British Caribbean documentary maker Jay Hall — who sat down with the owner of Dutch Delights and convinced him to do away with the blackface tradition — talks about Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, and its racist history.
In November 2016, I was out in Birkenhead where I was living at the time when a vintage car pulled up beside me. I watched as three or four white people hopped out of the car with their faces painted black, huge red lips plastered on their faces and big curly black wigs on their heads. At first, I had to do a double take. Surely, nobody thinks this is an okay thing to do in 2016? They looked right back at me as if nothing was wrong.
The people were dressed up as the character Zwarte Piet, who first appeared in a children’s book written by a Dutch school teacher in the 1850s. He was depicted as a stupid, caricatured slave of Sint Nikolaas. Where the Caucasian Sint Nikolaas is well-dressed and noble looking, Zwarte Piet was illustrated in moorish attire. He represents the colonialist view of black people of the time — clearly an unfair bias that’s degrading and humiliating.
It’s well-known that the Dutch have a huge colonialist history, dominating world trade between the 16th and 18th century through the use of the transatlantic slave trade. They would pack people into ships, sail to other areas of the world (like the Carribean, where I come from) and auction them off to be shipped to plantations and colonies around the world. The Dutch engaged in slavery in their former colonies until the late 1800’s.
Around this same time, Golliwogs began appearing in children books across America. This was during a time of transition where black slavery was heading towards abolishment in some places, yet there were still huge sections of society that embraced anti-black viewpoints. The Golliwog image was a means of expressing their disdain for people of African heritage – they even featured in books with titles such as Agatha Christie’s Ten Little N******.
Black Pete also bears a striking resemblance to the characters in Minstrel shows in America where white people depicted black people as dim-witted, lazy and buffoonish as a form of entertainment that reinforced negative views on black people at the time. If you compare illustrations of Zwarte Piet to American anti-black caricatures such as Golliwogs and Minstrels, it’s difficult to deny that they all have similar roots in the blackface tradition.
With all that history considered, Black Pete to me is a symbol of slavery, oppression, racism and ignorance. After seeing those people in blackface that day, I took to the Facebook page of Dutch Delights who run the parade. Although I wanted to scream, shout and cry, I knew that I needed to have a discussion to evoke change. Instead of accusing anyone of racism, I simply outlined how I felt and asked people to let me know what they felt about the tradition and my experience.
The post was met with a lot of outrage and hurt from the black community and an unfortunate amount of ignorant and threatening comments from people of a fairer complexion. Thankfully, the owner of Dutch Delights, Willem van der Velde, contacted me, and invited me to have a conversation at his restaurant. Reaching out to me couldn’t have been easy for him, and to this day I feel that he was being genuine.
At the restaurant, I first let Willem tell me what the tradition meant to him and his culture. From there, I laid out the history of Dutch involvement in the slave trade and the fact that this tradition was a direct result of that history. I could tell that he was having a hard time understanding the link and that he still needed clarification on why the tradition was offensive. To his credit, at least he wanted to know.
I asked him why, if any person says to you ‘what you are doing offends me or hurts me’ and that thing adds no significant value to your life, would you still do it? If clear links are being made to unsavoury times in our history that involved homophobia, racism or intolerance, even if they are unintentional, why hold onto it? Our conversation was calm, friendly and I genuinely got on well with Willem and his wife. Plus, the food there is amazing.
Turns out sitting down and having conversations with people in an open way can be really helpful in evoking change, as Willem decided to end the use of blackface in relation to Zwarte Piet. In an ideal world, I’d prefer the tradition was completely abolished as it’s still built off of the oppression of an unthinkable number of people, but I do think Willem has made a step in the right direction. I could sit and be sad at the ongoing ignorance, or I could be thankful that there’s at least some progress being made.
Of course, there’s still work to be done. There’s still a real lack of knowledge around these issues, perhaps because there’s been a historic absence of people of African and Caribbean descent in New Zealand. This could be why a lot of people mislabel others – and themselves – as black. Even in very recent history, people like Jimi Jackson (who’s Māori) have taken it upon themselves to wear blackface, and then defend the decision by insinuating that he’s black. Jimi Jackson is not black. He does not speak for black people, and blackface is not OK.
With the absence of a significant black community, it takes longer to change perspectives on these issues in New Zealand. We as a country have our own atrocities that are swept under the carpet, like the Dawn Raids and the treatment of African migrants. There’s an unfortunate tendency to mock political correctness, which usually comes from people of privilege who haven’t experienced racism first hand. In my opinion, that puts them in no position to dictate if people should be offended or not.
There’s still a lot of ignorance in New Zealand – just look at the Golliwogs you can still buy in markets and malls across the country. With a lack of voices from the black community speaking out and a general lack of education on these issues, we’ll continue to see ignorant practices. These traditions are being brought to New Zealand by those from other countries but, unlike in the countries they derive from, they’re met with far less resistance here. Back home, there’d be a riot if someone tried selling a Golliwog or celebrating Black Face at Brixton Market.
So take some time to educate yourself, learn some history, and embrace some empathy. If you were a black person, would you want to be caricatured in this way? Or would you want to be portrayed as smart, caring and charismatic? You can still be racially insensitive or offensive without meaning to. So if everyone could try a little harder to understand other cultures, and make changes to avoid the hurt and pain of many, the world would be a better place.