A Very Racist Christmas?

The Dutch still portray Zwarte Piet -- Santa's helper -- in blackface. Some want them to stop.

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There is an "unchallenged notion" of cultural superiority in the Netherlands, Dzodan said, and it hinders an honest conversation about Piet. "A culture cannot [consider itself] simultaneously superior and deeply flawed in terms of racism," she said.

Many countries in Europe are currently struggling with rising xenophobic and Islamophobic sentiments, fueled in part by the tanking global economy. The public conversations revolve around the need for unity, which can lead to demands for assimilation into society before acceptance.

But while Muslims are currently the lightning rod for controversy, other disparities lurk quietly behind the scenes. According to Dzodan, Dutch citizens from Suriname under the age of 25 "who are, for the most part, of mixed Afro-Caribbean heritage, for instance, have an unemployment rate of 27 percent, versus a national rate of 6.9 percent for [native, white Dutch in the same age group]." If you just frame the conversation about Zwarte Piet in "cultural or religious" terms, she said, you obscure the racial issues.

So is Zwarte Piet just one of the many symbols of a long-overdue racial reconciliation in the Netherlands? Perhaps, but that day is a long way off. For the last few years, the calls to condemn, reform or change Zwarte Piet have only gotten louder, leading to a brief change in 2007, when Piet's face was depicted as multicolored instead of black. This version was markedly less popular than the current, controversial incarnation, and so, in 2011, you can still see scores of Dutch citizens blackening their faces, pulling on a curly wig and taking to the streets to celebrate Christmas by upholding a racist tradition.

Latoya Peterson is the editor of Racialicious.com and a contributing editor to The Root. 

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Latoya Peterson is a hip-hop feminist and the editrix of Racialicious.com.

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