Black Pete, the Washington Redskins, and Modern Minstrelsy

by Akim Reinhardt

Photo from Huffington PostBlack 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.

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