Sébastien Chauvin, Yannick Coenders, Timo Koren (2018)

Never Having Been Racist: Explaining the Blackness of Blackface in the Netherlands

Public Culture 30(3), 2018, p. 509-526.

The accusation that Black Pete – the blackface character at the center of the annual Sinterklaas festival – is a racist caricature has recently become a staple of the Dutch culture wars, leaving media and cultural producers in a quandary over the figure’s meaning and fate. This essay focuses on two recent seasons of the widely popular children’s television program Sinterklaasjournaal.The show deployed new storylines to maintain the innocence of the traditional celebration in the face of mounting anti-racist critique by refabricating truths that not only erase the colonial roots of Black Pete’s blackness, but also deny any connection to race altogether. In so doing, however, these storylines further destabilized the main Sinterklaas narrative, akin to an everyday lie that is about to be discovered. Endeavors by storytellers to disconnect the Black Pete figure from racial Blackness resulted in representing the character as racially white but covered in soot, while conveying the message that the origin of dark skin is dirt. The narrative strife over Black Pete illustrates the fragility of the Dutch absencing of race, as the latter proves to resurface in the very effort to obliterate it. Instead of artificially reconstructing the semantic unity of discrete stories, this essay introduces a deconstructive approach that apprehends consistency as an effect of power. We show how various actors work at making changes in the hegemonic story to maintain its coherence in response to threats from alternative accounts, in the process generating new contradictions and challenges that require further narrative work.