Analogous Cultural Evolution: Blackface in Annual Feast of St. Nicholas

Farheen Asim – Pakistan

The analogously evolved practice of Blackface in both North American and European cultures invites the question of whether we should abolish similar practices across the world despite their independent originations. The commonly accepted cultural justification for the prolonged existence of Blackface is considered by many to be weak and maybe even bigoted. In an increasingly globalized world, the willful ignorance of the denunciation of detrimental cultural practices elsewhere in the world is becoming less and less desirable and feasiblemore so when the same practice is defended domestically.

Blackface, in America, is makeup applied to a white performer playing a black person–the practice being most prevalent during the heights of Minstrel shows in the country. Originating in the 1830s, this practice would feature prominently in comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music that made up these Minstrel shows, and it served to present racist caricatures of black people to American Theatre Audiences. The relentless lampooning of black people led to the proliferation of racist attitudes and stereotypes that would prove to be resilient long past the death of Minstrel shows.

A very similar practice, Zwarte Piet, is still hosted in the Netherlands with impunity and has drawn much criticism from both domestic and international communities. Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, is a fictional character that originated from the folklore of the Low Countries and is known to be the companion of St. Nicholas, the mythical figure that led to the conception of the traditional model of Santa Claus. The Dutch citizens who take on the role of Zwarte Piet during the Annual Feast of St. Nicholas would don blackface, to serve as foils to the benevolent St. Nicholas. Yet the ambivalent origins of Zwarte Piet make it particularly difficult to provide a justification, based on a valid historical or cultural precedence, for the existence of blackface in the Dutch Festival.

There are a sizable number of Dutch citizens, however, that vehemently defend the controversial practice, claiming that their traditions are being misunderstood and subsequently infringed upon. Instead of initiating civil discourse to explore the true nature of the inception of Zwarte Piet into Dutch Culture, prominent government figures have dismissed the very real detriments of the problematic figure. Mark Rutte, the country’s Prime Minister and member of the  centre-right Liberal Party, commented simply that “Black Pete is black”. The head of his centre-left coalition partners, Diederik Samsom, feels that the issue is too trivial to warrant a proper discussion. While there was some political opposition to the alienating practice, it proved to be far too transient – an initial court ruling against Zwarte Piet was quickly overturned by a higher court in 2014. The refusal of government figures to adequately acknowledge the gravity of the situation means that no resolution will be attained for this divisive issue, ensuring that any detrimental repercussions will simply continue to compound.

The attribution of antagonistic characteristics to Zwarte Piet also means that impressionable children with minimal exposure to African Europeans could begin formulating negative stereotypes that follow them into adulthood. It could also reinforce existing stereotypes that some might subscribe to and lead them to being even more convicted to their bigotry. This could augment the insidious racism that people of colour in Netherlands are subjected to and the police brutality that they suffer from. It is perhaps comforting that some progress has been made in preventing the subjugation of children to such racist practices: some Dutch primary schools have begun abolishing Zwarte Piet by disallowing the donning of blackface, thick lips and gold earrings. While this is a good start, this abolishment must proliferate throughout all levels of education to definitively end the practice.

Does the cultural precedent cited by blackface apologists in the Netherlands provide a valid reason for the lack of progress observed in racial politics relative to the US? The US managed to eventually abolish the racist practice despite the profiteering that was made possible because of it in the form of advertisement for products like cigarettes and even pancakes. What kind of impetus could the Dutch require to trounce the inertia that comes with moral relativism? In the author’s view, they need to come to the realization that cultural practices privileging or actively disadvantaging any ethnic group are simply not worth preserving.

The message seems rather lost on Mark Rutte, however, who said“My friends in the Antilleans [the Dutch former colonies in the Caribbean] are very happy when it is Sinterklaas because they don’t have to paint their faces. When I play Black Pete I am for days trying to get the stuff off my face.”

By explicitly implying that the disenfranchised are indeed the privileged, the Prime Minister is displaying a staggering lack of awareness that is verging on being dangerous. America may still be plagued by countless racial issues, but at least the use of blackface in America is heavily stigmatized and mostly limited to the realm of satire. With any hope, the Dutch government will arrive at the conclusion that historical and cultural precedents are simply not sufficient justification to condone such a bigoted practice.