Blackface has once again been summoned into the public consciousness as Christmas festivities surrounding sinterklaas in the Netherlands approach.
The festival commemorates the arrival of Saint Nicholas and his servant Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) and it is the country’s biggest and most popular cultural tradition. Key to these celebrations is dressing up publicly in blackface to caricaturise Zwarte Piet.
Despite the rising controversies, Sinterklaas is supported by a Dutch majority and is considered an innocent tradition that is separate from Netherland’s history of slavery. The appeals to abolish Blackface in the Sinterklaas festivities have led Dutch nationalists to embrace the tradition even more firmly as a way of “protecting Dutch identity” which they perceive as being under threat.
The mythology of Sinterklaas is considered to be the Dutch version of America’s Santa Claus, or the UK’s Father Christmas, but unlike the other “Santas”, “Sinterklaas” arrives with a Black servant. This folklore was popularised by a school teacher Jan Schenkman who wrote a children’s book in 1850 featuring the fictitious Black Pete enabling its integration to children’s narratives and Dutch’s national heritage.
We need to question why blackface wearers can only ever ‘be black’ as a joke. Is it because blackness is something to be mocked?
Blackfacing and caricaturisation of Black Pete has influenced the discourses of blackness albeit subconsciously among children. For example, young Dutch children sing: ‘Even though I’m black as soot, my intentions are good ….’ It illustrates how Dutch society has constructed the image of blackness through Zwarte Piet and implies that the default position of blackness is that of badness and that is why ‘good intentions’ need to be declared and affirmed beforehand.
The master-servant thread to the tale of sinterklaas functions to establish a narrative of black inadequacy. For example, while Sinterklaas rides on a horse, Black Pete walks, runs and jumps awkwardly to keep up with his master. While Sinterklaas is capable, articulate and speaks perfect Dutch, Black Pete is inarticulate, lacking in intellect, irresponsible and needs to jump through dirty and sooted chimneys to deliver toys to children. Within such racialised depictions of Black Pete where his quintessential character is that of inferiority and servitude, the racial binaries of whiteness and blackness are produced.
Jerry Afriyie, co-founder of the Zwarte Piet is Racisme campaign, reflected on how the Zwarte Piet narrative affected his black identity growing up as a black kid in the Netherlands:
"They would call me Zwarte Piet, or you are dirty just like Zwarte Piet. You are only good [enough] to be Zwarte Piet. I was a child and not politically aware, but I realized we played this dress up with this character who is dumb, who is silly, who doesn't know much, who needs someone to lead the way, who keeps messing up, who is looks very ugly, and then realised that I am the butt of the joke, I was 12 years old when I realised it.
Put simply, Zwarte Piet, is not a neutral expression given that it is often invoked to racially humiliate, vilify and degrade Black people.
The contradictions are obvious when those who support the tradition, claim Zwarte Piet is not a racist characterisation of black people, yet the term “black Piet” is often summoned as a racial slur against black people. Put simply, Zwarte Piet, is not a neutral expression given that it is often invoked to racially humiliate, vilify and degrade Black people.
Jerry told Al Jazeera, one of his motivations for starting Zwarte Piet is Racisme was after seeing how damaging and hurtful the Black Pete tradition was for black children living in the Netherlands.
"I was trying to do my part to put some pride into these young black girls and boys, [saying] be proud of who you are, because we have seen many examples of children coming home and jumping in the shower trying to wash their skin off because the children at school are teasing them that they are ugly, that they are dirty’- [just like Black Pete].
This illustrates how the politics and prejudices surrounding Zwarte Pete’s blackness infiltrate the personal lives of black children in Netherlands. It’s also an indication that Zwarte Pete’s Black skin is not ideologically empty as it carries social meanings of the “dirty and ugly African” within the European cultural space.
The history of blackface
Blackface is believed to have originated in the early 19th century and popularised through minstrel shows where white actors would wear theatrical darkened makeup to mimic, caricaturise or make fun of the slaves in the plantations, portraying them as somehow “animal like” and subhuman. Blackface is performed when people darken (or blacken) their faces with greasepaint, shoe polish, soot or charcoal while exaggerating their physical features (such as lips, teeth, buttocks) as a way to appear “negroid”. Blackface is a site of deprecation which involves wearing a “racialised mask” as an attempt to mock and ridicule black embodiment. In his critique of blackface, Bryan Crable said:
“Typically, blackface is treated as a classic ritual of “Othering,” of identifying the difference between “us” and “them”— and then dressing up as “them” in order to laugh at their absurd qualities, to display “our” superiority”.
Displaying and parading Blackness in its most exaggerated and unattractive form as entertainment for white people who feel grateful ‘not to look like that’ allows room for racial hierarchies to be produced. Blackface becomes a site of epistemic violence enacted on black bodies through “Zwarte Pieten” constructs of the subjugated, inferior African. As Harmeet Kaur writes, through minstrel shows, blackface was the only expression of black life that white audiences saw designed to depict enslaved Africans as the “butt of jokes” thus desensitising white Americans to the horrors of slavery. The performances also promoted demeaning stereotypes of black people that helped confirm white people's notions of superiority”.
Why it is hard to change?
Although blackface relies on racialised tropes and stereotypical antics of the subservient black body, many still see it as a way of “appreciating black culture.” It is interesting however that the only way that supporters and wearers of blackface can appreciate black culture is through reproducing content relating slavery, servitude and humiliation of black people. Wanting to ‘wear a black face’ for fun while choosing to remain totally removed from the politics of existing with a black body in white western spaces is hypocritical.
Resistance to changing a longstanding tradition is an understandable reaction because in part, it requires an acknowledgement that some aspects of our traditions can be offensive to others and might be layered with problematic histories. In Netherlands, and elsewhere, dialogues on how such traditions intersect with current issues on immigration, racism, colonialism and nationalism can be useful catalysts for forging deeper conversations on such matters.
We need to question why blackface wearers can only ever ‘be black’ as a joke. Is it because blackness is something to be mocked? If they were truly about appreciating black culture, they would realise that the best way to appreciate a culture, is by respecting it. As Aoife Doran writes, while some see blackface as harmless fun, and an integral part of the Dutch tradition, “when Zwarte Piet is stripped from the protection which tradition offers him, the racist connotations carried within the custom become undeniable”.
Dr Kathomi Gatwiri is a senior lecturer at Southern Cross University. She is the author of African Womanhood and Incontinent Bodies: Kenyan Women with Vaginal Fistulas and the 2019 winner of the Early Career researcher award at her university.