/or Arabs, thus explaining them being black. I think the 'soot' thing is, at least partly, an excuse to hush people about the racism, by saying "no no, it's okay, it's soot, Piet can be any colour under that!", but since he does come down through the chimney.. well, it's probably a combination of both. (and he doesn't wear black-sooted clothes because he'd look like a goth?)

I think it should also be noted that the American Santa Claus is actually based on Saint Nicholas, brought in by the Dutch immigrants, and changed over the years.

I have to admit, at first I was surprised at the amount of disgust some (mostly American) people displayed at seeing these cakes. But after reading all the comments, I think I understand a little bit better why seeing these horibble caricatural cakes offends so many people. Because to me, they're just some stupidly-decorated cakes I see in stores every year, and wouldn't think of buying because, well, I'm not really 'into' the Sinterklaas festivities that much. But when I look at it from an American point of view, I can see why it can be very offensive, mostly because of the 'blackface', and I do think that's offensive, although it's mostly not seen that way over here. But I would like to add that Zwarte Piet is in no way like the 'Toms' or 'Mammies' that are present in American cultural history, but I can see why one would think so, because for someone who isn't aware of the backstory of the holiday it does look like that a lot.

Now, it's a fact that the Netherlands were absolutely horrible concerning slavery and colonialising other countries back in the days. But somehow, this all got removed from our collective memories. Which is really weird when you think about it, because the Netherlands were the last country to abandon slavery, and yet no one seems to be aware of that. We've also conquered Indonesia and done horrible things there, but outside of history class, it's not mentioned anywhere.
I remember a few years ago, our Prime Minister said something about how the Dutch people needed to get back their 'Dutch East India Company (VOC)'-mentality. What he meant was that the nation should become more productive and lucrative, but since the VOC-era was the era were we sailed the earth, colonialised all possible countries, and acted like arrogant, pompous imperialists towards the native inhabitants of those countries, that statement was not received positively.

Now, I think the Dutch people should try to become a bit more aware of their own history, because we are not the open, tolerant nation we think we are, and we weren't back then. I think someone else already said Americans are a bit more aware of their cultural history concerning slavery, and therefore more sensitive around these kinds of things.

But please, everyone, do remember: this is supposed to be a light-hearted children's holiday. We are aware that there are sensitivities we have to work around, and we are constantly discussing and re-evaluating it. I’m glad to have read this discussion, because now I understand various points of view a little better.

April 11, 2010 | Unregistered CommentertheCherrytasty

Well, I'm sorry... doesn't Santa Clause use midgets who have to walk their assess off, carry heavy presents, and be nice and funny?
Isn't that racist at all? Sinterklaas is not the same as Santa Claus. Sinterklaas actually existed, he was a bishop from Turkey. Santa Claus is pure fantasy (actually I think the idea came from the Dutch who brought Sinterklaas to the States). Just because you Americans have a history with slavery, doesn't mean you have to attack other countries' traditions that you know nothing about. Sinterklaas doesn't go through the chimney.. the Zwarte Pieten do. Many Sinterklaas songs have lyrics about the 'Piets as black as soot". And... yes, they are Africans as well. Oohooo, a black person that goes through a chimney, isn't that racist??? Can Africans not be included in a tradition? They are friendly men, giving out presents, why is that racist? If they were white midgets, would it be okay? Please..

April 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Well, just in case someonse still reads these... Yes I am Dutch and yes I absolutely love this tradition. Why? Because it actually happenend like this, black people were enslaved to help the bishop and you know what? My kids know about slavery and how awful it is to treat your fellowmen like that. Who of you in the U.S.A. has ever taken the trouble to explain racism to a three-year-old? I know you're out there, bickering on "everything is possible because it's tradition" try to look at it from the positive side, because besides the horrific cakes, there is one.
Nowadays, the part played by the Piet is actually that of a cool dude, helping a bearded senile guy, because he's too old to remember anything. (And that in no way is offensive to old senile people). My children go to school in a multicultaral environment, there are actually 24 different nationalities at their school and that isn't an exception here in Holland. Actually they're half Mexican themselves and to wrap this thing up with stating this is not a racist issue: My Mexican husband paints (yes he actually has to paint himself)his face every year to keep the Dutch tradition alive.

Respect Jen, for tackling this subject, congradulitons, you did great. When will you do a Europe tour?
And because I do not want to take myself too seriously I'll send you a great wreck I actually made myself ("It was my first", she said in a defensive tone)and it is from no-one less than the old bearded senile himself: Sinterklaas!

September 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMaudy

Okay. In case anyone thinks the Caga Tio tradition is weird...

Caganer or "Sh**ter", a traditional part of the Catalan nativity scene.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caganer

September 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnneke (Mudhooks)

Part 1:

Another late poster. I read every single comment, and (as a folklorist) was fascinated by the differing points of view.

Here's my take: Humans are diurnal creatures who instinctively cleave to lightness and fear darkness. We tend therefore to portray gods and demons as shining white entities or shadowy black entities. Even Subsaharan Africans traditionally paint themselves white or black to portray divine figures, with no thought to what their own skin color is.

The Swarte Piet and St. Nicholas pair seem to have begun (to use that word loosely; there's no ultimate origin of anything) as images of light and darkness, or (in a more Christian context) of goodness and sin. Piet's name may come from the model of Jesus and St. Peter, who in medieval folklore often travel around together, with Peter as Jesus' sidekick, sometimes bumbling, sometimes worldly and tricksterish.

These medieval representations of the Black Man have nothing to do with actual human beings, or race, or people of a particular geographic origin. However, to the misfortune of African people, when international trade did begin to increase European awareness of other peoples, Africans inherited the negative connotations of blackness in the European consciousness, which made it all the easier to demonize them and to create race-based slavery, which was worse than other kinds because it uniquely dehumanized its victims.

Victoria Simmons

November 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Part 2:

But, really, as soon as Swarte Piet acquired a turban or any kind of recognizable "foreign" costume, he became "the Other" in a human sense. The stereotype associated with him, though, should be distinguished from the American history of slavery and racism. In European terms he was exotic, from "elsewhere," possibly a little threatening (because Turks and Moors were portrayed as exotic and violent and threatening), but also as magical and not necessarily bad.

Europe doesn't have America's history of slavery and racism, but it has its own history of imperialism and colonial abuses, and a racist ideology supporting those things, which culminated in 19th century ideas of racial purity, Aryanism, and eugenics, and found its tragic end in the Holocaust. And Europe still has problems with racist portrayals such as the British Golliwogs and with neo-fascist white-nativist movements. There is no way to claim that those things are completely irrelevant to the Swarte Piet figure, and indeed several Dutch people have remarked that the figure has been seen as controversial in at least some cases.

victoria simmons

November 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Part 3:

A figure such as Swarte Piet may have origins that have nothing to do with race and may serve as a lovable and positive image for children. Perhaps he should be encouraged as a holiday character, and portrayed as either a clever ethnic person or as a magical black-than-black entity, to create a positive diversity in a child's world. But no one should try to claim that he inhabits a world where race has no meaning.

But we should all be aware that the perception of Swarte Piet depends on an individual's awareness of his history, his country's history, and the history of other countries. Americans (black or otherwise) offended by him should be aware that most Netherlanders (even black ones) don't perceive him as ethnically African any more than people perceive the yellow Simpsons family as Asian. When a Dutch person says as much, perhaps we should try taking them at their word.

At the same time, we bring who we are to any new experience, and it is inevitable that we Americans should be taken aback by this custom, especially when the images of the cakes are truly indistinguishable from a long history of racist portrayals of black people in advertising, domestic artifacts, etc. This is especially the case since Americans tend to regard black-white racial tension as somehow our own special provenance and forget that it can exist elsewhere, or that race issues can have completely different nuances elsewhere.

But we shouldn't be so determined to let our own worldview determine the discourse, or to refuse to believe that what might seem shocking might have a different meaning when seen with different eyes. The cakes, however, really are awful, and they are evidence against these figures being so very innocent.

November 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Incidentally, the whole chimneysweep thing isn't arbitrary. Many of these black figures of medieval European origin are portrayed as sweeps. It accounts for their blackness and their association with fire, and helps distance them from particular ethnic identities. Hearthfires are sacred in themselves, and often have a symbolic link to the smith's fire--and blacksmiths were seen as magically powerful figures themselves. Contact with sweeps and smiths was considered lucky. Well, it was once considered lucky to rub a Negro child's head--a practice that reinforced thinking of Africans as the Other.

But don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. We should be able to examine our own traditions in light of changing beliefs and attitudes, but a people without traditions is a sad, shallow spectacle. I don't want to live in a society where popular tradition is no deeper or older than Star Wars or Star Trek.

And, you know, America actually has its own version of Swarte Piet. He is more familiarly known as Belsnickel, and more likely to be in furs or rags than blackface, but he serves the same role, and is found in traditional Pennsylvania German communities.

Thanks for the space! I've just discovered this blog and I'm obsessively making my way through it from the start! I love it!

wv: noscorn -- The attempt to understand others prior to heaping scorn.

Victoria Simmons

November 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

It is not a Christmas tradition, because Sinterklaas is on December 5th!
And it's not racism against Africans, because the costume is actually Moorish, which dates back to a time when Moors equalled 'from very far away'.

And you don't seem to realize that Sinterklaas a very strict, stern old man, basically friendly but not very approachable. It is Zwarte Piet who is friendly, funny and approachable. Toddlers still find him impressive, but kids from ages 4 up are smitten by them (and by the candy they hand out).

So if you still want to consider the character racist (some overly politically correct Dutch people in the 1980s were of the same opinion) you can doubt if it is so bad if the black person is the most loved one.

Those cakes are not normal, by the way. We have many different kinds of candy, chocolate, gingerbread made especially for Sinterklaas, but I don't think I have ever seen such cakes. The image of Zwarte Piet does of course appear on coloring books, CDs, films, televison shows, wrapping paper - anywhere.

Your comment about Zwarte Piet making Sinterklaas's robes dirty is a bit offensive, by the way. Sinterklaas would never say anything remotely like that (unless Zwarte Piet has been changing Baby Piet's diapers).

Oh, and I am not claiming that we don't have racism here in Holland - we have a huge problems with it, with a racist party currently giving government support (they're not anti-black but anti-Muslim, because our two largest racial minorities are generally muslim). Whatever you think of Zwarte Piet, you can hardly call him an equal problem for our society as the widespread hate against Muslims.

Erik Smit
http://flickr.com/eti-eti

December 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Flight of the Conchords reference?? You rock my racist world!

January 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSami

Bert buys his lipstick
at In-For-A-Pound Market.
Candy time! Soot up!

July 12, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHaiku Joy

Africancitos or Africanitos are the bomb!!! these are made of cake + dulce de leche + chocolat. yummy!!

August 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinterklaas

And where do you guys think your santaclaus is coming from? Exactly... from Sinterklaas!!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Claus

June 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMe as dutchie

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