Behind Blackface

It is easier to talk about being nice to others than to change discriminatory systems that work in our favour.

Is Zwarte Piet an example of blackface and racism or a fun-loving Dutch Christmas tradition? That was dinner conversation in our house last month as my children reflected on the controversy surrounding photos of Canada’s prime minister in brown and blackface. Zwarte Piet is the black servant of the Dutch Sinterklaas who brings gifts to children on December 5. Discomfort or support for continuing this tradition in Canada seems more influenced by attitudes toward one’s Dutch heritage than understanding white privilege and the negative impacts of such portrayals for neighbours of African descent. 

On a deeper level, the conversation shifted to why we have trouble discussing and addressing more systemic forms of racism, also in faith communities. The benefit of the controversy is that it is fostering discussion about the pervasiveness of racism in Canadian society. Ignorance of how racism that is part of daily life affects others is no longer an excuse, if it ever was. Movements like Black Lives Matter and Idle No More have raised awareness about the impacts of bias and discrimination that persons of colour experience in their daily lives. Internalizing the subtle messages of being second-class – of less value in society – starts early in childhood, goes deep during the formative adolescent years, and is reinforced throughout adult years. 

Confession and change

Christians know the narrative of confessing sins, being forgiven and changing ways. Confessing racism is easy, especially historical racism, but changing ways is slow work. I wonder why First Nations children had to go through expensive court challenges for a decade to get any changes in blatant discrimination that has been documented since 1907 – and change is still slow. Why did it take decades for Indigenous women to get obviously discriminatory provisions in the Indian Act repealed? Evidence of black youth receiving criminal charges while white youth were reprimanded for similar behaviour existed for years before action was taken. 

The new national anti-racism strategy recognizes that systemic racism exists in Canada, but redress is fairly weak. It seems easier to call for more education, more visibility of minorities through cultural food and dance festivals, and more diversity in appointments than changing the systemic aspects of racism. Why? 

Good people, unjust systems

Ending systemic racism shifts power within society. Being “nice” to minorities doesn’t threaten power so much. One might think that people steeped in Reformed theology would be quick to recognize, expose and address systemic racism. In reality, however, it is easier to talk about being nice to others than to change discriminatory systems that work in our favour. Behind it is an assumption that good people automatically lead to fair systems. Unfortunately, there are many good people working in unjust systems in Canada. I hope being embarrassed about blackface photos opens the door to more exploration of how white privilege works and how it harms others, also within the church community in Canada. Then it won’t take decades to make the changes in public policies we need to make in Canada.


  • Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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