• Thu, Oct 24 2013

Meet The Lovely People Who Support Blackface For Christmas

Photo: Shutterstock

Photo: Shutterstock

Nothing says “Merry Christmas” quite like racism!

A popular Facebook page is determined to uphold the longstanding Dutch tradition of wearing blackface for Christmas celebrations. Zwarte Piet, or “Black Pete,” is Santa’s helper in Dutch folklore, and while the character began in the 1700s as a demonic servant, nowadays he’s pretty much just Santa’s bud. Santa’s… black bud. Who’s only ever been portrayed by white people.

Holiday celebrations in the Netherlands have featured white people in blackface and afro wigs for decades, but many fans of Black Pete are insistent that the tradition isn’t harmful. Errr.

In 2009, Victoria’s Secret model Doutzen Kroes was ridiculed for stating that Zwarte Piet makes her feel ashamed of being Dutch. “I just think… these Black Petes… it’s outdated, isn’t it? Try explaining it to a black person from Jamaica,” reads a translation of her TV interview.

Verene Shepherd, a chairwoman for a U.N. Human Rights Commission, spoke about the tradition on a Dutch TV show this Tuesday: “The working group does not understand why it is that people in the Netherlands cannot see that this is a throwback to slavery,” said Shepherd. “In the 21st century, this practice should stop.”

But most members of the Facebook petition believe the tradition is too old to be contributing to modern-day racism, and that the criticism is making a big deal out of nothing. One member writes, “Message for the U.N.: Isn’t there a war somewhere, starvation or genocide going on that you could better be concerned about?”

It’s understandable that a country made up almost entirely European decedents would be reluctant to 86 a tradition that, to their knowledge, does not negatively affect its own citizens. But the entire history of blackface is comprised of mocking, belittling, and dehumanizing black people. Racism is alive and thriving today, and blackface can still cause considerable distress to real people.

It’s really, really easy to not do blackface. Lots of us don’t do blackface every day of our lives.

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  • Samantha_Escobar

    It’s true: lots of us literally do not do blackface every single day. It is hard, but we make it.

  • cvxxx

    Too much political correctness.

    • CrazyLogic

      Is that the symbol of the Tannith First and Only, also known as the Gaunt’s Ghosts, I see as your avatar?

    • cvxxx

      Warhammer 40 000!

    • CrazyLogic

      Where Heresy and Xenos go Blam!

      I’m just starting Ghosts, but I’ve read every thing Ciaphas Cain short of that limited release novella.

  • http://www.pennyforyourshoes.com/ Daisy

    Maybe you should get your facts straight. First of all, Zwarte Piet has nothing to do with Christmas. It’s part of the celebration of Sinterklaas (in Holland on the 5th of December, in Belgium on the 6th), a patron saint of children who brings all the kids toys and candy if they have behaved well all year. Next up: Zwarte Piet is not of African descent. In fact, he’s supposed to be a helper who goes down the chimney to bring the presents (Sinterklaas, his white horse and his helpers all travel over the rooftops at night), which is why he has “blackface”. He is dirty with soot, he is not of coloured race. Everyone is making too big a deal of this, since it has absolutely NOTHING to do with racism. I would think the UN had better things to do with its time.

    • Jacob Kral

      Looking around he seems to either be a freed slave (which then should not be offensive) who helps to show thanks, or he is just covered in soot, or he is some kind of demon, forced to do good deeds.. None of those seem racist.

    • Erin

      If he comes from the chimney than why does he magically come out with an afro and giant red lips?

    • Frank Lyck

      And his clothes still clean? It is magic indeed, like everything is magic about Sinterklaas. You either shouldn’t wonder too much how a man could crawl through a chimney even in houses with central heating, or how a 1500 year old man is able to ride a horse on the roofs.
      Sinterklaas is not meant for people with rational minds. They better stay away, and leave it to the children.

  • Carolyn

    I am engaged to a Dutchman, and upon my first visit to the Netherlands I was fairly shocked and horrified by the Zwarte Piet component of Sinterklaas. I expressed this to my then boyfriend’s mother, whose best friend, a lovely and terrifying black woman by the name of Emma, proceeded to chew me out for expressing uneducated and condescending judgments on cultures different from my own. She explained that Zwarte Piet is NOT African, is black because he’s covered in soot, and that my reaction was derived from a cultural bias tied to America’s embarrassing and horrifying history with using blackface as a way to deride, subjugate, and caricaturize African Americans in popular culture. She then told me my presumption in deciding on my own what her, a black Dutchwoman, appropriate reaction should be to HER culture, not mine, was both condescending and indicative of the same racism that has made blackface in America rightfully so anathema. (Dutch people – they are typically wonderful, but they do not hesitate to tell you what they really think!). Anyways, I apologized and thought about it, and while it’s hard for me to perceive Zwarte Piet from outside my cultural prism of American concepts of offensive and non-offensive behavior, I do think it’s important to at least understand the cultural context and background of Zwarte Piet and really any other culture’s traditions before we jump to conclusions or judgments (as I did in assuming Zwarte Piet was intended in the same derogatory vein as American blackface) partially rooted in our own cultural perspective.

    • melancholicmess

      I have been married to a Dutchman for 12.5 years and there are still a lot of things I don’t get about this culture, including this Zwarte Piet thing. But like you said, it’s part of their culture and so we shrug it off and move on with our lives. After all, there are so many other important things to worry about.

    • Carolyn

      Exactly – I still don’t understand hagelslag! Not to mention haring, the precise etymological difference between ‘Holland’ and ‘the Netherlands’, or dear God, Ushi (for all my mantra of cultural understanding, Wendy Van Dijk in Japanese white-face and eye make-up costume pretending to be an obnoxious and nearly incomprehensible Japanese TV interviewer still makes my inner American cringe and scream “OFFENSIVE!”). My fiancé is also still occasionally adorably confounded by some American cultural things, like Labor Day or men out in public without hair-gel or Suburbans or To-Go boxes from restaurants. You’re right, though, there are more important happy things to dwell on, and so many other important issues to concentrate on of far more societal impact or relevance than Zwarte Piet (whose main purpose in Dutch culture from what I can tell is really just to sell large amounts of cheap chocolate around Sinterklaas).