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On Sunday night, Joachim Stroink, the MLA for Halifax-Chebucto, posted pictures on Twitter of himself at a Christmas party with Nova Scotia’s Dutch community. Unfortunately, the celebrations included Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) a character played by a white man in blackface makeup. There has been immediate backlash, and a lot of confusion about the links between modern practices and the tradition’s troubling history.
We recognize that there have been some efforts to reform the character of Zwarte Piet. Piet is no longer described as a slave. He is no longer exclusively male. Official representations of him no longer speak with “broken” Dutch grammar and an affected Surinamese or Antillean accent.
HOWEVER. The blackface makeup has stubbornly remained. Blackface is not unique to the Americas, and is part of long-standing “traditions” that caricature and oppress people with dark skin. And there has been severe racist harassment of people in the Netherlands who dare to speak publicly about how Zwarte Piet is a symptom of endemic racism that affects them daily.
Stroink believes that growing up with the character of Zwarte Piet did not make him think less of his African Nova Scotian neighbours and friends. But he has failed to recognize the reality that racism affects the daily life of African Nova Scotians and other people of colour in the Maritimes. Racism is an unerasable part of our history, and it is not over. It lives and breathes here, in our schools and on our streets. Black people in Halifax are discriminated against by employers, by institutions, and by strangers in public space. These stories cannot be ignored. And we are troubled indeed to see such a lack of awareness and critical thinking from a recently elected MLA in our city.
Telling children that “racism is wrong” does us little good if we also teach them to ignore, accept, and even celebrate racist behaviour. When entire groups of people are objectified and stereotyped, they aren’t being treated as equals, and to dismiss their experience is a disservice to our entire community. African Nova Scotian people, Black people, people of colour — all of us are equally deserving of respect.
It seems unlikely that Zwarte Piet can truly be reformed. As long as he is celebrated, his figure will continue to invoke a violent and racist history, and will perpetuate the racism in our present culture. If Sinterklaas wishes to try to find a peaceful home in Nova Scotia, he must leave blackface behind.
Please join us in challenging Joachim Stroink to educate himself about racism and history in both Halifax and the Netherlands. He needs to learn more about Africville, blackface performance, forced relocation, the Dutch role in the slave trade, and current racial tensions in HRM. Here’s his contact information:
Email: [email protected]
Let’s get him pointed in the right direction.
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