Who profits from the production of blackface?

The Dutch state and its economy are profiting generously from their annual blackface partay.

The Dutch blackface figure, Zwarte Piet, revived every Christmas. Image by Gerard Stolk via Flickr.

That time of the year is coming up again and the contested Dutch blackface figure Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) is still with us. Some tried to turn blackface into brownface (only in the Netherlands) while others are still trying to convince us that Black Pete sets a fine example for black people. In any case, anti-blackface protestors have not been silent. Recently, anti-blackface campaigners have again drawn attention to the economic dimension of blackface. It is quite apparent that the Dutch state and its economy are profiting generously from their annual blackface partay. The Dutch spend more on the Sinterklaas celebration than on any other public holiday – think presents, but also lots of Sinterklaas related stuff from toys, candy, and chocolates to wrapping paper. It comes to no surprise then that campaigners are critically examining who exactly is profiting from the production of blackface.

The idea that blackface is not only produced, but also very much consumed goes back a long while. Blackface has a long trajectory of entertainment. The consumerist notion of blackface has led to a situation in which the use of blackface has become normalized. In the same vein, using caricatures and stereotypes of black people in the design of, for instance, children’s toys is also common practice. The act of consuming blackface has now become a disposable act, unrelated to any political issue and completely emptied out of its historical context. This also, partly, explains the huge outrage (and all the tears) that anti-blackface campaigners are faced with; they are disturbing the natural order of things (blackface). As many have argued before me, the dehumanization of black people has become ingrained in the fabric of our societies.

There have thus been a lot of instances where blackface has been used, in print, in commercials, etcetera. A few years back a franchise of Dunkin’ Donuts in Thailand came under criticism for having woman in blackface promoting a new chocolate flavoured doughnut. Although the Thai officials tried to defend themselves, the company’s US headquarters immediately pulled the add and offered an apology.

There’s little hope that Dutch owned department stores will give up the profits made from dehumanizing black people, but what about Dutch department stores that have international owners? Do they condone the use of blackface? Do they want to promote the use of blackface? Do they want to make their money from blackface? We know that in their respective home countries, for example the UK, there would be a national outrage if any department store had the audacity to put up giant stuffed golliwogs on a rope for entertaining purposes.

Dutch department store group De Bijenkorf (known for the Black Pete’s on a rope spectacle) is internationally owned, more specifically by Selfridges, a chain of high-end department stores in the UK.

To that end, campaigner Eduard Mangal posted the following to the Facebook page of Selfridges:

Mr. Anthony Graham of Wittington Investments, and Mr. Paul Kelly of Selfridges do you support racial offending actions that can hurt your business and ignore court decisions? Do you really support blackface? Talk to your management in the Netherlands and please respond!

He also posted this to the Facebookpage of De Bijenkorf (who deleted the whole topic):

Why does the Bijenkorf not respect the decisions of the [Dutch] court, the Board for the Protection of Human Rights and the UN working group of experts on peoples of African descent, that the blackface character “Zwarte Piet” is a racist caricature, confirming stereotypes? Why does the Bijenkorf [- your store in the Netherlands! – continue to offend people by] decorating their store with blackface characters?

On September 26th, Selfridges responded to Eduard Mangal by basically saying that they are fine with promoting blackface because De Bijenkorf styles their Black Petes differently every year and take the “Dutch Centre for Folk Culture and Immaterial Heritage” into account.

Thank you for your inquiry we have checked with our colleagues in de Bijenkorf and they have informed us that they have responded to this information request on their Facebook page
The response is as follows:
The Piets will again decorate the Atrium in de Bijenkorf, the way they have for decades.
Separate from the societal discussions about the appearance of Piets the appearance at de Bijenkorf are in line with the recommendations of the “Dutch Centre for Folk Culture and Immaterial Heritage”.
Each year the Piets in the deBijenkorf are styled differently in terms of accessories, clothes and hair. So for example the Piets don’t have golden earrings and they have different hair styles, such as straight hair. Matching the current trends.
This year the appearance will evolve in line with the recommendations from the “Dutch Centre for Folk Culture and Immaterial Heritage”.
We thank you for your interest.

Selfridges cannot be taking itself seriously with such an answer.

They as owners profit from promoting and selling blackface and they are not the only ones. Dutch department chain store HEMA is also internationally owned. UK private equity fund Lion Capital LLP owns HEMA, which has branches in Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, France, and now in Spain and in the UK as well. Recently HEMA opened its first UK store in London (without Black Pete products). HEMA had announced that it would take Black Pete related products off the shelves, but later backed out by saying in a public statement that they will be selling these products par usual and will follow the debate closely in case of any important changes in the regulations. However, they did make some changes to the products that are also for sale in other countries. So basically: What is absolutely not racist to us might be racist to others, i.e. the Dutch logic. Eduard Mangal also questioned HEMA owners Lion Capital LLP and still awaits a response.

Campaigning against big companies that have big money might seem impossible, but there have been success stories. A collective of people, including the action group Mad Mothers NL, sent letters to the Sesame Street Workshop Corporation in the US and demanded that Black Pete be scrapped from the Dutch version of the program. Black Pete will now no longer appear on the show or be used for promotional purposes. Another example is Playmobil, who will no longer be selling plastic Black Petes. These actions are important because they demonstrate that international companies are indeed weary of supporting blackface – as they should be – and that protesting does help in some instances.

Although some Dutch people still like to think we’re an isolated little nation– we are not. Stores such as De Bijenkorf and the HEMA perpetuate blackface, and through their international owners contribute to a global economy on blackface. Selfridges, would you have a window display full of fun golliwog products? I think not.

Further Reading