Aruba bans controversial ‘Black Pete’ blackface makeup during annual traditional celebration

Francis Akhalbey June 24, 2020
Blackface wearing white people in the Netherlands -- Photo: snippet from "Black Pete, Zwarte Piet: The Documentary" by Shantrelle P. Lewis

The Southern Caribbean island nation of Aruba has announced it is banning the controversial ‘Black Pete’ blackface makeup that is worn with exaggerated red lipsticks by white people during their annual Sinterklaas parade in December.

A Dutch Caribbean island, Aruba also celebrates the annual holiday as it forms part and is a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The announcement of the ban was made by the island nation’s Culture Minister, Xiomara Maduro, in a Facebook post on Monday.

“With this decision we do not want to end the Sinterklaas celebration, but we will prevent people from being offended, consciously or unconsciously,” she said, according to a translation from NL Times.

Every year, thousands of Dutch holidaymakers paint their faces black and lips red to parade the streets ahead of Christmas festivities depicting Black Pete – a Dutch folklore character who assists Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus or Sinterklaas in Dutch).

As an alternative, Maduro suggested participants either “use multicolored paint or they come with their natural skin tone” as the government will no longer support people wearing blackface to depict Zwarte Piet (Black Pete).

“Not all issues have been resolved, but this is the first step,” she added.

This announcement comes in the wake of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte admitting the controversial blackface tradition is discriminatory and hopes it disappears. His statement came after several years of protest against the wearing of the “racist” blackface.

Speaking in a parliamentary debate on June 4, Rutte admitted his perception about the character had changed since 2013, where he initially said, “Black Pete is just black and I can’t do much about that,” DW reports. The Prime Minister said he hopes the tradition eventually disappears in the country.

Black Pete first appeared in an 1850 book by Amsterdam school teacher Jan Schenkman, who introduced him as a Moor from Spain. He distributes sweets and presents to children on the eve of December 5 which is the festival of Sinterklaas.

However, the blackface, afro hair and red lips have been widely condemned as racist by activists who equate it to the black minstrel shows in 19th century America when white actors wore black faces depicting black people as slow and dumb.

Thousands of activists have been arrested, assaulted and jailed annually for interfering with the Black Pete parade, while thousands of others cling to the tradition and parade to commemorate the arrival of Saint Nicholas and his companions from Spain by boat marking the beginning of the Christmas season.

Rutte said he had met and interacted with several people over last few years, including “small children, who said ‘I feel terribly discriminated (against) because Pete is black’… I thought, that’s the last thing that we want” in a holiday intended for children.

“I expect in a few years there will be no more Black Petes,” he added, DW further reports.

Though he said the practice won’t be banned, he believed it is “changing over time, under pressure from the societal debate,” according to CNN.

“There are also people who say, ‘I do not want — while I am totally not discriminatory or racist — to be forced to let go of that symbol, which I have never seen as a discriminatory symbol.’ That makes this discussion so nuanced, and so complicated,” he said.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: June 24, 2020


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