Is ‘Black Pete’ Racist?

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A decorative Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) is displayed in a department store in The Hague, The Netherlands, on November 15, 2013.
Valerie Kuypers / AFP / Getty Images

A decorative Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) is displayed in a department store in the Hague on Nov. 15, 2013

They’ve been on my living-room shelf for a year now — wrapped chocolate candy figurines from the Netherlands of Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete. A friend who lived there for a while gave them to me in irony. Black Pete is a wooly-headed little “Negro” caricature, and in the Netherlands he is as cherished a part of the holiday scenery as elves are in the U.S. In fact, Zwarte Piets are depicted as elves, helping out Santa.

There is a growing movement in the Netherlands to ban Black Pete. Predictably, there are those who think a mountain is being made out of a molehill by people who just need to get a sense of humor. Judging the matter from the U.S. is tricky, though. There are practices regarding race that in this country most would consider repulsive but, when done elsewhere, I am inclined to give a pass.

For example, Finnish friends have told me of attending parties in the ’90s where everybody dressed up as “black,” right down to blackface and wigs. Many will be reminded of stories of U.S. college fraternities condemned for having “ghetto” parties, blacking up and lampooning life among black people in the inner city. With America’s history, as well as its messy present, when it comes to race, clowning around in blackface at a party is obviously callous and ignorant.

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But are the Finns really doing the same thing? For them, it’s just a matter of imitating videos, made in a language most of them don’t really know, about people most of them have barely ever even encountered in real life. Subtle, no — but racist? I don’t think it’s too much to ask to let “black parties” in Helsinki pass as harmless foolishness.

It gets murkier, though, with things like the Darkie toothpaste common in East and Southeast Asia, a product whose mascot used to be a dark-skinned black person with shiny white teeth. After some complaints from abroad, its name was changed to Darlie and the person was made white (or whitish — it’s hard to tell). But in Chinese, the name still translates as “black-person toothpaste.”

Technically there are worse insults than being associated with good teeth. But “black-person toothpaste” comes within a context: people in East Asia can be pitilessly unenlightened when it comes to racism. I long ago lost count of how many Asian Americans have told me that their immigrant parents are openly disparaging of black people. Back in the ’80s a couple of them said it would even be awkward for them to have me in their homes. It’s harder to laugh off the Darkie mascot when the people using it are so often coming from a place like that.

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Which brings us to Black Pete. As hard as it is to remember today, given what a small and peaceable nation it is, the Netherlands has as much historical blood on its hands as the U.S. when it comes to people of color. The Dutch once had colonies in both hemispheres (including what is today New York City) and committed countless atrocities in the Caribbean and South America, where they ran brutal sugar plantations.

Recently a student asked me why a photo he found of me shows me at a conference about Indonesian languages taking place in the Dutch city of Leiden, of all places. It’s because of the Dutch’s other hegemony in Indonesia, where today countless brown-skinned people are comfortable in Dutch as a legacy of the colonial era.

Black Pete, then, is not the Dutch version of a Finnish teen bouncing to Jay Z in an Afro wig. Black Pete in 2013 is a lame, thoughtless thing, carrying an implication that all that slavery and servitude and imperialism was some kind of cartoon. Black Hollanders often feel the same way, in a country where blacks from former colonies are overrepresented in housing projects.

“Who are we to judge?” some might ask. I would say that a country with our colonialist history is no less responsible for judging such matters than other ones. We’ll never eradicate racism entirely. But surely we can do something about white men made up as “Negroes” dancing down the street at Christmastime — which would never happen even in our non-postracial country.

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