There were many stories this past year dealing with cultural appropriation in one way or another. In the US a number of universities issued guidelines to students before Halloween, advising them not to wear costumes that represent cultures to which they do not belong. One of the specific cautions was the use of blackface, dark makeup used to make someone appear to be black. That has been a controversial issue in Belgium and the Netherlands, surrounding the tradition of “Black Pete” ( Zwarte Piet), the companion to St. Nicholas. This month, the Flemish minister of culture, Sven Gatz, was heavily criticized for a tweet in which he appeared as Black Pete. Earlier this year, the Belgian Foreign Minister likewise appeared controversially in blackface. While the tradition is reminiscent of other companions of St. Nick, in Germany (Knecht Ruprecht) or Austria/Bavaria (Krampus), who either help distribute treats or punish misbehaving children, the Black Pete tradition has been criticized because of the belief that it may reflect lingering racial attitudes from colonial days, an especially delicate issue in Belgium because of the legacy of African atrocities under the rule of King Leopold II in the 19th century. Others believe figures like Black Peter or the Swiss Schmutzli (i.e. “Little Dirty”) are carryovers from pagan ceremonies, associated with the ceremonial use of ashes.
In any case, the appearance of such figures in the US would not be socially acceptab;e. The recent case of Rachel Dolezal brought out strong reactions to what was perceived as an attempt to use skin darkeners and an African-American hair style to pass as black. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Dolezal responded to the accusation of using blackface:
That was a pretty harsh accusation. I didn’t expect that at all because blackface, you don’t look like a light-skinned black woman, you look like a clown. It’s made to be a mockery. Blackface is not pro-black. Blackface is not working for racial justice. Blackface is not trying to undo white supremacy. I would never make a mockery of the very things I take the most seriously…Do we ask women why they airbrush freckles on themselves or why they change their noses? We don’t ask if somebody’s boobs are real or not. I do my hair and my makeup and everything according to how I feel I’m beautiful. Sometimes I use a spray bronzer, sometimes I don’t…Before this happened, nobody was asking me why are you lighter or darker on certain days of the week, depending on how much time I had to get myself together that day; if I had time to give myself a glow. And if I didn’t, I was out the door.
In the interview she says she has been using braids and weaves in her hair for years and does not see that as cultural appropriation, but as a compliment to black women. In fact, as she points out, women have for generations been using perms to change their hair styles. For many people, what is troublesome about the Dolezal case is not so much the change in appearance, but the desire to pass as black without the trials of growing up African-American in the US.