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Dutch Zwarte Piet reignites blackface debate

Uta Steinwehr
November 16, 2019

As the Netherlands celebrates the arrival of Sinterklaas, it's the man who follows him who is again receiving close attention. Many question the place of blackface and bigoted costumes in Europe in the 21st century.

Rassismus l Blackfacing - Demonstration in Amsterdam, Niederlande
Image: Imago/Paulo Amorim

When Sinterklaas — or Saint Nicholas — descends on cities and towns across the Netherlands this weekend for annual street parades, protests will be inevitable. Not because locals object to the tradition of honoring a Christian saint with a long, white beard. What people find increasingly hard to stomach are Sinterklaas' helpers, known as Zwarte Pieten, or Black Petes, who are played by white people in full blackface, wearing bright red lipstick, colorful hats, wide trousers, Afro-style wigs and large gold earrings.

Black people in the Netherlands call Black Pete a racist caricature. And that is why they want to see the character changed — or scrapped entirely. Others insist there is nothing wrong with the Black Pete character.

This year, Dutch television will no longer feature Black Pete characters in full blackface but instead ones with just a few dark smudges to represent soot. The idea being that the character's face has become dirty from all the chimneys he has climbed down to deliver presents. A few Dutch cities and towns have already adopted the Sooty Pete character for their parades, yet traditionalists have called the change unnecessary.  

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet in Amsterdam in 201
When Sinterklaas arrives in the Netherlands this year, Zwarte Piet will not wear complete blackfaceImage: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/R. Arroyo Fernandez

Why blackface is racist

While the Black Pete character's roots in the enslavement of Dutch colonial subjects are disputed, it is not disputed that Black Pete is a prime example of blackfacing — the practice of white people painting their skin dark and playing a stereotypical caricature of black people. 

Read more: Black Pete: tradition or 'throwback to slavery'?

Blackface emerged in the 19th century with so-called US minstrel shows. White actors would put on blackface and lipstick and play exaggerated and insulting depictions of black slaves. They would typically portray black people as dimwitted and naive, occasionally malicious, but always jovial individuals. The subtext of these depictions was that slavery really was not such a bad thing. Blackface later became common in movies as well.

But many see the practice of white people painting their face black or brown problematic for several reasons. Tahir Della of the Initiative of Black People in Germany (ISD) told DW blackface "reduces black people to a skin color or to stereotypical features like [curly-haired] wigs, ear or nose rings." He told DW, "Everyone should think about if this is how they would want be portrayed in ads or at street parades."  

An actor in blackface in a 1930 film
US minstrel shows have been widely denounced as racist and derogatory Image: Getty Images/Hulton Archive/K. Alexander

The other problem with blackface is that it reproduces "racist fantasies," Della said. He added that it is essential to recognize that the practice goes back to "the era of European colonialism, which gave rise to racist stereotypes." 

Della said he is not satisfied with the Netherlands transforming Black Pete into Sooty Pete. He said this does not go far enough, adding that "the whole situation, the story behind it, is racist – not just the character itself." In his view, the fact that Sooty Pete still wears the same clothing and wig and that the character remains a subservient helper, means he remains a racist caricature.

"The story itself is unchanged and that brings no improvement whatsoever," Della said. "On the contrary, it stifles debate."

Blackface not unique to the Netherlands

Blackface is not unique to the Netherlands. Each year during Germany's Carnival season, individuals dress up as "barbaric Africans," donning grass skirts and wigs. At Belgium's Giants of Ath festival, it's common to see white people paint their faces dark, wear (fake) nose-rings and feather crowns, playing unruly "savages" who scare children. Critics have pointed out this practice makes light Belgium's brutal colonial history.

Germany's so-called Epiphany singers also spark an annual controversy. Children dressed as the Three Kings walk from house to house between Christmas and early January, singing, blessing households and collecting donations for charity. Some children's faces are painted black as part of their costumes.

Chancellor Angela Merkel with children dressed in Epiphans singer costumes in January 2019
Germany's Chancellery has made a point of not including children with blackface in photos of Epiphany singers Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

Robert Baumann of the Star Singer Association of the Holy Childhood insisted this has nothing to do with blackfacing and that no one is forced to paint the faces. He said the children are dressing up as kings from Europe, Asia and Africa and added that artistic depictions of the Epiphany have featured a black king representing the African continent since the 8th century.

Former German President Joachim Gauck also said not all coloring of a person's face is the same a blackfacing. He said people's decisions to color their skin for a theater production, for example, are not automatically an act of discrimination.

"What matters is what role this black person plays," he said.

Gauck added that someone playing Shakespeare's Othello, for example, should not be deemed racist or equated with "something as obviously racist as US minstrel shows from 150 years ago."

Tahir Della, meanwhile, said he is "almost amused" when white people complain about political correctness limiting what they can do or say, particularly when it comes to blackface.

But according to Della, in reality, people are free to do or say what they please, including when others regard it as discriminatory or offensive. Even so, he added, no one would consider wearing an anti-Semitic costume inspired by Germany's Nazi past in a German Carnival parade. Likewise, he said, many black people have perceived blackface to be racist for a long time but simply "have not been heard."

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