“How can someone intelligent enough to be admitted to Northwestern… lack the tact to recognize such a racially inflammatory costume choice?” wondered fellow student Carlton Barzon. Although this event and many like it are discussed each year in the US on college campuses and in the national media, it isn’t as much of a debate as it is a public shaming. The public expresses disbelief and indignation when several white sorority sisters dress up as the all-black cast of The Cosby Show, or when members of a fraternity host a “Compton Cookout”-themed party encouraging guests to wear gold teeth and short, nappy hair or “cheap weaves in bad colors”. Individuals ignorant or insensitive enough to wear blackface in the US today are quickly, and justifiably, connected to performers in minstrel shows who blackened their faces with burnt cork and shoe polish, drew exaggerated red lips around their mouths, and wore wooly wigs to imitate racist caricatures of black Americans as lazy, dumb, and buffoonish. In a society that is continually struggling with race and a complicated past, the idea of blackface and minstrelsy is considered resolved. Blackface is hurtful and wrong, and dressing up in it is a terrible idea, US mainstream opinion dictates.
This was the simple notion two social activists were trying to convey to the public one afternoon in November 2011. Quinsy Gario and Jerry Afriyie were waiting on the arrival of a boat carrying a large group of people dressed in the type of getup most Americans would be appalled by: painted-on black skin, bright red lips, curly black-haired wigs, and dressed similar to a 17th century page. The two young activists had prepared t-shirts and banners to speak out against the practice in which these black-faced men and women arriving on shore were participating. Had Gario and Afriyie been protesting at Northwestern University’s community forum on blackface and race, their argument would have most likely been met with loud applause, nods of approval, and general praise. But they were far away from Evanston, Illinois. In fact, the men were standing in a large crowd gathered in the small port town of Dordrecht, The Netherlands. Unlike the two protestors, the rest of the crowd had come out to joyously welcome the people wearing these bright costumes and dark faces.
These were the Zwarte Pieten (Black Petes) who arrive every year in The Netherlands via steamboat for the celebration of Sinterklaas, the country’s biggest holiday. Sinterklaas, not to be confused with Santa Claus, is dressed in a red bishop’s robe and rides his white horse in a stately manner. He towers above the Zwarte Pieten who surround him dancing while tossing out candy. In the following weeks, Sinterklaas and his servants can be found across the country: in shopping malls, schools, on food packaging and in TV specials. The holiday peaks on December 5th, when the Zwarte Pieten supposedly come down the chimney to bring presents while humorous poems are exchanged among family members, friends, and colleagues.
So when Gario and Afriyie donned their “Zwarte Piet is racisme” (Black Pete is racism) t- shirts, they did not receive the general public support an American would have expected. Rather, police quickly tackled Gario to the ground, kneeled on his ribs, and then dragged him on his back into an alley where he was arrested. All this in front of young children awaiting Zwarte Piet. In the media coverage that immediately followed, it was Gario and Afriyie that were painted as the bad guys. Why disrupt a peaceful family affair? Why create problems with an innocent centuries-long children’s tradition? After all, “Sinterklaas too has rights” the police officers reminded Gario.
Why is the vast majority of the Dutch in the 21st century so comfortable openly performing blackface? Why are so many Dutch offended by, and so strongly opposed to, the idea of giving it up? In this essay, the image of Zwarte Piet is contrasted to American blackface in the context of colonial history. This allows us to better understand how the two nations frame their conversations about race.
Histories of Colonialism
Unlike the US, The Netherlands until recently has had a predominantly white population. At the end of the 16th century, the Dutch started to engage in maritime trade activities, marking the beginning of the Dutch colonial empire and introducing a black presence. However, a multiracial Netherlands is only a recent phenomenon, according to historian and Free University professor Dr. Dienke Hondius. A highly selective process of restricting access to The Netherlands, Dr. Hondius explains, had the effect of keeping out the ‘rest of the world’ from the beginning of the slave trade up until the independence of former colonies in the mid 20th century. The deliberate attempts to restrict access by the Dutch authorities during the colonial period were central to Dutch involvement in slavery and the slave trade.
The Dutch maritime trade was carried out by three important trade companies: the Vereenigd Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC), the West-Indische Compagnie (WIC) and the Middelburgsche Commercie Compagnie (MCC). The VOC traded mostly with Asian territories trafficking in spices, silk, ivory and slaves. The WIC was mostly active on the Atlantic Ocean shipping gold, sugar and slaves. Enslaved people from West-Africa were shipped to the Caribbean and the Americas, where they were mostly forced to work on plantations. Worldwide the slave trade lasted from 1519 until 1867, and during this period a total of a total of 11 to 12,5 million enslaved had been traded and shipped. An estimated thirteen percent of all the enslaved transported would not survive the transatlantic voyage. In the 18th century the slave trade came to a head and was mostly driven by British and Portugese shipments (50% and 30 % respectively). The Dutch participation in slave trade takes up 5% of the total amount of shipments in this century.
The involvement in slavery and slave trade by the Dutch lasted for more than two hundred years and was formally abolished on July 1, 1863. In stark contrast to its activities in the global slave trade, slavery on Dutch soil was forbidden in the 16th and 17th centuries. Slaves who were brought along by their masters were technically free persons. However, their legal status remained uncertain as the Dutch authorities were hesitant to grant them full residency. An illustrative example is the arrival of a captain with a ship full of enslaved Africans in Zeeland, a Dutch coastal province, in 1596. Local authorities decided to liberate them. The national government, however, overruled this and allowed the captain to do with the slaves as he saw fit as long as it was not on Dutch soil.
As Dr. Hondius explains, “The history of slavery and slave trade thus becomes situated outside Europe, as an element of African, Caribbean or American history.” With this ‘free soil principle’ a geographic boundary was drawn. “It kept the visible realities of the slave trade away from The Netherlands. This crucial separation was helpful in further ignoring the role of Dutch trading companies in the transatlantic trade of slaves”. However, enslaved people were brought along with their masters to The Netherlands. In order to prevent these slaves from becoming free and residing in The Netherlands, a new law was passed in the 18th century: ‘Regarding the Freedom of Negro and other Slaves, who are brought or sent over from the Colonies of the State to these Lands.’ This law proclaimed that enslaved people would no longer become free persons upon arrival in The Netherlands. In the early 19th century, more laws and regulations were constructed to limit enslaved people from the colonies to travel to The Netherlands. Numerous decisions and rules were developed to actively obstruct migration to The Netherlands. “Subsequently, the legal travel of enslaved women and men to Europe became exceptional,” Dr. Hondius says.
In contrast to the Dutch experience, slavery in the US was an explicit system, embedded in every aspect of life. The first ship with slaves arrived in 1619, when a Dutch vessel brought slaves to the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia. In the 17th and 18th centuries slavery spread through the American colonies. An estimated 645,000 enslaved people were shipped to what is today the United States. By the 1860s, the slave population in the United States had increased up to four million people. Slaves mainly worked on tobacco, rice, and indigo plantations on the southern coast. This chattel slavery, meaning ownership over a human body and his or her descendants, came to an end in 1865 following the American Civil War. In fact, the war itself – the bloodiest on US soil – was a result of, among other reasons, the national debate surrounding slavery. Although the Civil War did end chattel slavery, the legacy of slavery continued to influence American society and racial tensions, ranging from institutionalized segregation to brutal lynching.
The absence of slavery activities and enslaved people on Dutch soil is reflected in the way the Dutch merchants discussed their engagements. They referred to themselves as ‘share holders,’ merely claiming “I have some shares in sugar” or “I am a coffee trader.” By naming only the products, the slave labor itself was made implicit. “But there is a connection between the product and the slave labor that produced it,” Dr. Hondius stresses. This distanced terminology leads to a “reframing of history”. Since the experience of slavery in the US was so explicit and public, the language used to describe these practices of fundamental exploitation also contains more direct phrasing. Rather than referring to the products or kind of investment, owners of plantations did call themselves slave owners. Both The Netherlands and the US perceived enslaved people as chattel, but the Americans proudly held on to their dehumanized possessions whereas Dutch merchants passed the blame onto others, portraying themselves solely as financial investors.
These different experiences of slavery, and the deliberate attempts by Dutch political leaders to refrain slavery activities from Dutch soil, create a kind of amnesia about their slavery past and blindness to present-day racial issues for Dutch citizens. This amnesia started already back when merchants were slave owners whilst practicing a detached idiom to describe their engagements. This is in opposition to the American experience of colonialism and slavery and its legacy. Directly after the abolishment of slavery the former slaves were still present and continued to be part of the American society. This created social and racial tensions and it continues to be a sensitive issue. On the contrary, Suriname, one of the former colonies of The Netherlands, only gained independence in the mid-1970s. Consequently, the Dutch did not experience the difficult transition from a society with a racial master-slave structure to a society with more emancipated people of color.
While gaining independence, inhabitants of Suriname for a short while had full citizenship rights in The Netherlands, which they can use to legally work and live in the former ‘motherland.’ When the people from Suriname arrived in The Netherlands, Dutch society had already forgotten about their exploitative past and could not link the difficulties experienced by the descendants from slaves to the historical and systematic patterns of inequality, subordination, and discrimination. Moreover, the Dutch still appear unable to identify the historical tracks of colonial ideology and the accompanying sense of superiority in their own modes of thought. Due to this absence of awareness, it is possible that colonial mentality continues to seep through in discussions of colonialism, discrimination, and racism.
Absence of Colonial Awareness
In 2006, former Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende uttered the following words with great pride: “Let us be optimistic! Let us say, ‘It is possible again in The Netherlands!’ That VOC mentality: looking across borders with dynamism!” In an attempt to encourage a similar entrepreneurial and commercial spirit ascribed to the 17th century, Balkenende completely overlooked the other side of the story, the enormous share in slave trade. Yet, this was not just some unfortunate statement of a politician. Placing emphasis on purely the economic prosperity of this era, euphemistically referred to as the “Golden Age,” is in line with the common Dutch image of this period. This picture completely ignores the way in which the Dutch gained their wealth and their leading position in the world: by the use of warfare and forced labor.
Balkenende’s words serve as a grim illustration of how both slavery and colonial history have not been worked through at all in The Netherlands. For centuries, a one-sided narrative was presented in the media, history textbooks, and the public debate, contributing to a lack of knowledge and awareness on this topic. Glorification of Dutch mercantilism was emphasized strongly while the suffering of slaves, as well as Dutch responsibility, were barely questioned and often neglected. As a result, the ‘dark pages’ of Dutch history have been, in Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison’s words, “violently disremembered.” Colonialism was simply not put on the Dutch radar and, as a result, it never became “a taboo or a black hole,” as historian Gert Oostindie explains.
This “disremembered” past stems from the fact that both slavery and colonial history were both kept out of sight and out of mind until recent times, much the way these repressive practices itself had always been kept detached from Dutch soil. This slowly started to change after World War II when migrants from former colonies began to arrive in The Netherlands. These descendants of slaves started to raise questions for the Dutch that had previously gone unasked, forcing the recognition of the colonial past within the dominant white Dutch community for the first time.
It was only in the 21st century, though, that Dutch culpability started to be acknowledged in public. A national monument to Dutch slavery was unveiled, apologies were expressed, and a National Institute of Slavery History and Heritage was set up to put the topic more in the spotlight. No longer could the romanticized image of the colonial past be completely upheld, but the increasing visibility of the Dutch colonial past did reveal a paradox of how to deal with this part of history. Take, for example, the fact that a few months before a monument condemning the participation of the WIC in the slave trade was unveiled in Amsterdam, the city celebrated the founding of the VOC as the first multi-national without acknowledging its involvement in slave trade. Here you have, side by side, a simultaneous embrace and reproach of the Dutch “Golden Age”, making the monument against the WIC look like a hollow gesture. Thus, despite some efforts, a sincere acknowledgement continued to be problematic.
Nonetheless, the slavery and colonial past has been receiving more attention in recent years, which is reflected in the relative prominent part it takes in the historical canon initiated by the Dutch government. This initiative marked a first step in partially ending, according to Oostindie, “narrow Eurocentrism” in the public sphere. Yet the topic continues to serve as a marginalized part of history. A few annual commemorations are held, such as the one on July 1st that celebrates the abolishment of slavery. However, these events are mainly attended by descendants from former slave countries and the turn-out stands in sharp contrast with the national remembrance day held at May 4th to commemorate the victims of the Second World War. This event does receive vast media attention every year and is always attended by the Royal family and many government officials.
So what can help explain this absence of colonial awareness? During the colonial era, the Dutch authorities deliberately and successfully erased the exploitive character of their activities from the national consciousness. This resulted in a general mindset that can be illustrated by a statement made by acclaimed Dutch sociologist J.A.A. van Doorn. Referring to the period of Dutch history after Indonesia gained independence in 1949, van Doorn claimed, “The Netherlands reverted to being a ￼￼small country on the North Sea with a few, insignificant territories in the Americas.” This general indifference with the islands in the Caribbean that were once conquered by the Dutch has led to the dramatic state of affairs that these autonomous countries and municipalities cannot even be found on present-day maps of the Kingdom of The Netherlands.
Ironically, the United States faces similar problems dealing with its past. Domestic slavery and international colonialism have become conflated into one broad problem. As the US moved away from slavery by outlawing importation of slaves, then emancipating them, and eventually moving towards the Civil Rights Movement, Americans have assumed a false sense of accomplishment. The US is viewed as having moved beyond the “Negro Problem” and the “White Man’s Burden.” And yet, present-day US unincorporated territories are eerily reminiscent of colonialism. In fact, the UN Special Committee on Decolonization recently called on the US to expedite the process of allowing Puerto Rico to move towards self-determination. And, the way many Dutch maps omit the Caribbean parts of the Kingdom such as Aruba, Curacao, and Sint Maarten, most Americans do not think to point to American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, or the US Virgin Islands when discussing US territory beyond the 48 contiguous states.
As both countries struggle with various racial issues domestically, the conversations on modern implications of colonialism are often lost. The great inability of the Dutch to come to terms with its colonial past explains the problematic way they deal with present-day racism. Or, in the words of cultural critic and media analyst Flavia Dzodan: “How can we metaphorically map these racial issues when the very presence of the colonial other is still absent from the entire discussion?”
Envision this: It’s just a regular day at work. You’re standing next to the coffee machine, talking with a few clients. At some point in the conversation your colleague, jokingly, refers to you asZwarte Piet. Now, mind you, you’re a 65-year old woman with grey hair, no-extravagant lipstick nor jewelry. Hence, you look nothing like Zwarte Piet besides the color of your skin.
This form of racial stereotyping is, in Dzodan’s words, a “systemic situation that goes beyond an individual calling names.” That is, the stereotypical representation of dark-skinned people is reflected in structural forms of discrimination and inequality. Take, for example, the disproportional difference in unemployment rate between Dutch citizens of mixed Afro-Caribbean heritage and white Dutch, respectively 27 percent versus 6.9 percent. These unemployment figures clearly show that there is more to calling a colored person Zwarte Pietthan just one single person feeling offended. Having this example in mind, does the Sinterklaasand Zwarte Piet holiday still seem like an innocent children’s holiday?
Yet, the Dutch continue to dress up in blackface. How can this overtly racist practice be carried out so comfortably despite the obvious negative consequences? Looking back at the way they denied their own colonial activities, it is evident that the Dutch people have never been able to face the inherent unequal reality they themselves have created. This unequal relation is reinforced in the master-slave relation between Sinterklaas and his servants Zwarte Pieten as it is celebrated today. Because the Dutch have never learned to reflect and talk about their colonial past, they have never developed a vocabulary to discuss inequality and racism in present-day society. This attitude stands in sharp contrast with the consequences of the emancipation movement of people of color in the U.S. Despite the fact that segregation and structural racism also existed on U.S. territory, the struggle for political and civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s played out in the public domain, ensuring that U.S. citizens could not overlook or ignore these issues. It also provided people in the US with language tools to discuss these issues. The Dutch did not experience a similar degree of consciousness when it came to issues of racism, as there were very few black people present until the mid-1970s when Suriname gained independence. Therefore Dutch citizens continue to suffer from widespread racial blindness.
A clear example of this is the offensive and derogatory painting on the Golden Carriage of the Dutch Queen. Emblazoned on the side of the carriage is a painting called “Tribute of the Colonies,” depicting dark-skinned slaves in a submissive position offering goods to white elites. Although in the U.S. people would probably consider this an obvious portrayal of racism, for a Dutch person it simply does not make sense to connect a grim picture of the colonial past to present-day racism. This illustrates the reoccurring paradox of the Dutch in relation to their past, or as expressed by Dzodan: “A culture cannot consider itself simultaneously superior and deeply flawed in terms of racism”.
If the Dutch cannot talk about racism, how do they then respond to accusations of racism? According to Quinsy Gario, the social activist arrested for wearing the “Zwarte Piet is racisme” t- shirt, discussions on racism evoke a Pavlovian reaction. The supposedly tolerant Dutch automatically dismiss the possibility of participating in racist acts. There is an unconscious reflex that makes a very rigid distinction between black and white – there is no grey zone in which pointing out racist acts can be seen separately from calling someone a racist. Because the Dutch perceive themselves as tolerant, they cannot be racist, and therefore racist acts do not exist. In this context, the Dutch feel the only way to perform a racist act is to intend for it to be racist; i.e. you cannot accidentally be racist.
Zwarte Piet‘s Origins Disclosed
People who want to preserve Sinterklaas in its current form claim that the Zwarte Piet figure is not racist. Over time, he has transformed from a racist caricature of north Africans to “a family-friendly holiday icon on par with Sinterklaas,” in the words of Jan van Wijk, president the Sint Nicolaas Genootschap Nederland – an organization fighting to get Sinterklaas on the UNESCO Heritage List. Arguments like this seem to imply that the Dutch have moved past race, and that the critics attempting to connect Zwarte Piet to traditional blackface are the ones who move the conversation backwards.
However, ignoring the history and blackness of Zwarte Piet does not change the racial context in which the figure originated and has developed ever since. Historically Zwarte Piet has been a reflection of racial biases and political developments from the colonial period onwards. The figure has always been historically fluid and ever-changing. For example, though the myth ofZwarte Piet dates back many centuries, it was not until the mid-19th century amidst talks of abolition that he was introduced in the classroom as an educational tool to scare children into behaving well. While dark- skinned slaves were freed, Zwarte Piet continued to reflect the colonial ideology of the superiority of whiteness. At the time, Zwarte Piet was depicted as a black-skinned mean and violent servant. Within the next several decades his image was influenced heavily by African and Caribbean sailors who arrived in the Dutch ports as part of the personnel participating in the trans-Atlantic trade. The bags of spices, chocolate, and other goods that these brown-skinned sailors carried through the ports became the same sacks thatZwarte Piet would carry into the homes of children to distribute these goods as presents. Thus, the trans-Atlantic trade and black bodies became directly linked to the Zwarte Piet figure in this time frame. By the 1960s, when it became socially unacceptable to physically punish children for misbehavior, Zwarte Piet shifted from one stereotypical caricature to another – from an angry and scary servant to the childish, simple buffoon who spoke with a fake Surinamese accent and poor Dutch grammar. As cultural sensitivities grew in the 1980s and 1990s as a result of protests from people from the former colonies, Zwarte Piet lost his big, bright red lips and golden earrings in an attempt to make the figure less offensive.
Due these changes some argue the present-day Zwarte Piet figure is not racist. Rather, as Jan van Wijk explains, Zwarte Piet is no longer depicted as an angry and scary servant. He andSinterklaas are now best friends standing in an equal relationship with each other. Proponents of the Zwarte Piet figure, like Jan van Wijk and his colleagues, miss the point that Zwarte Piet still remains to be depicted as inferior to his white master, precisely because the figure stems from the colonial period and wears a costume that was worn by enslaved servants. The concept ofZwarte Piet evolved simultaneously with the way race is perceived at any given point in time. Critics who claim that the figure is not inherently connected to racism obviously miss this point. The figure has not lost its connections to the colonial period and as such the celebration ofZwarte Piet and dressing up like one implies the constant enactment of colonial ideology. But what should be perceived as even more plainly racist is the fact that Zwarte Piet is always a black man with an ‘Afro wig’ and Sinterklaas is always a white superior. As long as Zwarte Piet is forced to be a black person, the argument that the Sinterklaas celebration has moved on past race is simply a farce.
One example that vividly illustrates how integrated race and Zwarte Piet are, is when the national broadcasting station tried to integrate a “Rainbow Pete” initiative in 2006. Although the curly hair and clothing style remained the same, the skin color was simply changed to various colors of orange, blue, purple, etc. This created a strong backlash from the Dutch community, with many people calling in to the station and complaining on the internet. If Zwarte Piet is not directly tied to his race, then why was there such an angry public outcry? If this were merely about a children’s holiday, then why couldn’t Dutch children enjoy a multi-colored Zwarte Piet? According to the mainstream Dutch self-image of being a tolerant and accepting community, why would it be so challenging to accept a more inclusive celebration of Sinterklaas?
In fact, the Rainbow Pete initiative has gained relatively more acceptance in other parts of the world. On the islands in the Carribean part of the Dutch Kingdom, Sinterklaas is also celebrated. The predominantly black community celebrates the holiday using both multi-colored Petes and traditional Zwarte Pieten in blackface. According to anthropologist Francio Guadeloupe from the University of Amsterdam, this mixture of colors and traditions was not a result of fierce resistance to the racial aspects of the figure, but rather a willingness to adapt the figure of Zwarte Piet and make him their own. By incorporating various colors alongside traditional black paint, and additionally using their own music mixed with Sinterklaas songs, the locals participate in a process of what Guadeloupe calls “coproduction.” Through this process, the celebration transformed from an imported colonial tradition to a holiday that has gained meaning for the local community themselves. By internalizing the practice it became a significant part of the cultural identity of a large part of their community, although also within this community the figure of the black faced Zwarte Piet continues to be contested.
Inciting Racial Consciousness
Although it has become more controversial in recent times, Sinterklaas is clearly a Dutch tradition enjoyed by many in The Netherlands. However troubled and complicated its origins may be, it has become a holiday that is deeply ingrained in the country’s culture and continues to be wildly popular year after year. Thus, many of Zwarte Piet’s fans questioned why someone like Quinsy Gario and Jerry Afriyie would attack these cultural icons and, by association, attack the thousands of people who enjoy celebrating Sinterklaas. But the fact is that those two protestors, and many like-minded folks who have joined the “Zwarte Piet is racisme” campaign since then, were not trying to do anything but simply start a conversation. After all, what better way to get people thinking critically about Sinterklaas than to open up a national dialogue on the topic? The practice of dressing up in blackface, seen by many as the personification of centuries of racism and oppression, is not only openly welcomed by many in The Netherlands, but vigorously defended. Studying the history of Dutch colonialism and the intricacies of contemporary race relations certainly gives us some insight into how and why Sinterklaas came to be so popular, but it doesn’t provide us with the full answer. For that, one must turn to the Dutch themselves. And this is what the “Black Pete is racism” campaign aims to do. To get the defenders of Zwarte Piet to turn to each other and ask, “Who is this character, and why are we so opposed to letting him go?”
As discussions unfold on television programs, in newspaper columns, and at the kitchen table, the various pieces of the Sinterklaas puzzle will begin to be connected at last. And as focus shifts from the annual parades and festive decorations to the problematic reality of the holiday, the Dutch should start to recognize the cruelties connected with this tradition. When the meanness ofZwarte Piet is brought up, one popular retort is that it is a family holiday, and one person getting his or her feelings hurt shouldn’t justify ruining everyone’s fun. By now it should be obvious that when someone, whether they are a person of color or white, talks about being hurt by this tradition, they are not referring only to their own personal experience. They are drawing upon a history of exclusion and oppression that dates back several centuries that still influences present-day issues of racial inequality and segregation. So when a middle-aged woman with gray hair is jokingly called Zwarte Piet by a colleague at work, the situation doesn’t invoke a family friendly celebration. Instead, it illustrates how strong the link is between this historically problematic figure and the dark skin of any black Dutch citizen, regardless of age, gender, or social status.
Thus, when Quinsy Gario wore his t-shirt to the parade in Dordrecht, he wasn’t whining about having his feelings hurt. Nor was he complaining about the hurt feelings of the woman described above. Rather, Gario was criticizing a practice that is built upon a history of hurting and offending a specific group of people. As the national Dutch conversation on Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pietgrows, and as voices that were silenced in the past continue to get louder, the connection between past wrongs and present traditions will grow clearer. It’s about time the Dutch public associates Zwarte Piet’s bright red lips, wooly wig, and black-painted face with its bloodied colonial past and current racial injustices, similar to how blackface Halloween costumes invoke images of minstrelsy and racial oppression in the US.
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