Is it Racist to Paint Yourself Black?

Zwarte Pieten

During the Christmas season in the Netherlands, called Sinterklaas (St Nicholas), it is common to see lots of Dutch people on the street dressed up in Renaissance pageboy costumes. What struck me as really odd the first time I saw them a couple of years ago, was the fact that they had painted themselves completely black (face, hands). Their lips were thick and ruby red. To my naïve eye, the impression was that they were trying to emulate a black person. These characters are called Zwarte Pieten, Black Peters, individuals who accompany Santa doling out mandarin oranges and kruidnoten on the streets to eager young kids in late November to early December.

My first instinct was to feel shock and disbelief, which then over the next few days gave way to a more hesitant curiosity. After all, I subconsciously rationaled, if this was a widely accepted practice here, then surely it was not considered racist nor offensive behaviour. It still sat very uncomfortably in my soul as I knew this would not have been tolerated for a second in Canada. A few more days passed and I realized the extent to which this has polarized communities in NL and beyond in recent years. The black Surinamese, in particular, have been greatly offended by it. Hence the introduction of different coloured Pieten, even a rainbow coloured one.

Though there are a few different theories which explain the “blackness” of Black Peter, I’m not sure if the costumed individuals have subscribed to any one in particular. Are they trying to look like Moors? Did they fall down from the chimney and are thus covered in soot? (what about the lips then) Are they representing the former slave freed by St Nicholas?

Many say that this tradition is harmless and not intended to be racist. As I know from the gradual erosion of my own resistance in the early days of encountering the Black Peters, the mass mindset can sometimes blind you to what is or isn’t racism. I asked myself this question: Given historical and still-existing racism towards Asians in varying milieu, if there were crowds of Caucasians in a certain country dolling themselves up in yellow face-paint and exaggerated slanty eyes, with some allusion to let’s say, freedom from railroad slavery, would I feel offended?

Unequivocally, I would be furious.

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