People of African descent in the Netherlands, and many white Dutch people, too, have for years protested the practice of white people blacking up every December to play the troublesome character they call Zwarte Piet (Black Pete; read our previous post about this character and the highly amusing defences of the apologists, here).
Last year, the complaints and protests went all the way to the UN, making it world news, which might be why officials decided it was time for change, despite the Dutch Prime Minister’s attempt to brush off the character as harmless.
So, on Tuesday night, the Dutch Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage introduced a new and, in their opinion, inoffensive Zwarte Piet (photo at the top of the page), following interviews with thirty people and over 9,000 emails, half of which were hate mails.
Still black, with slightly less prominent lips picked out in red lipstick. But, hey, without the earrings and curled hair! You can watch the introduction here (it’s in Dutch, but the images tell you all you need to know).
Oh dear, they just don’t get it, do they.
Anousha Nzume, a TV presenter whose father is from Cameroon, was a guest on the show. She asked, “Why [are the Dutch] so desperate to hold on to that colour?”
One of the points anti-Zwarte Piet campaigners keep making year in year out is that many Dutch people fail to grasp why blackface is offensive because they don’t know the full details of their involvement in the slave trade; in other words, the history they are taught is sugarcoated.
Because of this, the more people protest blackface, the more the majority of the population digs its heels in, believing the protesters want to rob them of their tradition, without understanding the symbolism of this “tradition”. (Last year, two million people signed a petition calling for Zwarte Piet to remain.)
Artist Quinsy Gario, one of the most prominent voices in the anti-Piet campaign, said the new look Piet was “sad, a complete failure,” and expressed doubts that this new version would change anything: “You can’t have a discussion and reach a compromise on racism,” he told one TV news station. “That is one of the problems. The racism behind the figure as he is now is still not being recognised.”
Here are some of the reactions on Twitter:
OMG. A Dutch Minister just said on TV: ‘I saw a black man once paint his face white to play Sinterklaas. So whats the fuss about blackface?’
— Zihni Özdil (@ZihniOzdil) June 10, 2014
Only in the Netherlands do they try to make something less racist by making it more racist
— Mieke Inc (@MiekeInc) June 10, 2014