Why the Dutch Holiday Tradition of Blackface Won't Go Away

Every year, Dutch and Belgian people celebrate Christmas by donning blackface, despite increasing outcry over the practice.

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Dec 21 2016, 6:50pm

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Blackface and minstrel shows have largely been deemed unacceptable and racist by most. But while instances of blackface make headlines in North America (usually in the form of a celebrity dressing up as a black person and subsequently apologizing), in some parts of Europe the practice is considered a holiday tradition linked with cultural identity. In the Netherlands and Belgium, the annual return of Sinterklaas (a white-bearded figure similar to Saint Nicholas) and his sidekick Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) means December turns into a battleground between those fighting racism and those who view the donning of blackface as a harmless tradition.

The story of Sinterklaas is not unlike that of Santa Claus in North America, except that instead of a troupe of industrious elves and a fleet of flying reindeer, Sinterklaas delivers his presents with the help of Black Pete. And just as Santa Claus gives coal to children who have been naughty, Black Pete takes bad children away to Spain, where he's from. Although Black Pete is depicted as a black man with dark skin, curly hair, and full red lips, he is only ever portrayed by a white person in blackface.

When Black Pete was introduced in 1850, he was described as being a Moor from Spain, which is where the minstrel makeup came into play originally. However, in an attempt to distance themselves from their beloved holiday character's blatantly racist origins, some of the white people who dress up as Black Pete now claim the dark makeup they use is supposed to represent the soot that covers him as he goes down the chimney. But while his origin story has changed, the black minstrel makeup has not, and it remains largely unchallenged by the country's people over the years; both liberal and conservative proponents justify the practice using everything from "it's not racist" to "it's tradition." Activists believe the issue has more to do with people in the Netherlands and Belgium ignoring their colonial legacies. By confronting Black Pete, they also must confront their violent colonial pasts in the process.

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In 2011, poet, writer, and activist Quinsy Gario saw himself at the forefront of the most recent resistance against Black Pete—appearing in international media and even getting arrested at protests. Speaking to Broadly, he explains his activism began shortly after his mother told him that a colleague of hers had called her Black Pete. "I heard the pain in her voice, and I knew I had to find a way to tackle the issue," Gario says. As a poet and performer, he began integrating Pete's origins into his work in 2010 by wearing shirts that said, "Zwarte Piet ist racisme." ("Black Pete is racism.")

But it was one performance during a slam poetry reading that helped him realize just how much work had to be done. After reading a poem calling out Black Pete, Gario recalls that the judges complimented his performance but said if he wanted to tackle racism in his work, he would have to talk about something that was actually racist. "If this crowd of socially aware and progressive people couldn't recognize the racism of the [Black Pete] figure, there was a lot of work to be done." To Gario, the incident pinpointed how liberal circles failed to actually listen to victims of racism.

From there, he began wearing the "Black Pete is racist" shirt everywhere, and he brought more people to the cause through a site of the same name. Once his movement gained traction, he and other supporters attended a Sinterklaas parade in Amsterdam. He was arrested for disturbing the peace, which he says happened because he was wearing his t-shirt while attending the parade.

Since 2011, the issue has exploded: As more people realize Black Pete—a pretty obvious racist caricature—could be racist, a growing number of traditionalists defend the custom. In 2013, the United Nations high commission for human rights wrote a letter to the Dutch government stating that customs like Black Pete "may constitute racism and may be degrading to members of those communities, in the present case persons belonging to black populations and people of African descent, and can perpetuate negative stereotypes within society." The Prime Minister Mark Rutte said in response, "Zwarte Piet is black, we can do little to change that."

At the time, Rutte seemed to be echoing the statements of the majority of his people. Soon after the letter was released, a pro-Black Pete Facebook page received over one million likes in one day. A Belgian UNESCO representative dismissed the letter and its author, Verene Shepherd—a Jamaican professor of human rights and the head of the investigation into Black Pete—by telling a newspaper, "She's just a consultant who abused the name of the UN to bring their own agenda to the media. All the hoopla that Shepherd has caused with her letter is nothing more than a bad move in the game of pressure groups in the Netherlands." The authors of the letter were overwhelmed with threats by Black Pete supporters.

Since then, the "debate" has resurfaced each year, though it has been reframed. Gario believes there has been some progress since his movement gained momentum in 2011. "When I appeared on Pauw [a Dutch late night news show] in 2011, I was seen as the one who was proposing something so outlandish that it had to be laughed away," Gario says. But as time goes on and the political climate changes, Gario believes Black Pete is becoming more of a symbol for racist and nationalist groups to cling onto than a beloved cultural icon.

Many have made attempts to keep the Sinterklaas tradition alive without the overt racism. This year, the Dutch television station RTL changed Black Pete's makeup to look like his face was covered in soot. A spokesperson for the station described the change as "A Piet who is faithful to Dutch tradition without being offensive." However, people were outraged. Soon after the announcement many announced plans to boycott of the television station.

If this crowd of socially aware and progressive people couldn't recognize the racism of the [Black Pete] figure, there was a lot of work to be done.

Some of Black Pete's biggest support comes from right-wing nationalist political party Party for Freedom. The party's leader, Geert Wilders, has most recently made headlines for being charged guilty of hate speech for an anti-Moroccan chant made during a 2014 rally. The same year as Wilders led a chant calling for fewer Moroccans in the Netherlands, the Party for Freedom also rallied for a bill that would enshrine Black Pete's race in law as a way to "protect" Dutch culture. After an Amsterdam court ruled Black Pete's image promoted a "negative" stereotype, politicians from the Party for Freedom dressed up as Black Pete at a meeting in protest.

While the Black Pete debate is restricted to The Netherlands and some of Belgium, it echoes the statements the years long War On Christmas debate that permeates the North American news cycle each holiday season. Each year, the number of Americans who believe "Happy Holidays" is an inappropriate Christmas greeting increases. According to The Harvard Business Review, in 2005 a Gallup poll saw 41 percent of respondents prefer the greeting "Merry Christmas" to "Happy Holidays," only to have that number increase to 65 percent in 2016 in a different poll.

Dan Cassino, author of Fox News and American Politics and an associate professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, believes both the discussions around Black Pete and the War on Christmas have a lot more to do with the privileged feeling threatened than anything else. Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Cassino explains how the War on Christmas was coined by an anti-immigration activist in 1999, only to be popularized by Fox News in a 2005 Bill O'Reilly interview.

Speaking to Broadly, Cassino explains the War on Christmas is about "symbolic attacks on a privileged groups. We had centuries where American white Christians were running the show. But there has been a loss of that privilege, where people in that group are forced to acknowledge that things they do aren't acceptable in society."

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"This is about a loss of cultural hegemony of a dominant group," Cassino continues. In both cases, the dominant group sees this as the first step to losing power. "[They will say], 'We can no longer control Black Pete or what people are saying about Christmas! The next step is we're not running the government anymore."

Cassino also believes that for both issues, the fight against inclusivity will only get worse. "We're not going to see a loss of privilege in privileged groups," he says. "These groups will be pushed more and more into a corner. It's the same force that drives terrorism. They think, We have lost our culture and we need to fight back."

For Gario in the Netherlands, the Black Pete discussion isn't about whether or not the figure will go away, but the sincerity of the discussion surrounding racism and colonialism, and he believes shifting attitudes towards figures like Black Pete indicate that discussion is being elevated. "The violence from the police and hate speech from opponents notwithstanding, there is something hopeful about what's happening at the moment," he says. Ultimately Gario is hopeful. "There's a lot of work that needs to be done, but change is happening. It's been hard fought, but it's there."