Just don’t do it

Saying that blackface is an American thing (everyone now uses this excuse) and therefore not a problem anywhere else, makes you look dumb.

A spectator in part-Zwarte Piet costume during the annual Sinterklaas parade in the Netherlands (Photo: David Shamma, via Flickr CC).

By now it should not come as a surprise that in the Netherlands where dressing in blackface is part of the national tradition and comes with no consequences, carnival costumes that incorporate racist imagery are also perceived as “normal” and doing good business. However, it still is jarring to see a mail order company, Speelgoed Postorder, advertising for so-called “bush negro” outfits and other completely racist and insensitive costumes; like its black faced “Bush Negro outfit for ladies.”

The descriptions of the various pieces on sale at Speelgoed Postorder, complete with loads of grammar mistakes, are just plain dumb. The ‘bush negro’ outfit is described as a “Zulu” outfit. The bush negro outfits, of which there are versions for men and ‘ladies’ also come with an accessory: a bone.

It is worth noting that since this morning when I first clicked on and shared the “bush negro outfit for ladies” on Facebook, it has been renamed as “African outfit for ladies.” As if that makes it any better. The male version, however, is still that for a “bush negro.”

Another costume depicts an “African tribal chief.” This also doesn’t make sense, because next to the photo the costume is being described as that of an ‘African medicine man.’ Furthermore the mask looks more Polynesian than African, but that’s just a ‘small’ detail. And on and on we go: The blackface “Moroccan man” (complete with Aladdin lamp), and a whole host of costumes to play the role of white colonialist, etcetera.

There is nothing incidental about this. This clearly feeds into a colonial narrative of Zulu’s, but also of other Africans, and of many ‘other’ people around the globe as cannibalistic savages. Specifically, in the Dutch context the term ‘bush negro’ is used for the descendants of runaway slaves who resisted slavery and colonialism and formed independent settlements. A more acceptable term is Maroons. But this is the Netherlands.

What is even more shocking is that actual person came up with the ideas for the costumes and its “accessories.” And as pointed out at the outset, this is par for the course in the Netherlands. Just last week, the Wall Street Journal reported on a famous Dutch amusement park that profits off these kinds of images. The reviewer couldn’t help notice, amid all the attractions, that:

There was an unpleasant side to Efteling: The way dark-skinned people were depicted. At a carousel-like ride called Monsieur Cannibale, for instance, an enormous figure wore a chef’s hat on his head and a spoon through his nostrils—a racist throwback to the days of the Dutch East India Company that made for more explaining.

So, let’s try to explain it one more time, in very basic terms, with the hope someone will get it: skin color is not a costume at your disposal during a festive season for fun. Making fun of people and their culture is wrong. It is even worse when you misrepresent them using racist colonial stereotypes. Saying that blackface is an American thing (everyone now uses this excuse) and therefore not a problem on the other side of the Atlantic makes you look dumb. Saying that by using the costume for something positive like carnival and therefore neutralizing stereotypes and the racist nature of such costumes makes you look even dumber. Just don’t do it.

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