Export cultural sensitivities, or keep them to ourselves?

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Last weekend was Sinterklaas in the Low Countries.  I can hardly explain why a thinner version of Santa Claus would want to takes off from sunny Spain to the cold and wet Netherlands by boat while dressed like the Pope, then once transferred on horseback, manages to deliver presents to adoring Dutch children and adults alike.  Long story short, Sinterklaas and all the gift-giving activities take place beginning of December, whereas Christmas is de-coupled from more shopping, and is celebrated without too much more fuss.

Sint does not come alone, but with helpers.  Not with elves, because that would just be too silly.  They are called Zwarte Pieten, or, black Piets.  Which in a country as white as the Netherlands, means scores of blonde children would cover their faces and hands in black paint.  It’s all good and well for the happy-go-lucky Dutchies, but make any racially aware outsiders perk up.  In a recent gathering with Dutch and non-Dutch alike, a Canadian compatriot asked tentatively (and I suspect fully aware of the answer but curious of the response nonetheless): “are Zwarte Piets black because they are, umm, African, or because they get dirty from climbing down chimneys?”

The answer is of course the latter.  But our Dutch friends’ cheery answers clearly reflect the lack of awareness, that, its history as one of the pre-eminent slave trading countries in Europe back in the days has largely escaped public consciousness, along with the ironies and cultural sub-contexts of “black helpers”.

A few years ago, the name of a popular chocolate-covered marshmallow teacake made headlines in the Netherlands.  In the US, they are marketed as Mallomars; in Canada, chocolate puffs. But over here on the Continent, they were sold under various names that translated to “negro kisses” in English (Negerkys in Danish, Negerkuss in German,  Negerzoenen in Dutch, and most hilarious of them all, Negerinnentetten, or negress tits, in good old Flemish).

The Germans and French were somehow hit on the head with political correctness circa 2006, and moved to force name changes on those products in quick succession. The Dutch Foundation of the Victims of Slavery picked up on the wind of change, and demanded similar re-branding campaigns by the original manufacturers. The industry resisted the change at first, citing potential drop in sales if consumers can no longer recognize a name that’s been around since the 1920s.

The business eventually relented, and the product is now sold under the name Zoenen, or, simply, Kisses.  An outpour of public outrage soon followed, dismayed by the change, and demonstrating a clear preference to preserve history at the expense of political correctness, or, progress, depending on how you look at it.  The general consensus seemed to be (turn on Google translation if you are curious at what the comments say): if 86 years of negro kisses haven’t offended anyone, why should it start now?  The obvious flaw in the argument? A willingness to overlook the myriad of cultural, social, and political shifts that separate the world of the 1920s, and the world of today.

Back in October, American celebrity Harry Connick Jr. landed himself a special guest spot on a long-running reunion version of an Australian variety show, Hey Hey It’s Saturday.  So far so good.  Until a comedy troupe introduced as the Jackson Jive (like the Jackson Five, get it?) came onto the stage. In blackface. Uh-oh.

I can just picture the initial confusion, annoyance, sudden realization of what was happening in front of him, more annoyance, then the obligatory outrage that raced through his head.  The Australian judge before Connick Jr gave the group a 7, “I thought you were very cute.”  A not-amused Connick Jr marked the group zero, and said caustically, “Man, if they turned up looking like that in the United States, it’d be Hey Hey There’s No More Show.”

But that’s exactly the point.  He was not in the United States.  Clearly, the Australians, just like the Dutch, as the governors of their own traditions and social codes, have the right to not be offended by what might or might not be offensive to outsiders.  Let’s face it, foreigners like me, or Harry Connick Jr, do not run those countries, and have considerably less stake in the future progress of these places than its own inhabitants.  And if the majority of Australians and Dutch deem donning blackfaces acceptable without riots, and if they consider it unnecessary to undergo the same political white-washing as their North American counterparts, who are we to tell them otherwise?

So should cultural sensitivities be equalized across cultures?  And does anyone have the right to unleash their own cultural barometer onto unsuspecting third parties that do not share similar histories, prejudices, and social baggage? Probably not.  But does that mean we should unconditionally surrender all of our cultural conditionings and do as the Romans do, when in Rome?  I doubt that very much.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the example of an unbridgeable culture gap.

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