It’s 2012. Why are we still talking about blackface? It’s true there has never been an official ban on blackface put forth by our national government, but as Americans we’ve pretty much agreed that when white people smear their face with black make-up and paint their lips a cherry red in imitation of black people, it’s offensive. In fact, since the 1960s, blackface has officially been placed on the list of taboo topics most people know to avoid like the plague. Of course, not everyone read the memo. Like Ted Danson in that infamous Friars Club fiasco back in 1993 or the boys in upstate New York last week — yes last week — who thought donning blackface would make for a funny skit at their high school while a re-enacting the Chris Brown-Rihanna domestic violence incident.
And then of course, there’s the rest of the world. Outside of the United States, blackface and sambo imagery is still all the rage.
From Mexico to South Africa, in Sweden and in Germany, it is not uncommon to find what we in the United States would consider racist images of black people being used on product labels and in advertising for everything from popsicles to chocolate candies. And then there are the countries where donning blackface is actually a regular part of the cultural experience.
In the Netherlands, for example, blackface is on fervent display during one special time of year — Christmas. And that’s not just Christmas day, but rather the entire Christmas season, which runs from late November through December 6. During that time, Sinterklaas, Santa’s skinnier and more religious cousin, comes to town with his sidekick Zwarte Piet, aka, Black Peter. Some say Black Peter is black only because he slides down the chimney and gets full of ashes, but others claim he is Sinterklaas‘s Spanish/Moorish/African slave.
Regardless of Piet’s true ethnic origins, blackface is used when White Dutch people want to portray him in the countless Christmas pageants and parades during the holiday season. And the black faces are augmented with bright red lipstick and matted Afro wigs. For all intents and purposes, these modern-day Black Peters look like they came straight out of a Southern minstrel act circa 1848.
Dana Saxon, a black American graduate student at the University of Amsterdam who specializes in Ethnic studies, was horrified the first time she saw Zwarte Piet on display and is adamant in her belief that the practice is racist and hurtful. “This is an issue for anyone who is able and willing to see the tradition as a remnant of a Dutch past of colonialism and slavery,” Saxon told theGrio. Even though many Dutch citizens want to cling to the tradition and ignore the cries of racism, Saxon is seeing progress. “In addition to a number of writers and social activists that have raised resistance for years, an artist campaign promoting ‘Zwarte Piet is Racisme’ gained a lot of momentum in 2011,” Saxon pointed out. “They currently have a popular Tumblr page and almost 2,000 followers on Facebook.”
The Netherlands isn’t the only country where blackface is part of the Christmas tradition. Spain can claim that custom as well. But the Spanish use of blackface has nothing to do with Santa. Their reasons are biblical. While Santa Claus has become a more recent addition to the Christmas season in Spain, traditionally the three Wise Men or the Three Kings gave out gifts on January 6. These are the same three guys who brought gifts to the baby Jesus upon his birth. That makes sense. What doesn’t make as much sense is why white Spaniards feel the need to paint their faces black in order to ‘realistically’ portray Balthazar in parades and in church festivals. Besides the fact that the Bible never explicitly mentions what race Balthazar was, one can only wonder why it seems so necessary to paint one’s face black at all. Could it possibly be that Spaniards just enjoy blackface and this opportunity to employ it?