Black Face, Black Pete, and Traditions

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Black face in any day is just not a good look.

As a Black American I, of course am sensitive to black face, its history is based on humiliation and dehumanization of black people during and after slavery. It is based on white people buffooning black people. It is racist. This week I learned the Netherlands, Amsterdam, and Luxembourg have their own black face issue masked in Christmas tradition. Black Pete (Zwarte Piet) is the companion of St. Nicolas and is always interpreted by white men in black makeup, afro wig, and of course red lips. Black Pete is the idiot sidekick of St. Nicolas and throws out sweets to the children. In 1850, school teacher Jan Schenman published the book Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht(Saint Nicholas and his Servant). The servant is a dark skin male servant associated with the Black Moors of Spain. The book has St. Nicolas and the Black Petes arriving from Spain to bring presents and sweets to the children. It is a Christmas tradition from the 19th century. Blacks in this region feel it is a tradition that long needs to be ended or amended.

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I am a Black American born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts. I travel, yet I am not a world traveler, but I consider myself worldly. I am curious about other countries, traditions, and ethos with the full knowledge that the American way is not the way of the world. I understand other cultures will do things I find shocking, inappropriate, and sometimes inhumane but its 2014 and by now the whole world should know the origins of black face and there is nothing pleasant about it. The Black people had a protest about their discomfort with Black Pete and what it is means to them. The protest in Amsterdam led to ninety arrests.

I have a huge problem with the area that brought Apartheid to South Africa telling the residents of these countries that this black face Black Pete has nothing to do with racism but tradition. Even if you do not find it racist can you not admit it is offensive to the population it is primarily depicting? It made me angry that people could be so insensitive and so unwillingly to understand that this caricature comes from a place of dehumanizing a group of people. I felt justifiably angry and then I read some Facebook responses and really felt angry.

Bonnie  I’m a Afro American woman.. I have 2 kids and we Life in Holland.. Do I feel like Black peter discriminate us? NO it’s just a tradition and all childrens love Black Peter.. 
Are you really BLACK? NO, you’re just Darkbrown.. Nobody is black like BlackPeter.. So why In the need of Jesus is it Racism? Only the parents can teach they children to be racist.. In a meanwhile at the age around 6 years every child understand why he is Black.. Im not supporting the Colours Peter.. Im Happy and proud as a AfroAmerican to say: We are from a Black Community who lifes in Holland and we LOVE BLACK PETER

I tried really hard to understand Bonnie’s point of view on this because she is actually living in Holland. She says she is Afro American but how does she accept this caricature of a black servant as festive and worthy of celebration without understanding the insult to black people if she knows black history in America? 

Gerrie  Americans think they know everything i say look at yourself!! we love black pete he is a friend not a slave read the story first !! i I LOVE BLACK PETER!!!!!!!!

Chayenne  It is not racism! You make it rasicm, do you think little kids think that zwarte piet are slaves?! No, they are not black from skin colour but from the chimney!!! So stop with the racism because its not!!!

So I read about Black Peter and the story behind it. The black skin is supposed to represent ash from going down a chimney and because Black Pete is a Moor of Spain, of course (Insert snicker here), he has to have the afro wig but why the red lips? If it truly is a representation of St. Nick’s servant getting dirty from ashes, then why not just put ash on the skin, why cover it in black face? He’s a servant of St. Nick and unless St. Nicolas is paying his servants a livable wage he is a slave. This FB reply, again, coming from the people who brought the world apartheid is not encouraging. I think their point of view on this matter and their history cancels their opinion on sensitivity for blacks but I’ll keep an open mind.

Milton  its Racism! i live in Holland and im black but i dont wanna be associated with black pete…and when it happends i can understand the children because the dont know better but when i come home i feel sick because when people see me for Black Pete what does that makes me it makes me that silly White man who climds into the chimney and came out a negro…..What a stupid tradition its time to change it…….

It is 2014 and I still don’t understand why people think it is okay to insult a group of people like this. Why just not have St. Nick and the Petes…not Black Pete or White Pete, just many ‘helpers’ from all groups of people sans afro, red lips, and facial paint? Traditions created to make fool of a group is a tradition worth dropping. The children will survive they just want treats it matters little who is giving it to them but to the little black child who has to watch a man in black face shuffle around acting a fool may not enjoy those sweets as much as his white counterparts.

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8 thoughts on “Black Face, Black Pete, and Traditions

  1. Ugh, I heard about black pete a couple of years ago but not to this level so this was a very informative read. Every now and then I see a story like this out of Europe and get disgusted. In light of America’s problems I won’t just point a finger at them. We live in it here and its almost everywhere we go in the world (even in brown countries you will see other types of discrimination and ways of life set up by past slavery and colonization). They darn well that racism is the first thing on people’s minds when they see this. How important is this tradition that they can’t at least amend it? Just like the Red Skins football team name/logo, I think at some point we need to let go in order to make the greater good which is having a place where everyone feels welcomed.

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    1. I call it willful ignorance they choose to stand in that frame of mind because they don’t care. Racism and the deep hate some white people have towards blacks boggles my mind. Why do they feel the need to belittle. I think it says so much about their real place in the world. There is no security in this behaviour if they feel this rooted in demeaning us then what must we have that threatens them so profoundly…century after century?

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  2. Interesting everyone is up in arms about Black Pete, but no words about the old catholic priest who likes to bounch children on his knee,

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    1. and BOOM! Boggles the brain how anyone with a half a mind cannot understand the insensitivity and plain ignorance of it. The name alone is enough to make someone side eye the judgement considering the only time black in front of something only means good when it concerns money…black friday etc

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