A Flemish minister decided to dress in blackface as Black Pete this holiday season, and refuses to understand how anyone can interpret his choice of dress as being racist.
It is often said that old habits die hard, and this is certainly the case with the character known as Zwart Piet, or “Black Pete,” Santa’s Black sidekick as recognized and celebrated in the Netherlands and in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern region of Belgium. An African servant of Saint Nicholas, the character is depicted as a happy buffoon, mischievous and lazy, and over the years it has been customary for people to dress in blackface as Black Pete. Think of the Christmas parade meets the minstrel show, or Sambo meets Santa Claus.
As was reported in the Independent, Sven Gatz, the Flemish minister of Culture, tweeted a photo of himself in blackface, with his lips painted red and wearing an Afro wig and a Renaissance-style outfit.
En we zingen en we springen en we zijn zo blij, want er zijn geen stoute kinderen bij. pic.twitter.com/PmOrdZxi3p
— Sven Gatz (@svengatz) December 6, 2015
Gatz then defended himself against legitimate charges of racism with his own version of “some of my best friends are Black”:
Engaged against racism all my (political) life. And now I’m an ordinary racist because I coloured my face dark. Come on. Love. Don’t hate.
— Sven Gatz (@svengatz) December 7, 2015
Supporters of the tradition contend that this is all harmless fun. However, anti-racism activists have protested against the time-honored Black Pete as racially offensive. For example, the website StopBlackface.com has brought attention to the racially offensive practice, while CNN Digital recently broadcasted a short film by African-American filmmaker Roger Ross Williams called, Blackface.
This year, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called on the Netherlands to revamp Black Pete on the grounds that it reflects negative stereotypes of people of African descent and represents a “vestige of slavery”:
— Werner De Poorter (@EthnicZebras) August 28, 2015
Prime Minister Mark Rutte responded in a dismissive manner, declaring it is not the government’s role to shape folklore.
“Folk traditions. Come on. What Christmas songs you should sing, how you celebrate Christmas and Easter — this isn’t what politics is about,” he told reporters in The Hague, according to Al Jazeera.
This season, a shop in Amsterdam features President Obama dressed as Black Pete:
— Stop Blackface (@StopBlackface1) November 27, 2015
Further, a European toy manufacturer called Playmobil sells toy sets featuring Black Pete and slave figures. Some have responded to the call to tone down and “lighten up” Black Pete by giving the Christmas character a makeover as “Soot Pete,” arguing that Pete is Black because he is covered in soot from the chimney. This, of course, is racially offensive because it associates Blackness with filth.
These offensive, racist images come within the context of hundreds of years of European colonialism, and the enslavement, rape and genocide of African people. King Leopold II of Belgium committed atrocious, unspeakable crimes against the people of the Congo, among the worst in human history. He murdered and worked to death 10 million Congolese, and used Congo and its natural resources as his personal possession. And this, like Black Pete, is no laughing matter.