by Akim Reinhardt
Black Pete. Good Lord, what a head shaker that is.
Most anyone who's not Dutch looks at Black Pete and thinks to themselves: For real? You've got Sinterklaas, the Dutch version of Santa Claus, working his Christmas season magic accompanied by an army of little Jumpin' Jim Crows? Diminutive, black face helpers who look like an unholy cross between Al Jolsen and Rhoda from the Mary Tyler Moore Show?
If that ain't a goddamn freak show, then I don't know what is.
Until recently, most Americans had never heard of Black Pete, or Zwarte Piet as he's known in Dutch. He only first caught my attention a couple of years ago. But this year, the little fella began reaching an international level of infamy as even the United Nations chimed in on Holland's favorite little pickaninny.
White performers dressed in black face and performing as Black Pete is pretty cut and dried for most people: it's stunningly distasteful, and an embarrassing throwback to Europe's imperial culture.
But then again, most people aren't from Holland, and that's where it starts to get interesting.
The Dutch have overwhelmingly rallied together in defense of Black Pete. Amid the hubbub following the U.N. condemnation, a Dutch Facebook page supporting Black Pete quickly garnered over two million of Likes. In a nation with fewer than 17 million people, that's quite a statement.
But rather than helping their cause, the rationale most apologists offer only compounds matters. They insist that Black Pete needs to stay because he’s good for children; that the character is a cherished part of most Dutch people’s childhood, and many of them can’t imagine depriving today’s children of that joy.
Because really, nothing’s better for helping children gain a sound sense of themselves and others than watching black face performers prance around cartoonishly.
Americans such as myself can be quick to judge and condemn. Living in a country that saw a protracted civil rights movement reach its apex half-a-century ago, the knee jerk reaction is to condescendingly nod our heads and mutter something about Europe's backwards race relations. We know our own state of race relations is far from perfect. But black face in 21st America? And directed at audiences of children no less? Incomprehensible.
But what about red face?
The Kansas City Chiefs football team. The Cleveland Indians baseball team. The Washington Redskins football team. The Atlanta Braves baseball team. The Chicago Blackhawks hockey team. And beyond professional sports teams garnering huge profits, there are also prestigious research universities like Florida State University and the University of Illinois that continue to field sports teams with Indian names and mascots, have many fans who dress up in red face, and even present sanctioned red face Indian performances for the crowd.
Black Pete is atrocious, and just about everyone outside of Holland gets that. But America's Indian mascotting is also disgusting. Yet many Americans are as blind to their red face minstrelsy as the legion of Dutch supporters are to their beloved black face minstrel.
Certainly the two phenomena are not identical. There are numerous differences between them, and if supporters of either side want to claw through the muck for some moral high ground vis a vis the other, be my guest. But there are also certain similarities that I think are worth observing and discussing.
Both are, to my mind, completely indefensible here in the 21st century. But beyond that, it's also worth looking at deeper commonalities between the two phenomena.
The doe-eyed adoration and strident, at times even vicious defense of such minstrelsy can tell us something about identity construction. Because in some ways at least, racial and ethnic miming says more about the mimers' racial/ethnic/national self-perceptions than it does about their perceptions of the “others” they are miming.
The United States has a long history of black face performance. Taking on a central role in American culture during the early 19th century, it remained a dominant entertainment form for well over a century. For example, The Amos and Andy Show, which featured white actors performing step-n-fetch black face, was enormously popular during the first half of the 20th century. Black actors finally took over the agonizing roles in the 1950s, before civil rights protests put an end to the show in the 1960s, all but killing the once ubiquitous black face minstrelsy as a form of entertainment in the United States.
But less well understood and appreciated in American popular culture has been the role of red face mistrelsy. Most people, and certainly most Americans, fail to equate non-Indians dressing up and performing as racially stereotyped Indians with non-blacks dressing up and peforming as racially stereotyped blacks. But of course they are branches on the same tree. And red face minstrelsy has at least as long a history as black face minstrelsy in America, and possibly even a longer one.
Phillip Deloria's 1998 book Playing Indian offers a smart, sophisticated, critical analysis of this long history, which goes back at least to the outbreak of the Revolution, most famously with the Boston Tea party. Red face minstrelsy went on to take many forms in America, ranging from fraternal orders like The Sons of Liberty and The Improved Order of Red Men (the most famous example of which is Tammany Hall), to the 20th century kiddie shenanigans of the Boy Scouts and countless summer camps.
Across this long arc, the turn of the 20th century was a particularly fertile historical moment for white Americans to ape Indigenous people. Part of this had to do with the timing of colonial conquest. By the late 19th century, Americans for the first time could be perfectly confident that Indian nations no longer posed any threat to the United States' continental hegemony. As a result, American culture began to transform its interpretation of Indian people, all but erasing them from presentist cultural forms and relegating them to a mythical, romanticized past.
At the same time, Americans were enduring the anxieties of modernity. Urbanization and industrialization created vast social upheavals that drastically altered American life, while massive waves of foreign immigration helped redefine it what it even meant to be American. Amid the angst and turmoil, the popular culture co-opted a stereotyped version of Indians, casting them as something uniquely and unchangingly American: rural, noble, honest, honorable, primitives who, like America's pastoral heritage itself, were to be admired and pitied as they were doomed to extinction in the name of remorselessly efficient progress.
It is also no coincidence that Indians became a popular motif for sports teams' names, logos, and mascots at precisely during this period in American history. White Americans consumed red face and black face minstrelsy as a way of reinforcing their own sense of self. By dressing up and performing as stereotyped blacks and Indians, or more commonly by watching other people do so (including sometimes blacks and Indians themselves in black face and red face), they often focused less on what it said about blacks and Indians, and more on what it supposedly said about themselves as white Americans.
For any culture, a key component of self-definition is identifying and defining the “other,” and then finding ways to reject and/or integrate it in limited ways. To that end, Americans used racial minstrelsy to define what it meant to be “American.” Since whiteness was a key component of popular American identity during the turn of the 20th century, many white Americans used racialized minstrel characters as a type of cultural foil. The characters were something that helped define white America, serving as distinctly American sidekicks.
One way to think of it would be like a kind of racialized Robin to the American Batman. Robin is indeed a super hero, just as red and black faced minstrels were thought of as being American. But Robin is only a super hero because he is an inferior version of such in service to the ultimate super hero, Batman. As such, Robin's real purpose is to define Batman as the true super hero. Similarly, minstrels were constructed as the inferior versions of “American,” as inferior sidekicks who helped define the true American archetype: the white American.
Thus, it should be completely unsurprising that modern day supporters of minstrel characters often defend them not as a reasonable version of the cultural “other,” but as an intimate reflection of the “self.” While it seems absurd to most outside observers that Black Pete is somehow quintessentially Dutch, this is precisely what many Dutch defenders say. Likewise, defenders of modern red face minstrelsy in America, in the form of sports team mascots, names, and logos, often virulently insist that Indian caricatures are all about the city, state, or even school that wears and performs them. Indeed, it's this counterintuitive logic that allows American defenders of red face minstrelsy to sincerely make the stunningly ridiculous assertion that such caricatures are actually meant to honor Indians.
After all, isn't Robin honored to serve Batman?
In the United States, the battle against black face was finally won about half-a-century ago.
However, the battle to end red face minstrelsy lags far behind. American culture has made slow but steady gains over the last couple of decades, with numerous high schools and colleges having forsaken Indian names and mascots for their sports teams. The most recent major move came last year when the citizens of North Dakota overwhelmingly voted to have the University of North Dakota drop its “Fighting Sioux” name and mascot. But Indian team names, logos, mascots, and even red face minstrel performance, continue to take place in very public venues, and the practice has millions of ardent defenders.
Shockingly, some of the most recalcitrant institutions have been within academia. Places dedicated to research and the cultivation of a learning environment to promote the free exchange of ideas, such as Florida State University and the University of Illinois, have been alarmingly truclent about the issue. Both schools use co-opted local tribal names for their teams, “Seminoles” and “Illini” respectively. FSU also uses red as the dominant color for its uniforms, sports a stone spear point on their football helmets, and has a painted screaming Indian logo. The Illiniois logo is a stoic Indian warrior named Chief Illiniwek. Perhaps most disturbing, both universities have a long tradition of white students dressing up in red face, inappropriate Indian regalia, and conducting step-n-fetch Indian dances in front of screaming fans.
American professional sports are also rife with various forms of Indian minstrelsy. At different times, the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians baseball teams have both sported racist caricatures as their official team logs, with players wearing them on their hats and uniforms. In Atlanta, the minstrelsy is participatory as thousands of fans perform the Tomahawk Chop to support their team while the stadium P.A. system plays Hollywood “Indian” music. Florida State does something similar prior to football games, with thousands of fans chopping and cliche music playing, while a redface minstrel named for Seminole Chief Osceola rides into the stadium upon a horse named Renegade, brandinshing a flaming spear.
Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs wear bright red uniforms with a stone arrowhead logo on their helmets, and even play at Arrowhead Stadium. And the Washington Redskins . . . well, the name itself is actually a racial epithet, so the supposedly Indian skin-colored burgundy uniforms and team log in the style of an Indian head nickel shouldn't be all that surprising.
During the last year, the issue over the Washington Redskins' name has reached a boiling point in America. The mainstream press on the whole seems to have turned a corner, finally becoming embarrassed by their association with it. Scores of sports writers and broadcast journalists have come out against the Redskins name, and a number of individual reporters and even entire news outlets, such as the San Francisco Examiner, are now refusing to use the name, instead simply referring to the team as “Washington” or the “Washington football team.” Even President Barack Obama joined the chorus, using his bully pulpit to say he'd consider changing the name if he owned the team.
From institutions as notable as the United Nations and the White House, racial minstrelsy on both sides of the Atlantic is coming under firm pressure here in the second decade of the 21st century,
In a thoughtful New York Times op-ed piece about Black Pete, Arnon Grunberg opined that in his Dutch homeland, “The Black Pete debate underscores how deep within the Netherlands's prosperous and safe society lies the fear of losing identity, undoubtedly fueled by globalization, migration and the notion that the European Union is gradually doing away with the European nation state.”
Reading that reminded me of Americans a century past clinging to their perverse cultural interpretations of Indians and African Americans amid the tumult of modernity. Likewise, the apologias one hears from Dutch defenders of Black Pete today are not so very different from the apologias one hears from the American defenders of Indian sports mascots.
Many Dutch people cherish Black Pete as something explicitly Dutch; the fact that he's black is secondary to them. Meanwhile, while many Americans cherish their Indian mascots as something explicitly distinctive to their schools, cities, and states; the fact that the mascots are Indians is secondary to them.
And that is what helps create the blind spot for supporters. Whereas the rest of the rational, post-civil rights, post-colonial world looks at this stuff and sees racist caricatures, supporters see something else altogether.
Of course, none of that is to excuse any of it. From Cleveland's Chief Wahoo to Holland's Zwarte Piet, such minstrelsy is based on racist caricatures that need to be put down. But when we appreciate minstrelsy as a complex socio/cultural phenomenon instead of just a bizarre, buffoonish, and dated manifestation of racism, we can begin to better understand why so many seemingly rational people, who don't otherwise display racist tendencies, will furiously swim upstream against the cultural tide to defend their ludicrous black face and red face minstrels.
And that's important. Because if we can explain it to ourselves, then perhaps we can better explain it to them, and thereby facilitate the process of moving forward.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com