‘Tis The Season To Be in Blackface

Anastasia Hacopian
Nov 12, 2014 · 7 min read

When naming and shaming is not the best way to deal with racism

I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles, California as the daughter of two immigrants. My dad, an Armenian, came to the United States from Tehran in the 1950s. My mom arrived from Tokyo a decade after him. When I turned twenty-four, I fell in love with a foreign exchange student from Amsterdam. Then I did what my parents did: I left home.

This morning, almost fifteen years later, I am having breakfast with my family in a suburb in the Netherlands. While I eat, I am reading a pull-out section of the Dutch newspaper, Trouw, and I come across a picture of a golliwog (a black rag doll created in the minstrel tradition that gained popularity in Europe and Australia in the 1970s).

The golliwog headlines an interview with British author Adrian Hart, who discusses the premise for his new book, That’s Racist! As I reach for coffee, my six-year-old daughter squeals, “Oh, can I cut that out? I want to put him on the steamboat I’m making for St. Nicholas. Pete looks all dressed up in his cute little suit!”

I turn to my Dutch husband and point to the golliwog. “Honey, did you hear that? Our daughter wants to cut this out and put him on the steamboat with St. Nicholas.”

“Mmm hmm,” he says, coughing into his latte.

Our daughter is gearing up for Dutch Christmas, a holiday now internationally notorious for its recreational use of blackface. St. Nicholas is the jolly bishop in red who arrives here each November on a steamboat from Spain. He rides a white horse and is accompanied by a very large company of helpers on foot, all of whom are called “Black Pete.” Fans of David Sedaris may have read about this Dutch tradition in his popular essay, “Six To Eight Black Men.”

Santa Claus has elves, but Dutch St. Nicholas has Pete, who, according to tradition, is played by people wearing blackface, a colorful minion’s suit, golden earrings, bright red lips, and curly black hair.

Seeing as St. Nicholas sets sail from Spain, one can historically attribute Pete’s appearance to the Moors — black Muslim inhabitants of the Iberian peninsula. The implications of a white Bishop followed around by helpers in blackface becomes particularly problematic, however, when placed within the cultural context of a nation like the Netherlands, which has a history of colonial slave trade in the Caribbean.

The association gets worse when we acknowledge that Pete’s character is a clumsy idiot. Resembling a court jester, he’s a comic figure who makes a lot of mistakes and leaves things in a pretty pickle. St. Nicholas is the straight guy — wise, all-knowing, calm in the face of catastrophe. Pete is the source of Christmas calamity and hilarity.

But not for everyone. In a vintage episode of Dutch Sesame Street from 1987, Gerda Havertong, a black Dutch woman of Surinamese descent, explains her problem with Pete to the blue-feathered, distant Dutch cousin of Big Bird. She tells him that she doesn't enjoy being called “Black Pete” each Christmas because people think that she, a black woman, looks like him. Gerda explains in very kindergarten terms that a lot of people who look like her, young and old, feel the same way.

Gerda Havertong’s standpoint is representative of a Dutch cultural minority whose disenchantment with Black Pete has fueled a war divided along lines of race, income, nationality, and educational level. Following their arrest at a demonstration in Amsterdam last year, individuals representing the Dutch movement “Black Pete is Racism” have been waging a successful media campaign against the continued use of Pete’s character in Dutch Christmas celebrations.

Consequently, the question of whether Black Pete is a racist phenomenon has been since taken up by Dutch municipal governments, Dutch courts, and even the United Nations. Any critical self-examination of a tradition so quintessential to the Dutch cultural landscape is, in itself, pretty revolutionary. A small country like the Netherlands prides itself in being composed of folk that do things together; it is part of the conformist Calvinist character of the Dutch to keep culture uniform.

Nevertheless, Pete’s appearance is changing, gradually. City councils, retail chains, and school celebrations are sporadically adjusting his look and their past protocol. Rumor has it that the “St. Nicholas Broadcast News,” a children’s television program aired in the weeks leading up to Dutch Christmas, might yet birth a new generation of rainbow-colored Pete helpers.

Yet a poll this year indicates that an 83 percent Dutch majority does not want Black Pete to look any different than he always has.

The current tension in the country is such that when St. Nicholas officially arrives in the city of Gouda this Saturday, armed, undercover police officers will also dress up as Pete and mix in with the other Pete people accompanying St. Nicholas and his horse.

The problem with Pete is reflective of a bigger demographic shift: the unprecedented cultural self-identification of racism in the Netherlands. Dutch humor, language, and social mores are often, from the point of view of an American expatriate, racially offensive.

But to go so far as to declare that racism is socially acceptable in the Netherlands, does not quite fit the bill. In order to have accepted something as normal, it has to already exist in your vocabulary. Up to now, Dutch language and behavior have only been “racist” for people who have felt victimized by it, or who are familiar with a racism discourse. Any notion of such a discourse, indispensable for dealing with the problem, is a new convention in the Dutch cultural dictionary.

The Dutch government released a recent report identifying the growing social gap between Dutch people with degrees in higher education, and Dutch people with lower levels of training and schooling. These two groups, while increasingly segregated, find it socially awkward to relate to each other, even to the point of avoiding each other’s camps. Their differences in educational background correlate directly to irreconcilable differences of opinion on Europe, immigration, development aid, the economy, and health care. I would argue that the correlation extends to their opinions on Black Pete. Dutch people of color, some of whom are direct descendants of slaves, wear the face of the social minority taking issue with the “black” in Black Pete. Others who raise their protest are often like me — from an outside culture with a racial discourse, or with higher degrees in education.

How, then, does one navigate across this internal cultural gap? How do I, the mixed American immigrant, co-exist with the Dutch majority that sees no problem with Pete? What tools can I use to keep the conversation civil and above all — constructive? In the United States, I learned to equate the protection of cultural diversity to the identification and shaming of everyday racism. After fifteen years of expatriation, the publication of six Dutch op-eds to my name, and six years of Christmases with my own Dutch children, it has dawned on me that my American tactics do not apply. I have come to the same epiphany made by Adrian Hart, the author whose interview appeared in my golliwog newspaper.

Sometimes naming and shaming racism is not the most effective way to fight it.

In a community new to racial discourse, throwing around terms like “racist” often creates a divide larger than the one that already existed. When the gap between the “racists” and the rest is also drawn along lines of class, economics or education, the first task is to bridge the gap, not to point the finger. I have learned, instead of naming and shaming, to say, “You know what, this really bothers me. I find it hurtful.” I have learned to talk with people who have no discourse for racism by talking about feelings. Calling them or their point of view “racist” ends the conversation all too prematurely with someone who often has no idea what I’m talking about, or who ends up feeling just as stigmatized and hurt as myself.

After my husband coughed into his coffee this morning, I answered my daughter’s question. She had no idea that by asking to put the golliwog on her Christmas steamboat, she had underscored the need for Black Pete’s appearance to change, now, with her Dutch generation. I explained to her what the golliwog once was. She frowned when I brought the point home with a friend of hers who is black, has an afro, and resembles the kind of person the golliwog was first meant to caricature, long ago.

“And yes, sweetie,” I added, pointing to the newspaper. “The golliwog and Pete really do look alike, but they shouldn't.”


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THOSE PEOPLE

A black magazine for people too hip for black magazines. Get at us: stopthosepeople@gmail.com

Thanks to Felicia Megan Gordon

Anastasia Hacopian

Written by

Writer, PhD, teacher, half-Japanese/half-Armenian/California-grown cosmopolite. https://www.clippings.me/anastasiahacopian

THOSE PEOPLE

A black magazine for people too hip for black magazines. Get at us: stopthosepeople@gmail.com

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