Blackfacing has been a popular form of entertainment for predominantly white societies ever since the 19thcentury. Its popularity spread in the United States through minstrel shows, film and ballet. From there it spread over the rest of Western society as a genre in itself. Mid 19thcentury is approximately the time that the Dutch introduced a black servant to the traditional story of Saint Nicholas called Black Pete. Ever since the annual tradition is performed with the ‘normalized’ custom of blackfacing. But Black Pete is not an isolated Dutch incident in which blackfacing is involved. By using an event from August 2018 where blackface was performed in the streets of Brabant as a case study, this essay aims to investigate the Dutch desire to use blackface. The first question I aim to answer can be formulated as: How does the tradition of blackfacing work as a tool to establish nationalistic sentiments? The act of blackfacing does not only frame the imagined community by ‘othering’, but also imposes violent stereotypes onto the ‘ethnic other’. Nationalistic sentiments are both created and fueled by this practice that inherently connects a nation to its history.
For a more psychoanalytical approach it is useful to consider where the desire of white people to pose/perform blackness comes from. Offensive stereotyping, as well as cultural appropriation, are still common sights in and outside the Netherlands. The theories of English academic Richard Dyer offer interesting insights on the desires and behavior of the white community, for he theorizes race as a social construct that can be performed through the body.
Ultimately, it is necessary to consider the magnitude, intensity and the consequences of the violence that is related to stereotyping. Professor Rosello Mireille’s ‘Declining the Stereotype’ reveals ways to recognize these harmful stereotypes, clarifies in what way they are harmful and offers advise on how to strip them from their ideological power.
On the 26thof August 2018 Heeze, a small town in the Dutch province of North Brabant, held their annual parade. The parade consisted of decorated floats on which an event related to the province was portrayed by means of design and theatre. The theme of the parade in 2018 was, according to the organizers’ website, ‘What moves Brabanders?’ This involved mobility of all sorts: pilgrimages, climate change, economy etc. (“Visitors Info”, 2018). Oddly enough, the widely accepted form to portray the story of the White Fathers, who traveled to Africa to reform African locals to the Roman-Catholic church, was executed in the shape of a ship with dozens of ‘actors’ in blackface. They wore self-invented robes meant to resemble the garments of African tribes, waved spears around and shouted incomprehensible things meant to resemble their understanding of what any African language sounds like. The group in blackface acted wild and in strong contrast with the calm Fathers in their white robes (“Schandalige blackface-boot bij Brabantse Dag-parade in Heeze”, 2018)
It is necessary to consider a phenomenon like the one in Heeze in order to scrutinize the Dutch blackface-problem and not only Black Pete. Why? Primarily, this event can only be categorized as blackface and cannot be refuted by fallacious argumentation related to the use of black facial paint, such as “the figure is black from the chimney’s soot”. There is no reasonable doubt that there are white people involved that intent to portray black people. Secondly, it shows that blackfacing is a common and nationally accepted practice for entertainment purposes in the Netherlands. And lastly, blackfacing continues to be linked to colonial practices in the past and still incorporates harmful stereotypes about non-whites. To consider how this practice functions as a tool to establish nationalistic sentiments it is useful to consider the insights by Jan Nederveen Pieterse in his work White on Black. This book contains a vast visual history of Western stereotypes of black people over the last two hundred years. Pieterse presents illustrations and discourse in a chronological manner, starting from medieval times until the twentieth century, that raises questions about the power structures within popular culture and the harmful qualities of caricatures, parodies, satire and humor as such. The Netherlands plays an extensive part in the creation of these stereotypes, as emphasized in the book, with the persistent nationalistic symbol of Black Pete and figures in children’s rhymes (‘Little Moriaan as black as soot’) (Pieterse 163). White supremacy is imprinted at an early age with aforementioned rhymes and children’s books such as Ten Little N*ggers in which toddlers learn to count by causing blacks to disappear one by one. The origin of this trope goes way back to the 19th century and answers to the Western notion that non-whites are the ‘vanishing’ and thus the ‘weaker race’ (166). The Dutch version of Ten Little N*ggers was published by J. Vlieger in 1910 and is well known amongst the previous generations of Dutch citizens. Considering how early on Westerners, including the Dutch, learn to express their nationality by means of eliminating ‘others’ it is not surprising that blackfacing has become a common tool to perform that ‘otherness’. Why give others a voice, when you can impersonate them? What started as white backlash against abolitionism by making fun of slaves at minstrel shows has grown into a full-fledged form of entertainment up to the present day. There is morally little to no difference between the minstrel shows in 19th century USA and the blackface performance in Heeze in 2018.
Blackface throughout the centuries has always been a form of defense. Minstrel shows, with their pro-slavery and anti abolitionist propaganda, where in and of themselves a defense of slavery (134). Today blackface is a form to defend whiteness and the subjective history of that whiteness. The word ‘subjective’ is important in this matter, for whiteness is in and of itself a historically formed social construct. Scientist and historian Benedict Anderson explains this well in his work Imagined Communities in which he analyses nationalism. The gist of the concept ‘imagined community’ is the notion that a nation is merely constructed by the people who see themselves as part of that group. This image of who belongs to the community and who does not, is largely constructed by the media and its use of images. Stereotypes come into play in order to speak to a certain audience and to reject others. The historicity of the concept is important as well: Benedict sees the nation as a cultural artifact (Anderson 4). The nation comes into being by historical forces that have been molded over time by communities who narrativize their own past.
Above mentioned theories correlate directly with the events in Heeze. To narrativize the historical events of the province of Brabant the community chooses to use blackface in order to legitimate the colonial operations of the White Fathers. By using blackface, the white Brabanders try to defend the colonial actions of their ancestors and by juxtaposing these stereotypes with the ‘serene’ White Fathers they are sending a message of what a ‘true Brabander’, historically speaking, is: a colonialist.
White people defend the performance of blackface as if it is a fundamental right. There is passion and fierceness involved when the act of blackfacing is contended. But the paradox of the act cannot be overlooked: Why would a certain group in a society want to imitate/look like/act like another group they practically look down upon? The logic seems lost when the matter is approached in a somewhat psychoanalytical way. But English academic Richard Dyer provides useful insights on the human psyche when the construction of ‘whiteness’ is involved. In Dyer’s essay White, he approaches whiteness as it being a cultural construction perpetuated by images in the media. In this essay he focuses on cinema in particular. Whiteness, according to Dyer, is ‘emptiness, absence, denial or even a kind of death’ (Dyer 44). To understand what he means by that it is useful to consider that blacks, LGBT and other marginalized/oppressed groups have always been subjected to be studied, because they ‘deviate’ from the culturally determined norm: whiteness. Whiteness is like a blank canvas: once paint is added, the colors become legible. But whiteness is often forgotten as a separate category and tool for analysis. Dyer aims to read whiteness by analyzing a few examples in popular cinema. The following examples of representation of whiteness in cinema shed a helpful light on the need of whites to blackface.
Simba, a British film from 1955, is about a European family situated in East Africa who finds itself caught up in an uprising by local black Africans. It is needless to say that Simba is a highly colonial film for it is organized around the rigid binary perceptions on white culture versus black culture. These ancient ideas are based on unjust stereotypes of whites representing modernity, order, stability, and blacks standing for barbarity, violence, chaos and backwardness. (49). These stereotypes, taking Pieterse’s historical analyses of racial images into account, are tenacious for they persistently linger in our modern society. What Simba does on a cinematic level, the province of Brabant has performed in real life. The contrast of the serenity of the White Fathers and the chaotic behavior of the blackfaced group, that was supposed to represent African natives, is immense. The difference between the performances becomes even larger when they are deliberately juxtaposed in close proximity of one another, such as on the blackface-float. This binary is nothing less than a racist trope that is being used in cinema and other forms of entertainment. It is based on the invented notion that blacks are ‘behind’ on the evolutionary path that whites have already followed. This shows in the film in the form of black people needing to ‘become’ white (meaning: adapting white ‘civilized’ culture). The same mechanism occurs in Brabant, where the board member of the Brabantsedag Harald van Schie responded to the commotion on the blackface-float with the opinion that the organization has always distanced itself from racial discrimination. He justifies this with the remark that the float does not represent a slave ship, but a boat that sailed to Africa to ‘help the continent and its inhabitants’. (‘Video: ophef over ‘racistische’ wagen op Brabantsedag’, 2018). This statement highlights the self-image of the Dutch as white saviors and illustrates how deeply embedded racist convictions are so that racism, as such, is often not even recognized.
Dyer’s analysis of whiteness in the film Jezebel offers yet another thought-provoking observation. The belief that non-whites are closer to nature stems from a long colonial history where Europeans encountered humans in newly conquered land and perceived them immediately as part of the fauna of those lands. In the European’s eyes these humans were yet untouched by civilization. This impression has led to the idea that non-whites have more ‘life’ than whites (55). Having more ‘life’ in this context should not be mistaken for positive connotations. ‘Life’ equals expressions of the body, emotions, sensuality, spirituality etc., and is strongly counterposed to the mind and the intellect. The harmful binary thought that developed from this idea is that non-whites are wild and free, and that white society is built upon its strict codes and the concealment of emotions (56). The film Jezebel, starring Bette Davis, deals with a free-spirited Southern woman who struggles with the rules of society. Through this struggle she conforms and fully adapts to her restrictive culture. Her emotions are no longer expressed by herself, but she ‘lives’ through the black characters in the film. These characters in the film are mere vessels for the sentiments that whites are not allowed to display. The main character’s anticipation, grief and excitement are transferred to black bodies that convey these feelings by physical activities: running, singing and dancing, but never through speech. Emotions do not belong in a civilized white society, for they are too primal. There is no white mode of expression for such intense emotions (58). This strict regulation on emotions has left its marks on current white societies. Where black slaves were used for entertainment on the plantation fields, blacks today are accepted as entertainers in arts and sports in the same society they are often racially discriminated in. In the absence of blacks, whites ‘become’ black with the use of face paint. Taking into consideration the caricatural figures that arose from this practice, such as Jim Crow, Black Pete and the African natives in Brabant, it becomes clear that the practice allows whites to ‘live’. They suddenly have an excuse to act wild, dumb, chaotic, to scream, dance, jump and sing. It is not a coincidence that the above-mentioned caricatural figures have striking similarities: whites can only perform the stereotypes they are familiar with. As soon as the face paint comes on whites can shamelessly act out without consequences.
The aforementioned analyses, that expose the underlying power structures in the Netherlands, are vital in order to interpret the (sub)conscious motivations of white people to use blackface and (re)produce unjust stereotypes. But even with this information the following question lingers: How do we deal, as a society and as individuals, with the violent colonial act of blackfacing? There is clearly no unequivocal answer to a question like that. In the book Declining the Stereotype: Ethnicity and Representation in French Cultures, Professor Mireille Rosello analyses how minorities in French cultures have dealt with stereotypes. By using examples from French media, such as film and novels, where stereotypes have been questioned and challenged, Rosello offers insights on ways to recognize and subvert harmful stereotypes. Her suggestion is to decline stereotypes by recognizing its manifestations in order to relief it from its ideological power. Stereotypes are never passively experienced by the ones affected, but stereotypes ask for an active participation. It is like receiving an open invitation to belong to a community and being urged to declare your allegiance. Rosello recognizes how difficult it is to decline stereotypes in these moments. Primarily, it is difficult to recognize the violence in manifestations of stereotypes for they are presented as innocent and harmless. Secondly, declining a stereotype is exactly like declining an invitation: it creates an awkward atmosphere and one might feel like they are being impolite by this rejection to participate (Rosello 11). This approach only seems to work when text and speech is involved, such as puns, irony, double entendres and other forms of ‘humor’. But how can Rosello’s theory be used when we are faced with violent stereotypes displayed at a public event that is supported by the municipality? That is not simple, since we see ourselves as individual entities in a crowd full of participants. But every rejection is a form of reclaiming agency and stripping the stereotype of its destructive power. The metaphor that Rosello uses is that stereotypes are weapons that are supposed to remain in the drawer. Only when they come out of the drawer, they become dangerous (26). Every form of stereotyping is violent. Also the ones that present themselves as innocent humor. Professor Philomena Essed mentions in her work Everyday Racism that humiliation is a key instrument for oppression (Essed 22). It is a tool meant to damage one’s dignity and put the racial ‘other’ in their place. A place undoubtedly below theirs. Despite the damage stereotyping causes, Rosello expresses doubt that it will lead to legislation. The existence of contradictory stereotypes for one and the same group of people and the difficulty to pinpoint what is considered a ‘negative’ or a ‘positive’ quality in stereotypes make it complicated to enforce laws. That is a valid point, but disciplinary actions can be sanctioned by people other than governmental figures. The Netherlands is simply too stubborn to let go of its beloved blackface ‘tradition’. The repercussions for blackfacing in the United States are substantial and in high contrast with the attitude of the Dutch. Talk show host Megyn Kelly was fired by NBC News in October 2018 for defending blackface on air (Lee, 2018). The widespread anger over her comments of the past few years had finally reached a pivotal point with her justification of a frowned-upon racist practice. This is a heavy contrast with the mindset existing in the Netherlands, where Prime Minister Mark Rutte and other politicians publicly endorse the blackface ‘tradition’ every single year. All forms of blackface in the Netherlands, including Black Pete and caricatures of African natives, must be seen for what they are: harmful expressions of ideology by using ancient stereotypical tropes that should be placed and remain in the metaphorical drawer.
This analysis of the use of blackface in the Netherlands has provided several grounds for where the desire for this custom arose. It is inherently connected to the imagined history of a nation. These imagined stories of the past are perpetually reproduced by the hegemonic order of our Western society, which explains why history classes often revolve around the perspectives of whites and why black narratives are pushed into the background. The colonial attitude of white supremacy has left its marks in Dutch culture by the normalization and glorification of the blackface ‘tradition’. Blackfacing allows whites to act out without the consequences that Dutch people of color regularly face in the Netherlands. It is a blatant expression of white privilege that the Dutch continue to defend vigorously. Putting on face paint provides them with the ability to perform as ‘the other’. This performance goes hand in hand with ancient and untrue stereotypes that exist about ‘the other’ in order to highlight the contrast between cultures and subtly remind the audience which culture is superior and in charge. The connection between blackface and the Dutch colonial past is unknown to a large part of the population, which is why incidents such as the blackface-float in Brabant are common sights in the Netherlands. The Netherlands must finally come to terms with their perpetual production of stereotypes: They are weapons that need to be contextualized and contained from walking around in public. Blackface is way past its due date. We must be able to look at it in a safe space, for instance in museums, informative books and/or in the Black Archives, so that it cannot be (mis)used, circulated and reproduced to uphold uncontextualized stereotypes.
Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined Communities.London: Verso.
Dyer, R. (1997). White.London and New York: Routledge.
Essed, P (2018). Alledaags Racisme.Amsterdam: Van Gennep.
Lee, B. (2018, October 26). Megyn Kelly’s NBC show cancelled after blackface controversy. Retrieved on December 18, 2018. The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/oct/26/megyn-kelly-today-cancelled-nbc-blackface-controversey.
Pieterse, J.N. (1992). White on Black.London: Yale University Press.
Rosello, M. (1998). Declining the Stereotype: Ethnicity and Representation in French Cultures.Hanover and London: University Press of New England.
RTL Nieuws (2018, August 28) Video: ophef over ‘racistische’ wagen op Brabantsedag. Retrieved on December 16, 2018, van RTL Nieuws: https://www.rtlnieuws.nl/editienl/artikel/4393066/video-ophef-over-racistische-wagen-op-brabantsedag.
Stichting Brabantsedag.Visitor Info. Retrieved on December 8, 2018. Brabantsedag: https://www.brabantsedag.nl/en/visitor-info/theme.
Stichting Gebladerte (2018, August 28) Schandalige blackface-boot bij Brabantse Dag-parade in Heeze. Retrieved on November 28, 2018. Doorbraak.eu: https://www.doorbraak.eu/schandalige-blackface-boot-bij-brabantse-dag-parade-in-heeze/?fbclid=IwAR1hsJioE2stj0ue5YaKhejEBbBaOjzYB4ecrjMIlbtP5ioWhBf0ayJN8WE.