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Why the Dutch Holiday Tradition of Blackface Won't Go Away

Every year, Dutch and Belgian people celebrate Christmas by donning blackface, despite increasing outcry over the practice.

by Sarah Hagi
22 December 2016, 8:19pm

Blackface and minstrel shows have largely been deemed unacceptable and racist by most. But while instances of blackface make headlines in North America (usually in the form of a celebrity dressing up as a black person and subsequently apologizing), in some parts of Europe the practice is considered a holiday tradition linked with cultural identity. In the Netherlands and Belgium, the annual return of Sinterklaas (a white-bearded figure similar to Saint Nicholas) and his sidekick Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) means December turns into a battleground between those fighting racism and those who view the donning of blackface as a harmless tradition.

The story of Sinterklaas is not unlike that of Santa Claus in North America, except that instead of a troupe of industrious elves and a fleet of flying reindeer, Sinterklaas delivers his presents with the help of Black Pete. And just as Santa Claus gives coal to children who have been naughty, Black Pete takes bad children away to Spain, where he's from. Although Black Pete is depicted as a black man with dark skin, curly hair, and full red lips, he is only ever portrayed by a white person in blackface.

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