A classic Christmas episode of The Office has been edited to delete a scene showing an actor in blackface depicting Zwarte Piet or Black Peter, of Netherlands fame. The revised version has been distributed to Netflix and other various streaming services that showcase it.
“The Office is about a group of people trying to work together with mutual respect despite the inappropriate actions of their boss and assistant manager,” series creator Greg Daniels said in a statement today. “The show employed satire to expose unacceptable behavior and deliver a message of inclusion. Today we cut a shot of an actor wearing blackface that was used to criticize a specific racist European practice. Blackface is unacceptable and making the point so graphically is hurtful and wrong. I am sorry for the pain that caused.”
The so-called “racist” European practice has for years now been embroiled in dispute in the Netherlands where Zwarte Piete has been a tradition for hundreds of years. The character accompanies a strict version of St. Nicholas and serves, in legend, as his “helper”. The legend identifies Black Peter as a Spaniard but in modern day parades dating back more than a century the character is customarily played by a white person wearing blackface. The character in some stories of legends can be mean and dishes out discipline to naughty children. Over time, however, the character has morphed into a more silly persona who plays tricks and gives gifts.
Proponents of the tradition claim the depiction of Zwarte Piet because the blackface is not symbolic of a particular race but of soot from the fireplace. Imported protesters to the Netherlands more than a decade ago claimed it racist and have kept a steady presence at traditional parades to protest. Some times those protests have become violent and have involved children.
The international media, including most in the USA, have accepted wholesale the argument that the tradition is racist, putting pressure on government officials in the Netherlands to clamp down on the tradition. The government in recent years has responded to the controversy by introducing individuals who are without blackface playing the role of Black Peter with the goal in mind that the blackface would eventually disappear entirely. The solution appealed to almost nobody. The racial protesters said it wasn’t enough and the proponents of the tradition have responded by showing up in the crowd in blackface.
It is doubtful that the actions of the creators of The Office will have any bearing on the blackface tradition of the Netherlands.
The blackface scene was previously included in an old version of “Dwight’s Christmas,” Episode 909, which aired in 2012. The episode has now been replaced on Netflix, and the edited version will added to Peacock in 2021 when The Office moves to its new streaming home there.
In “Dwight’s Christmas,” Dwight tries to get his coworkers in the Christmas spirit using his own family traditions with a Schrute Family Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas. He comes into the office dressed as Belsnickel, a St. Nicholas-inspired character from South German folklore, but Oscar looks up the character and discovers his unsavory roots.
Oscar informs Dwight that Belsnickel’s partner, Zwarte Piet/Black Peter, is “a slave boy often portrayed in colorful pantaloons and blackface.” Dwight replies, “Oh, come on. We don’t blindly stick to every outmoded aspect of our traditions. Come on, get with the spirit of it, you guys!”
He’s then shown grabbing his phone and sending a quick text, which goes to warehouse employee Nate, who is wearing full blackface and dressed as Zwarte Piet. He turns around after Dwight’s text, and later returns to the office Christmas celebration with most of the black makeup wiped away.
This change of the Christmas episode is significant because it is the first revision to a Christmas theme of pop culture related to the holiday to happen. It is not likely to break a lot of hearts either way because tradition of the Netherlands is barely known in the USA. But the change signals a warning that nothing will stop the level of political correctness now prevalent in American society.
We will definitely see more of this kind of thing.