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Blackface traditions controversy

  1. Nov 16, 2014 #1

    Monique

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    I am wondering what people's opinion is about traditions that include blackface. There is a large discussion going on in the Netherlands whether Black Pete should change. Actually, it is not a discussion. The situation is that the majority of the country is furious that there is a group of people who say that Black Pete is a racial caricature and that the tradition needs to change.

    Who is Black Pete? It is the helper of Saint Nicholas. There are hundreds of Black Petes and their role is to be playful, athletic, acrobatic, clumsy, not too bright, a child's friend. They hand out candy and they are the ones delivering presents through the chimney. Below is the character, black face, red lips, a wig with black curly hair. Used to wear creole earrings and speak with a foreign accent.

    The majority of the country says it is not a racial caricature, the character looks like this because of going through the chimney. Uhhuh.

    It's upsetting how close-minded people are, with many of my friends not wanting to see that there is something wrong with the image. In fact, 22 have signed a petition that the tradition cannot change. Only 3 have signed the counter petition that asserts the figure is a racial caricature (one of whom is not Dutch).

    It's cognitive dissonance, they love the character and have an inability to see anything wrong with it. How have the US handled blackface traditions? I think there is no law against it, but it is frowned upon? How did it disappear from society?

    Are people right when saying "it's our tradition and we mean no harm by it, you're overreacting"? The discussion is polarizing, with 90 arrests made during the parade. I don't see people coming closer, but rather becoming more extreme in their views and standing more strongly to their opinion. What is needed for change? Does there need to be change?

    blackpete.jpg
    "Black Pete is welcome here"
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 16, 2014 #2

    Doug Huffman

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    We cannot fix what we cannot speak, and hypersensitive political correctness stifles discussion.

    I lived in the American South as an adult for thirty years and found a better balance of race relations there than in the progressive North. I was reared in a California multi-cultural community and learned to appreciate the interfaces, the churches, restaurants, neighbors, buisnesses, et cetera. There were no Africans in that community.
     
  4. Nov 16, 2014 #3

    russ_watters

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    I have some opinions on the issue, but first could you explain what, exactly, you see that is wrong with it?
     
  5. Nov 16, 2014 #4

    Bystander

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    If what I've highlighted is a commonly attributed characteristic within the tradition (equivalent to hillbilly dental health in the U.S., for instance), I can see the offense some might take even were the character(s) it(them)selves derived from Xmas traditions that preceded the slave trade. If the tradition is older than the slave trade, and some people embrace it in all innocence of any attempt to offend, it's an unfortunate situation. Same conflicts arise regarding lawyer, dumb blonde, Texas Aggie, and other "ethnic" jokes --- what is humor, and what is "insensitive?"
     
  6. Nov 16, 2014 #5
    It's pretty clearly a racist caricature. But please, cite scientific sources supporting this and explain in detail why it's bad so I can tell you that it isn't because someone somewhere else has real problems.
     
  7. Nov 17, 2014 #6

    Monique

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    I'll respond later (to others as well), but can you point me to a place where I can get the scientific resources to investigate this subject?
     
  8. Nov 17, 2014 #7
    I was mostly being sarcastic, making fun of the type of dismissive responses you often see in reply to pointing out things like this; when they point you to a dictionary definition of racism, you know you're dealing with a superior mind and should immediately retreat! Not anyone specific here necessarily, although I was confused that you were asked why you think Black Pete is wrong when you already explained that it's an offensive racial caricature (wikipedia says created around 1850...quite a suspicious time, even if this isn't American in origin). Isn't that enough?

    That said, I'm sure there are plenty of sources about the origin and history of blackface. In don't really know any, although Michelle Alexander briefly mentions it in The New Jim Crow, but it's not her main topic. Maybe wikipedia cites some decent sources?
     
  9. Nov 17, 2014 #8

    russ_watters

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    That is exactly why I asked my question: you are assuming an origin. I'd like to know it. I agree that if it is significantly related to the American blackface history that would make it racist, but I'm not so sure that it is.

    Also, your tone is insulting, not to mention hypocritical. You used dismissiveness to pre-empt dismissive arguments that haven't occurred!
     
    Last edited: Nov 17, 2014
  10. Nov 17, 2014 #9
    This tradition was born in slavery times right? I think it is insensitive for these modern times. Sends the typical message to black kids that all they can be is a buffoon to a white boss. I always try to get perspective and flip the scenario. I think to myself, if I'm in an area where I am the minority and I see a tradition where a boss is black and helping him is a dumb white clown, yeah, I may have a problem with that. It won't be laughing and feeling good.
     
  11. Nov 17, 2014 #10

    Doug Huffman

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    Some trace Zwarte Piet to Huginn and Muginn, the ravens that rode with Wotan on the Wild Hunt, that also inspired Harlequin/Hellequin, all vastly predating the classical African-Caribbean slavery story (slavery is integral with humanity).

    I live in a largest Icelandic community in the US, which Scandinavian traditions are quite evident, particularly at the turning of the year.
     
  12. Nov 17, 2014 #11

    Monique

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    I don't know this expression, are you saying the discussion should be open in order to fix it? The prime minister actually stated that we should all enjoy the holiday and not spoil it by protesting against it, that's essentially closing the discussion.

    I wonder whether the origin is important? An argument that is often used is "it is not meant to be offensive". Most often bullies don't realize they are doing harm and think they are being playful. I'd rather consider whether something is acceptable by current standards. I can give many examples that were normal practices historically, but which are frowned upon today.

    To answer your question: the celebration dates from the Middle Ages, where the Saint would secretly come to bring presents. During the reformation the Christian celebration was oppressed by the Protestants and had to be celebrated indoors. The Saint became a person one should be afraid of. In the late 18th century the image of the Saint started to change back to a more friendly figure that was there to educate children. In 1850 the first image of the servant Black Pete appeared:
    220px-08_St._Nikolaas_bij_een_Snoeper.png

    There are old songs that refer to the character as chained, the character is described to be black as coal (note: black as, not black from). This is an old song:
    Then the song continues that Pete takes care of St Nicholas, etc.

    The figure evolved into a scary one that would punish children with birch and transport them by boat to Spain, in recent years the characters became more friendly. In my youth the character spoke with a Surinam accent and didn't fully master the Dutch language.

    What I see wrong with it? As an adolescent I didn't see anything wrong with it, my explanation was that the Dutch are a tolerant nation and that's why it wasn't a problem to dress up as another race and act dumb. As a young adult I started to realize how ridiculous it looks, adults having to transform themselves to another race in order to act dumb. I had trouble understanding that people couldn't see anything wrong with that. The character is supposed to be black from the chimney, so my opinion is to transform the appearance to match that assertion.

    Very clearly the figure is dumb, during this years parade Black Pete drilled a hole in the boat outer wall to hang a painting. This of course created a leak. In blind panic they all jumped into the water, leaving the old and wise St Nicholas and a single bright Pete on the boat. Ironically this story line was created to allow for the creation of an army of newly trained Petes, of which a minority were of different color (they haven't passed through the chimney enough times). Even the "wise" Black Pete that trained the White Petes was quite dumb, I'll spare the details.

    Haha, ouch. Yes so that's what the discussion is to me, the character is so obviously dubious in nature. The least that people can do is acknowledge that fact and think about what can be done to remove that questionable nature. The solution is easy, but "traditions cannot be changed".

    Yes, the tradition was born at the end of slavery and the character was referred to as a servant. What is most shocking is how fiercely the Dutch society is reacting to this issue. As said 85–90% are against any change, this issue is bringing to light an immense intolerance and a shocking amount of racist remarks.

    Insert a lot of strong language and swear words in the following remarks, to get a sense of what is being said:
    "If you don't like the tradition, go to your own country" (the most common remark)
    "Go back to the banana field"
    "Slaves, behead that population"
    "Unemployed apes living off our money"
    "If you don't agree, then the Netherlands is not for you"

    That makes my blood boil, it is assumed that only people with African heritage can be against the tradition, it is assumed that everyone with an African heritage is non-Dutch, people with African decent are assumed to be unemployed leeches of society and are equated with apes.

    To illustrate the blatant public display of racism, here another example. Some players of the National soccer team made a selfie and posted it on Facebook. The reactions:
    "Club of St Nicholas?"
    "All Black Petes"
    " "Dutch" team"
    "Where is the man with the Miter?"
    "Football Club Monkey"
    "Don't you have to be at the parade?"
    "Helper Petes?"
    "Almost 5th December and they emerge everywhere"
    "Nine Black Petes"
    "Broken loose from the chains and then you get this"
    "Don't they have to be at the parade"
    "Are those Soccer Petes?"
    "Banana shake"

    Triest.jpg

    So, should we follow the Prime Minister: enjoy the holiday and don't complain? Or should the Prime Minister speak out that such remarks are not tolerated.
     
  13. Nov 17, 2014 #12
    It's pretty shocking! I know there is a large amount of racism in Europe as in the US. Everyone should be outspoken against racism.
     
  14. Nov 17, 2014 #13
    I don't think we need to know the precise details. It's blackface and that doesn't occur in a vacuum; it's inseparable from ugly racist views that are still around. What possible origin could that image have besides that? I can't think of any, and even if I could, it takes literally less than a minute to figure out its basic history. It's also a big clue that people have to resort to ridiculous "explanations" for it; does soot make your lips big and red?

    I don't see how it's hypocritical. Mildly insulting, yes, but then again, is it not common to say that this isn't a "real" problem and that people are overreacting? That's also insulting and it would have been said sooner or later anway. Might as well preemptively dismiss it, I figure.
     
    Last edited: Nov 17, 2014
  15. Nov 19, 2014 #14

    Monique

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    On a related xenophobia note, I just see the news: 80% of Dutch have barely any contact with Muslims, only 5% are open for an encounter. More than 60% feel threatened, 20% personally. That what you do not know you can not judge.

    I've lived in a Muslim-rich neighborhood (great food!), at least 9 of my friends are Muslim (great food!), part of my family is Muslim (great food!), my driving instructor was Muslim (great stories!), why wouldn't people want to interact with them? It's beyond me.
     
  16. Nov 19, 2014 #15
    Maybe that story about the dutch cartoonist jaded some people?
     
  17. Nov 19, 2014 #16

    Monique

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    That was the Danish cartoonist ;)

    Last Sunday I had a conversation with a famous music producer, whose opinion it was that Muslims shouldn't call their children Muhammad: it sends the signal that they're not integrating (he was pro-black pete and didn't want to "buckle" for "those people"). It is my opinion that everyone should be free to name their children, it's society that excludes people from integration. Sure the parent should consider what's going on in society and it might not be smart, but ultimately the problem is society and not the name.
     
  18. Nov 19, 2014 #17
    Agreed, but I don't see the connection with racism. Racism has a specific meaning and is quite a strong claim in my opinion. Causing offense is not necessarily racism. Neither participating parents, nor people portraying Sinterklaas, nor the Zwarte Pieten themselves have any intention of degrading black people. Nor do children view Zwarte Piet or black people in general as a lesser people. And I don't see the element of discrimination required for racism. Do people discriminate dwarfs more because they are Santa's helpers?

    I know that this tradition offends some people. And I agree that racism is still an issue in Europe.
    The racism I see is of a more latent variant. I have never encountered an adult who has a real issue with a black person. Untill they have to evaluate a job solliciation and then suddenly they still feel more comfortable with the white candidate. That's something that needs to be resolved.
    But are we going to accomplish this by putting people inside a glass box and telling the rest 'you can't touch them, make jokes or use caricatures'? To me, that just seems to isolate them more. Which is just the thing that enables discrimination.
    Perhaps I'm being overly idealist, but in my opinion racial caricatures shouldn't be an issue, because to me it just shows that people are more at ease with different races. Disallowing things we can make fun of (not in an insulting or degrading way of course), just shows that we are uncomfortable with it. Then we are pushing it back to a latent problem, something we don't talk about, but still have an issue with.

    Many children like Zwarte Piet. And to my knowledge, in Belgium at least, it's one of the only black characters thet exist. So what if it is a caricature, all children's characters are caricatures. I think children understand the concept and don't see their black playmates as any different.

    Could this be more of an issue with religion than foreign origin? Wouldn't you get the same results with the question 'Are you open for an encounter with fundamentalist Christians'? I know fundamentalism represents only a small minority in the diverse Muslim community, but I think that's perhaps what the people are more afraid of. Perhaps due to the fact that when Muslims are in western news, the're usually not the moderate ones.
    Identifying them by their religion doesn't really help I think. We talk about Dutch people, British, American, French,... and Muslims. That endorses the idea of that fundamental religion. A stupid comparison, but religion to me, and to almost all the people I know (including my grandparents) is just as important to identify yourself as you favourite board game. If someone were to introduce himself as 'Hi, I'm a Monopolist', I would find that weird and I sort of have the same feeling with religion, because it is a weird concept to me.
    I think, or at least I hope, you would get a more positive result if the question was rephrased as 'Would you be open for an encounter with a Turkish person?' for example.
     
  19. Nov 19, 2014 #18

    RonL

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    Monique, I would just mess my words up, trying to say what I feel, so I'll keep it simple and say.....I'm proud of you for making yourself known in this matter:) the thread topic.
     
    Last edited: Nov 19, 2014
  20. Nov 19, 2014 #19

    lisab

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    To examine one's own culture analytically has to be one of the most difficult tasks. Thank you for explaining this so well!

    I think you've made a great point. Do you think Black Pete could be re-cast as "Ashy Pete" or "Sooty Pete"?

    The personality attributes of Pete will change with time, as they already have. He doesn't have to stay "dumb".

    Whoever believes "Traditions can't be changed" knows nothing of history!
     
  21. Nov 20, 2014 #20

    Monique

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    There is a clear display of racism, when people say to their fellow citizens "go back to your own banana country", there is a feeling of superiority in there (especially since they are already in their own country). Nowhere in this thread was the claim made that Black Pete is racism, the claim is made that it is a racial caricature that doesn't fit in a modern society.

    The latency is a big problem, both with racism and sexism. It is not only with job applications, it's everywhere. Usually you don't find out, until an employer will accidentally send the e-mail "unsuitable for the job, first of all: he's a -n-word-, second: limited experience" or a house owner tells you that the real estate broker described the tenant as "nice, but colored", etc. I view the Black Pete as the same latency: people view it as normal, but it is not.

    That's what's happening: people are speaking up about their feelings and are shoved aside. Exactly what shouldn't happen. None should be placed in a glass box. People should realize themselves what kind of an impression they make, would they dress up like orthodox Jewish people and act like clowns for a whole month like the custom is now? They might get away with dressing like Native American Indians, I don't think there are many European American Indians, but clearly the Victoria Secret runway show drew quite some criticism.

    Exactly not, the custom dates back to a time where the character was not well-represented in society: an exotic oddity that could be portrayed like a caricature. The fact that there is so little empathy and so little openness for discussion shows that people are not at ease. Actually I get the impression that people feel overruled and are afraid to give in, exactly because they are uncomfortable with people that look different from them.

    Yes, the fundamentalism is what people are afraid of. It's a prejudice to think that everyone with a Muslim belief must be fundamentalist, oppress his wife and is a danger to society. I don't see the people I know as Muslim, I see them as people with a certain origin: Dutch, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Turkish, Dutch-Turkish, Moroccan. They have the same values as me, other than that they believe in a God (like other friends) and I don't.

    Ah well, surely some friends and colleagues are annoyed that I don't stand up for the "primeval Dutch tradition". I'm annoyed with them for saying "if you do not agree, Netherlands is not for you". In the end they are opinions, at least it is bringing attention to the latent racism that is coming to the surface.

    Thanks Lisa, if enough people start referring to the character as Sooty Pete I think it will change eventually. Children grow up, traditions change, no matter how rigid the firm believers are :)
     
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