In the form of entertaining caricature, black face has been used throughout the Western world to justify slavery, to emphasize white superiority, and to reinforce racial segregation. It has taken many different appearances over the last few hundred years, but its essence has consistently been the mockery of the idea of racial equality. Banned in most parts of the world and widely considered part of a racist past, today, black face is still practiced extensively in The Netherlands. During the Sinterklaas tradition, a festivity that spans over 3 weeks in November and December, black faced figures called Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) dominate TV, cinema, classrooms, commercial enterprise and the family home. Rooted in myth and nostalgia, the figure of Zwarte Piet is deeply cherished by the majority of Dutch people. Considered a quintessential part of Dutch identity, those voicing criticism against the figure have been ignored, bullied, arrested, and threatened.
In this video hoax, which was released on YouTube on November 21, 2013, a Dutch man appears on a Canadian talk show to explain why critics are simply misunderstanding the Dutch tradition. In doing so, the character reflects the majority opinion in the Netherlands, including of the prime minister and major media power-houses, which make it nearly impossible for critical voices to challenge not just Zwarte Piet, but a broader issue of the presence of colonial cultural products and thought still present in Dutch society.
The video triggered a social media uproar, was covered by international press and reached over 65,000 hits in four days, before it was taken offline by YouTube due to a copyright complaint. Apart from debate, confusion, and praise, the comments section on YouTube was also marked by a number of death threats. After contacting the authorities, the makers of this video were informed the police couldn’t do anything against such threats, even though sender’s profiles and supposed victims were clearly identifiable.
This intervention was made possible with the support of the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts and the Yes Lab.
Update: In July 2014, an Amsterdam court ruled that Zvarte Piet's black face was indeed racist and an amemded version, Cheese Pete, will partially replace the figure in most official ceremonies for the 2014 holiday season. More info here.
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