In a Tuesday blog post, Facebook VP of Integrity Guy Rosen announced that the platform would be updating its hate speech policy and would be banning all images and videos of blackface, including the traditional Dutch blackface Christmas character “Zwarte Piet.”
Portrayed as a sidekick to Sinterklaas (the Benelux version of Santa Claus), Zwarte Piet—literally “Black Pete” in English—is traditionally played by adult white men who wear full blackface, earrings, curly-haired wigs, and exaggerated red lipstick.
The update comes in the context of a larger move by the platform to more actively combat racist and anti-semitic tropes.
Black Pete is no stranger to controversy, and every holiday season the annual return of Sinterklaas is met with mass protests both supporting and opposing the character. While supporters of the Black Pete describe him as a harmless tradition, anti-racist groups in both the Netherlands and Belgium have long criticized Black Pete as a racist and dehumanizing caricature which is reflective of the two nations’ violent colonial legacy.
The tradition has received international condemnation as well. In a 2015 report released by the United Nations, experts called on the Dutch government to eliminate the stereotype. Kim Kardashian described the tradition as “disgusting” and rapper Waka Flocka vowed to avoid the Netherlands unless the tradition was discontinued.
Facebook’s decision has already drawn criticism from some who see it as censorship, and it is sure to reignite what is already a heated—and at times violent—debate surrounding the tradition. Within hours of the decision the far right “Pro Zwarte Piet” Facebook page created an event where members plan to spam post all their pictures of the character and called on them to boycott the platform. According to NOS, the Dutch national broadcaster, in order for pictures of Black Pete to be removed, users must actively report them.
Anti-racist activists see the decision as a small victory, with the popular “Zwarte Piet is Racisme” page heralding the decision as “a happy day for the Netherlands.” But some activists have also questioned why a private corporation has taken the lead instead of the national government. While Prime Minister Mark Rutte—who himself has dressed up as the character—recently described the tradition as racist, he refused to go so far as to say that the tradition would be outright banned.