Racism in “tolerant” countries: the Black Pete pseudo-controversy

Est Reading Time: 4 min

There’s been some news coverage about the Dutch tradition of Zwarte Piet or Black Pete. As part if the annual Feast of St Nicholas celebrations, Santa is accompanied by a servant (whose appearance is of pagan origin). Basically lots of people put on blackface.


For years, activists have been trying to put an end to this and this year there has been a large backlash from white Dutch defending the tradition (complete with the activists getting racist abuse). I took a small part in a friend’s Facebook discussion about it and looked at this post too. The threads took all of two seconds to hit the racism denialist tropes we find throughout the intertubes. ‘Twas sad but instructive. Here’s the predictable bingo of responses:

  • The deliberate conflation of legal and social consequences (freeze peach anyone?) of putting on blackface, as if this will somehow mean people will automatically start being arrested. Doubly ironic since those part of the backlash are doing something similar (telling people not to make certain statements in public), just on the wrong side of the issue.
  • Taking racism to be a label and not a cognitive process. Therefore, a person is either racist or not, instead of having more/less racist attitudes. For more info, this video is a must. You can imagine what a person who identifies as Not RacistTM is likely to say. But that’s nothing on someone identifying as being from a Not Racist CountryTM.
  • Relying on inappropriate, shitty dictionary definitions of racism as a denialist tactic. Any time someone uses the dictionary in an argument, chances are they’ve lost it but for racism, multiply by a thousand. Basically this use is there to require conscious intent and a thousand other factors a denialist would have you prove before His Honour rules something is racist.
  • An obsession with the “formal” historical etymologies of racist symbols. A thing is racist only if its origins were intended as racist (by the dictionary definition). This was the main argument – Black Pete has nothing to do with the blackface of US minstrel shows, therefore innocent! In this case, I invite you to make the case that this cartoon is not anti-Semitic simply because it’s based on a painting by Goya that had no anti-Semitic intent at the time GOYA painted it…(I’m not saying anything about this cartoon, just that this would be a pretty piss-poor argument that it’s not racist.)
  • The loud insistence that this discussion MUST be talked about only if divorced from its social context. For example, asking poignant questions like whether there’s anything “intrinsically” wrong about putting on black paint and if it’s racist if it gets applied on a white person’s face by a hurricane. Which are insightful questions that help prepare us for common scenarios like encountering some humanoid aliens that paint their faces black. In other good philosophical questions, is it intrinsically wrong to thrust your fist out from your body or does it only become wrong when a person’s face occupies the same space? This is what we must discuss when talking about violence.
  • The claim that something is not racist if it can’t be directly proved that this particular thing is causing the kind of direct harm that I define as important. For example, for blackface to be harmful we want studies showing that it leads to race-based violence. That way, racism stops being an intrinsic problem at all – yay, I’ve eliminated racism! Also this means that the acceptable harm done by racism gets to be defined by a very important and objective person – me…
  • Use of false balance. This often comes up when talking about the issue as a “controversy”. In other news, is it racist to put on a giant Jewish nose for Halloween? The debate, apparently, rages on! There was even despair that these issues always end up with extremists on both sides yelling at each other. See, those who use racial slurs against activists are extremists, as are those who want people to stop using blackface…
  • Decrying it as cultural imperialism and meddling in an issue for the Dutch. (Of course the activists agains the tradition are largely Dutch.) Where it gets interesting is that the same people may well ask fine gotchas like “why aren’t you dealing with real issues like combatting FGM?”.
  • Using the mantle of tolerance. Because you see, colourblindness is awesome. Also Black Pete is done for pure, innocent children who don’t see race so it’s not even an issue for them. (As long as blackface doesn’t cause them to beat someone up it’s ok to grow up thinking it’s ok.) Naturally, “complaining” makes you the real racist, as well as someone who’s making racism worse by dilution and making it harder to find Real RacismTM. Which apparently you need a guidebook to locate.
  • Using the mantle of rationality. Why can’t people just be more reasonable like me, who totally won all those arguments with my logiks? Sadly, the Facebook thread ended.with the person who made most of these arguments thinking he’d “won” and that he showed up the other person in the thread as having muddled thinking. For more on the power of declaring yourself as the rational one, see the previous post.

So if the denialist tactics are pretty much the same for this case as they are for much more deadly forms of racism, does this make racist denialism impenetrable? As usual, I don’t know.