The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

From America to China, blackface is a global problem

The Dutch Santa Claus called "Sinterklaas" arrives with his helper Black Pete on a steamboat in a harbor in Enschede, the Netherlands. (iStock) (RobertHoetink/Getty Images/IStock)

In the span of around two weeks, three U.S. politicians have admitted to using blackface at some point — prompting calls for them to resign.

Only one of them has stepped down so far: Michael Ertel, a Republican who was recently appointed Florida’s secretary of state, resigned last month after photos emerged of his racist Halloween costume from 2005. In the photo, his face is painted black, and he is wearing a shirt that reads “Katrina Victim,” according to the Tallahassee Democrat. Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, left nearly 2,000 people dead.

Then, last weekend, a page emerged from the medical school yearbook of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), featuring a photo of one person dressed in blackface and another dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe. The governor flip-flopped over whether he was one of the costumed people in the photo, ultimately denying that he was. But he later admitted that he had used blackface on another occasion, when he dressed as Michael Jackson for a dance contest in 1984. On Wednesday, Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) also admitted to wearing blackface, saying that when he was an undergraduate in 1980 he and his friends “dressed up and put on wigs and brown makeup” to portray rappers at a college party.

The incidents have drawn attention to the prevalence of blackface — a contentious issue that is not limited to the United States but has drawn controversy around the world.

The Netherlands

In recent years, the Netherlands has faced calls to eliminate a controversial, Christmastime character known as “Zwarte Piet,” or Black Pete. Historically, in November or December, the Dutch version of St. Nicholas, known as Sinterklaas, hands out gifts with helpers — typically people dressed in blackface.

The tradition has persisted even as groups have cited the discriminatory use of blackface and urged the Dutch to either abandon the tradition or change the way the character appears. This year, the Netherlands’ national broadcaster announced that actors appearing as Zwarte Piet in their productions would not use blackface, but would instead put a small amount of soot on their faces to indicate they had come down the chimney.

Mitchell Esajas, co-founder of the Black Archives, a project focused on black Dutch history, has raised awareness over concerns that Zwarte Piet is a racist tradition. But he said that people “can get aggressive” when they’re told their tradition is discriminatory. Last year, dozens of people were arrested when they attacked anti-racist protesters who were calling attention to their concerns over Zwarte Piet.

Esajas said that the way the Netherlands’ involvement in and history of slavery affects modern-day society is different from what has happened in the United States.

“The U.S. is far from perfect, but one thing is that there’s acknowledgment that race is an issue,” he said. “What we have here in Holland is a very strong denial that racism is an issue. That narrative he said, “makes it harder to discuss issues.”


In 2015, Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders posted photos on Twitter of himself wearing blackface and dressed in a top hat and ruffles. The photo was taken during a parade in Brussels for children’s charities, as The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor reported at the time. He faced criticism for his appearance, but the Independent reported that Reynders defended his use of blackface, calling it an act of “joy and good humor” and part of an old tradition. Other news outlets reported that the parade traditionally features Belgians dressed up as “African noblemen.”

However, Wouter Van Bellingen, director of Belgium-based Minority Forum, called it “deplorable,” Reuters reported. Belgium had a long, violent colonial history, particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Belgian King Leopold II exploited the country for rubber. Millions of people are believed to have lost their lives under Leopold’s rule.


In Peru, a television station was fined $26,000 in 2013 after airing a character they called “Negro Mama.” The character was played by Jorge Benavides, a Peruvian comedian, who wore blackface for the performances. Public Radio International reported that year that even after the fines, the station continued to use the character in its segments.

Jorge Ramirez, who led a nonprofit providing legal assistance to Afro-Peruvians, told PRI at the time that the use of blackface was “denigrating, an embarrassment.”

“We are where the United States was in the 1950s,” he said. “It would be unthinkable today there, but it still exists here.”


During last year’s Lunar New Year celebrations in China, a skit broadcast on state-run CCTV featured a Chinese woman dressed in blackface and wearing prosthetic buttocks impersonating an African woman. As The Post reported at the time, about 700 million viewers tend to tune into the CCTV New Year’s Gala, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry later claimed that any criticism of the skit was part of an effort to undermine China’s relationship with Africa.

Geng Shuang, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said, “China has always opposed any form of racial discrimination.” Any efforts to undermine the country’s ties with Africa would be a “doomed, futile effort,” he said.

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