Tuesday, December 08, 2015

'Black Peter' - Dutch Holiday Tradition...in Blackface!

Dutch revelers dressed up as 'Black Peter'
From Santa Claus to dradles, to the fictional 'Festivus', it's that time of year when people around the world celebrate the holiday season in all sorts of interesting ways.

Certainly none more so than the Dutch tradition of 'Black Peter' or Zwarte Piet as he's affectionately known particularly around the northern European region where the Netherlands (Holland) and Belgium are located.

If you've never heard of this controversial Christmas character, look at it this way.

You know how Santa has a bunch of elves in his workshop who build the toys, load the sleigh and assist with the grunt work?

In Dutch tradition, that's basically Black Peter's role; to serve as Santa's trusty helper.

The only problem is that Black Peter is, well, black and the Dutch like to darken their faces, don exaggerated red lip stick, plop on an Afro wig and get festive like the happy campers pictured above.

Flemish Minister of Culture Sven Gatz
As reporter Nadia Khomami reported on the Guardian.com yesterday, Sven Gatz, the Flemish Minister of Culture (pictured left) is catching some heat for Tweeting a photo of himself dressed as Black Peter.

Now Gatz has publicly pushed back against charges that he's some kind of racist; in fact he insists that he's fought against racial injustice throughout his political career.

And in all fairness, he's not alone in this by any means, it's considered a popular Dutch tradition rooted in folklore rather than racism.

As a USA Today article about the controversy by Gordon Darroch reported last December:   

'Marc Gilling, who chairs the Guild of Petes, a group fighting to retain the Black Pete tradition, argues that a misplaced sense of victimhood is fueling the controversy.

"The problem is that there is a small minority of people in our society who mistakenly associate Black Pete with slavery," Gilling said. "It's not blackface like you used to see in America, which is indeed racist. Pete's blackness has a symbolic meaning which dates back thousands of years, to the days when black represented winter and the Catholic bishop (St. Nicholas) stood for summer."

There's a 'Guild of Black Petes'? Who knew!

Part of the issue (aside from a major government official donning black face...) stems from how the act of dressing in black face conflicts with what is widely considered a rather progressive and tolerant Dutch society.

Some supporters of the tradition try to make the argument that Black Peter is not a racist caricature, but rather, his skin is darkened to symbolize the fact that he gets covered in soot when he goes up and down the chimney serving helping Santa as toys and goodies are handed out to children.

But countries like Holland and Belgium have deep ties not only to the Atlantic Slave Trade, but also to the deprivation, exploitation, war, suffering and killing that was a byproduct of Dutch colonial expansion in Africa.

As Darroch's USA Today article observed:

"The largest country in central Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, was a Belgian colony until 1960. Millions of Congolese are estimated to have died and the country was decimated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when Belgian King Leopold II ran Congo as his personal fiefdom." 

Besides, Sven Gatz isn't the only government official from the region to face criticism for dressing in black face.

Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders
As a Reuters article posted on The Guardian Website back in March reported, Didier Reynders, (pictured left) the Belgian Foreign Minister stirred controversy when he joined a 139-year-old charity group known as Les Noirauds (the Blacks) for an event where members dress in black face with white top hats.

The costume is supposed to represent 19th century African nobles (and the event does raise money for charity) but according to Reuters, minority groups expressed outrage.

Now I've never been to Holland or Belgium, though I'd like to visit one day.

So I can't really pass judgement on the country because I didn't grow up with the tradition.

But to me common sense would suggest that dressing in black face is seen as degrading and insensitive to people of color; not just here in America but around the world.

And for reasons that should be more than obvious.

Megyn Kelly arbiter of racial purity
As for people like Fox News' Megyn Kelly using the holidays to assure people that both Jesus and Santa were white men (as she did in 2013), or a major government official dressing in black face to celebrate a controversial holiday tradition like Black Peter - they don't anger me.

They just confuse me with their willingness to wade right into controversy at a time of year that's supposed to be about giving, gathering and just being a little bit nicer to people.

Personally I'm the sentimental type. I love the holiday season, the music, gathering with friends and family, the traditions and decorations - the movies.

 I'm one of those people who doesn't want their holiday traditions to cause offense to someone, cause controversy or take away from what should be a special time of year.

And I certainly don't need to put makeup on my face and don a wig to get into the spirit of the season.


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