Update: We got 452 signatures on our petition, and we stopped blackface performances at the store and the school. The Ottawa Citizen covered the issue, as did CBC, both print and radio. Many people contributed on Facebook and Twitter, despite the sometimes hateful and bigoted responses from trolls. Thanks to everyone who helped!
If you live in Ottawa, please visit the store and thank them for doing the right thing. They pulled Black Pete begrudgingly, claiming they were bullied and had to protect the children (nope). Let’s make sure Black Pete is not revived in 2018.
If you live in another town or province, ask your nearest Dutch store or community association if they perpetuate Black Pete. If they do, ask them to stop.
I’m a second-generation Dutch Canadian, and I oppose the racist tradition of Black Pete. The Dutch store in Ottawa will perform Black Pete on December 2. Dutch businesses in other cities also perpetuate the custom. Let’s tell them blackface and Black Pete are racism and must stop.
Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, is a racist caricature of Santa’s helper that remains popular in the Netherlands and among some Dutch Canadians. There is a growing movement in the Netherlands and abroad against Black Pete practices. In a report two years ago, the United Nations urged the Netherlands government to eliminate the discriminatory portrayals.
Roger Ross Williams’ film Is this Dutch holiday character racist? is an excellent introduction, if you don’t know about Black Pete. To learn more, see articles here, here and here. If you want to read even more about the history and current representations and impact of Black Pete, see academic papers here and here.
As Mr. Williams explains in this article: “For three agonizing weeks, many nonwhites (including myself) watch white Dutch people paint their faces black, their lips red, wear afro wigs, hoop earrings, and act like a bumbling and dimwitted servant who is kind to children.”
On December 2, the Dutch Groceries and Giftware store in Ottawa will hold its annual holiday party, with someone dressed as Black Pete. They have rows of Black Pete chocolates for sale. I went to the store this week and asked the owners politely not to promote Black Pete and blackface. They quickly dismissed me and said that there’s nothing harmful in Black Pete. They ignored me when I asked if their Black Pete will be in blackface, and they hung up on me later in the day when I asked for clarification. I interpret that as “yes”. I got emotional in the store (I was not expecting their reaction), but I tried my best to stay calm, telling them about concrete examples of how kids and adults are harmed by blackface, in the Netherlands and here in Ottawa. They had no interest in hearing that side, and they said “our customers will support us, no matter what.”
Dutch stores across Canada continue to carry Black Pete chocolate, candy and other products and celebrate the occasion, like the Ottawa store does. Of the twelve stores I called this week, in four provinces, all but two carry Black Pete products. All of them acknowledged that it’s controversial. The Dutch Market in Chatham sells Black Pete chocolates and gave me the common argument “he wasn’t a slave, just a former slave who stayed with the bishop because he was treated so well.” The woman in that store told me they won’t do blackface at their party this year because of criticism on Facebook, but they haven’t taken down blackface photos or fond memories of “bad Pete” and scary Pete. The Edmonton store promised last year to consider not doing blackface, when it was criticized. The Village Bake Shop in Whitby said Black Pete products are controversial but can still be found in the shop, “you just have to look for them.” The owner of the Dutch Store in Calgary was adamant about keeping Black Pete going: “I like it. I grew up with it. I make the orders.” The Ottawa store owners seem to be in that camp too.
Please join us in sending a message to the owners and customers of Dutch businesses on Ottawa and elsewhere in Canada. Ask them to end discriminatory portrayals of Black Pete. Please visit or call the Dutch store in your town or province. If they carry Black Pete products or host a performance, ask them to stop.
My focus is Canada because I live here, and anti-Black racism hurts and kills people here. Black Pete merchandise and parties in Canada reflect anti-Black racism in Canada, not only in the Dutch immigrant community. Like in the Netherlands, Canadians deny our history of slavery. Anti-Black bigotry and violence are commonplace in Canada. For a history of blackface in Canada and its popularity still today, see this article by McGill professor Phillip S. S. Howard. His timeline of incidents of contemporary Canadian blackface includes recent performances of Black Pete. For a thorough account of white supremacy in Canada, see scholar and activist Robyn Maynard’s new book Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present.
I first encountered Black Pete as a teenager, when my mother spoke against the practice in our Dutch community. My parents came to Canada in 1952 from Gelderland and eventually settled on a farm in Osgoode township near Ottawa. Like most Dutch immigrants at that time, many continuing to this day, they celebrated December 5 with a party where someone dressed as Sinterklaas and someone dressed as Black Pete, in blackface. My parents never dressed as Black Pete, but I heard the stories about these parties, and about the mean Black Pete of their childhood.
One year, my mother went to the party as usual but objected to Black Pete. Mom was ostracized for criticizing “tradition”, but I was proud of her; she helped me see racism for the first time. My mother, a white settler farmer in her 50s living in an entirely white and very conservative community came to understand that Black Pete is a vestige of slavery and harmful. How can Dutch Canadians today, with far more information about the harms of colonialism and racism, continue these racist caricatures?
When I told my daughter that the Ottawa store owners accused me of spoiling the party for the children, Mallory said “you’re not spoiling it, you’re helping the kids … you’re like Grinch who stole racism.”
My mother understood it 35 years ago and my 11-year old daughter understood it instantly. Blackface and Black Pete are racism. We need to stop it.
To follow the movement on social media, see Zwarte Piet is Racisme, Reason Against Racism and Kick Out Zwarte Piet.