A recent bone of contention for many European cultures is the practice of ‘blacking up’ some characters of European traditions (folklore/popular culture). Blackface is a form of theatrical make-up used predominantly by non-black performers to represent a caricature of a black person. Stereotypes embodied in the stock characters of blackface minstrels played a major role in strengthening racist images, attitudes and perceptions worldwide. Nevertheless, in some European traditions there have been practices of blacking up people to represent a certain character.
One such debate centers around “Zwarte Piet” (Black Pete) in the Netherlands and Belgium. Because of the stereotyped depiction of the companion of “Sinterklaas” (black face, thick rouged lips, curly hair, golden earrings, pageboy dress) it is argued that Zwarte Piet is a form of racism. Therefore, some activists claim that the tradition of Zwarte Piet should be abolished or at least ‘de-stereotyped’.
The colour of the King(s)
Another tradition where the blacking up of people is called into question, is the day of the Epiphany or the day of the Three Kings which is celebrated on the 6th of January. It is a Christian holiday that commemorates the visit of the three Kings to the new-born Jesus. After following the star that points out where Jesus was born, the three wise men, named Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar, bring three gifts to the new-born: gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Just like in Belgium, Spain celebrates this day. In Spain, there are different parades representing the arrival of the three Kings in several cities on the eve of the 6th of January. In the Spanish tradition of Ephiphany, Melchior, Gaspar and Balthazar arrive on a horse, a camel and an elephant, representing Arabia, the Orient, and Africa. One of these Kings, King Balthazar, is the black King. A recent wave of protest has started against the tradition of this black King being played by a painted white person. Petitions were launched in several Spanish cities and towns to ensure that a “real black man” is employed to play the black King during the traditional parades. In 2014, there was an online petition in Madrid with 62,000 signatories which demanded that a black man would play the role of Balthazar in the Madrid city traditional cavalcade. The petitions’ signatories argue that it is senseless and unnecessary these days for the king Balthazar to be a white man painted black. They see it as an offensive and anachronistic practice. The Madrid city hall first declared that the choice is not racist but simply traditional. Nevertheless, in 2015, the authorities there promised to find a black person to play the role of Balthazar.
At first sight, we see a similarity between the debate on “Zwarte Piet” and the debate on the ‘Black King’ of the Three Kings in Spain as both controversies center around the practice of blacking up people. Nevertheless, these debates might seem like ‘false friends’. Going beyond what is ‘skin-deep’, the demands at play are different.
Zwarte Piet is no black King
People contesting the Zwarte Piet tradition demand that it is abolished or at least that the characteristic features associated with colonialism and slavery are gotten rid of. Activists point to the significant role stereotypes play in maintaining inequality and discrimination. They believe that not getting rid of these stereotypes is some form of racism. However, some academic scholars argue that the law has (almost) no role to play in this debate.
In the ‘Spanish black King debate’, on the other hand, the demand is that a real black person should be set in place to represent the black King in the parades. The activists claim that blacking up of characters is entirely out of date in an inclusive society embracing diversity.
Some arguments common in discrimination law may have a role to play in the debate. The demand might be seen as some form of positive action as they specifically ask that one of the Three Kings should be a black man that represents King Balthazar in the sense that it requires one of the ‘royal’ spots to be reserved for a black man. Positive action is a generic term for policies and measures which seek by means of positive steps to alter existing social practices so as to eliminate patterns of group exclusion and disadvantage. Another legal qualification that could be considered by analogy is that of a genuine and determining occupational requirement for the role to represent King Balthazar in the parades. In discrimination law, this concept is an exception to unlawful discrimination in an employment context. In this context it means that if an employer can show that is necessary to distinguish on the basis of a particular protected characteristic to do a job, it may not be unlawful discrimination. The organizer of the parades would then have to show that the requirement of being a black man is crucial to the post of representing Balthazar and that it is a proportionate means of reaching a legitimate aim. However these are just speculations, as so far no legal steps appear to have been taken in any of the Spanish villages concerned. Furthermore, we need to ask ourselves the question if it would be appropriate to have rules like this or do we need to leave it to society itself when changing the tradition without interference of the law?
Clearly, these issues are far more complicated than one blogpost can cover and the above is therefore just a first introduction. Further research is necessary to shed light on these. Nevertheless, as the debates have different approaches, it is clear that to analyse the two debates different (legal) paths shall need to be researched. To be continued…
Marike Lefevre is a PhD researcher specializing in human rights law at the Leuven Centre for Public Law since September 2018. Under the supervision of Prof. dr. Koen Lemmens, she is preparing a PhD in the framework of the FWO research project: “Popular Culture on Trial: European Human Rights as Agents of Cultural Change or Conservation?”.
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