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This Nova Scotian politician didn’t realize blackface is offensive

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A bunch of Dutch people in blackface and on rollerblades because... it's Christmas? via Flickr.

A bunch of Dutch people in blackface and on rollerblades because… it’s Christmas? via Flickr.

Joachim Stroink, a Liberal member of the legislature in Nova Scotia, got a fancy new racism scandal in his Christmas stocking this year. At a Dutch holiday event last weekend, the Nova Scotian politician sat on the lap of a man posing as the always controversial Zwarte Piet—the Netherlands’ confusingly racist, blackface holiday character who is Santa’s slave. Stroink smiled for the camera. Then, to solidify a social media and political backlash, this supergenius tweeted the photo with the following caption: “Giving some love to Zwarte Piet and Sinterklass [sic] thank you to the Dutch community for putting this event on.” (Photo after the jump)

Joachim couldn't be happier. via Twitter.

Joachim couldn’t be happier. via Twitter.

Before we go any further, if you’re not familiar with Zwarte Piet, he’s a huge part of Dutch Christmas (despite being so obviously racist).  The Zwarte Piet character has become increasingly controversial in the Netherlands over the past few years—because generally people don’t want to celebrate slavery and minstrel shows with their eggnog and mistletoe.

According to Dutch folklore, Zwarte Piet’s job is to hide in the chimneys of homes all around the world to eavesdrop and figure out whether kids are good or bad—which sounds like a really awful job. Around 1850, books with drawings of “Black Peter” popularized the character as Sinterklaas’ servant, who may have been an actual black servant in the Netherlands. However, some Dutch defenders of the tradition say he isn’t of African descent—the black face paint is soot from chimneys. Yeah, right. Good one.

Zwarte Piet is clearly causing controversy the world over. In October, the organizer of Amsterdam’s Sinterklaas celebration said it was too late to change the costumes of the nearly 500 Zwarte Piets marching with Sinterklaas this year—but that he would discuss the matter with protesters in January.

“In a gradual way we can change things about Zwarte Piet,” he said. “I can personally see us giving 100 of the 500 Piets a different look to begin with.” The city’s mayor solicited objections to Black Pete as part of consultations on licensing the celebration.

After receiving complaints from Dutch groups, the United Nations authored a report in September calling for an end to the tradition. As the debate over the character has intensified, people of African descent in the Netherlands reported greater racial abuse and ridicule, the UN said. UN investigators themselves were subjected to threats and insults following the recommendation.

So one would have to assume that Joachim Stroink was not aware of the international controversy surrounding Zwarte Piete when he posted a photo of himself “giving some love” to the deeply racist holiday figure on Twitter.

On Monday morning, Stroink funneled interview requests through the unlucky Liberal public relations department, but as the controversy grew throughout the day, the party called a press conference. Stroink, who had met earlier with the minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs, gave a teary-eyed response to criticism.

“I do acknowledge that the whole blackface culture… there is no place for that in Nova Scotia, nor in our [Dutch] culture as well. There was no malicious intent whatsoever. This is a Dutch tradition that I grew up with and never ever in my deepest heart ever thought that this would be portrayed in this manner.”

In an earlier Facebook post he wrote: “As a child growing up and celebrating the Sinterklaas and Zwarte Pete tradition, the blackface did not lead me to think less of my African N.S. neighbours and friends, and as such I was not sensitive to the potential to offend through my participation.”

Irvine Carvery, who ran for the Conservatives in the recent NS election, wasn’t alone in thinking the MLA should know better. “I was shocked first of all to see him in that particular position with someone in blackface. I just figured that living in Nova Scotia he would have automatically understood the implications of that kind of dress and that kind of gesture. …I don’t know why he would not be aware of this concern of blackface.”

Joachim represents a district in the heart of Halifax, Irvine said, and should be aware of the unfortunate string of racist incidents in Nova Scotia that make this scandal that much more offensive.

Earlier this year two employees of a Halifax furniture store filed human rights complaints, alleging that they were being discriminated against for their race. In one case an employee said his coworker hung a black statue in effigy. After the second employee complained, her car was spray painted with the N-word.

Then there’s the ongoing case against the province from a group who alleges abuse at the former Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children, but the RCMP initially said it wouldn’t charge any of the more than 40 people implicated, sparking further allegations of racism.

As if that wasn’t enough, in 2010, two brothers burned a cross on the lawn of an interracial couple in Windsor, NS, and shouted racial slurs.

So clearly, Nova Scotia is no stranger to shocking racial scandals. Nova Scotia didn’t elect its first black MLA until 1993, and it was only in 2010 that Halifax apologized for expropriating the community of Africville in the 1960s.

Born in Africville, Irvine helped push for the apology and settlement. He’s sure Joachim isn’t racist, while adding the MLA needs to be more sensitive to these things. The blackface caricature is racist, he said, and it’s not an isolated incident in Nova Scotia. It shows the province still has a long way to go.

“It’s time for the white community to take ownership of this problem and deal with their problem. It’s not our issue, it’s their issue.”

Stroink wasn’t available for a brief interview Tuesday, and the Liberal communications office did not respond to questions about the photo. Minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs Tony Ince was not available for comment. Irvine noticed a significant number of online commenters in NS media who were claiming the blackface objections were an example of political correctness gone too far. He’s concerned this incident will be forgotten and won’t result in a broader discussion, which he appears to be correct about.

This story was originally published in VICE.

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Written by hilarybeaumont

August 30, 2014 at 2:41 pm

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