Eversheds Sutherland has initiated a review of its offices' local customs after staff in Belgium took pictures of themselves posing with a man in blackface.

The firm's Brussels team published photographs on LinkedIn last week of a Christmas buffet attended by two guests dressed as Saint Nick and his problematic sidekick, ‘Black Pete’.


pete

The egg and sausage roll buffet looks almost as offensive.


"Today we received a visit from none other than the Saint at Eversheds Sutherland Brussels!" read the accompanying message. "Thank you Santa Claus for thinking of us :-)" The duo were not employees of the firm and were provided by an external service (such a thing exists in Belgium).


pete

O-kay...


After being contacted by RollOnFriday, Eversheds Sutherland made the Brussels office delete its post.

"Thank you for bringing this to our attention as we were not aware of this event", the firm said in a statement. "The LinkedIn post has now been removed".

Black Pete, or 'Zwarte Pierte', is a children’s character popular in the Lowlands. He was invented in the 1850s by an Amsterdam teacher who thought Santa required a companion. The character is traditionally portrayed by a white person in blackface, usually with exaggerated red lips, hoop earrings and a curly black wig.

A survey in the Netherlands in 2018 indicated that most respondents did not regard Black Pete as racist, and that children generally viewed him as a clownish figure rather than as a black person. Black respondents were less convinced.

As was the UN. Its Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination urged the Netherlands in 2015 to “actively promote the elimination” of Black Pete. That suggestion was dismissed by the government of the time. One Dutch minister said things were changing anyway, and that at his children’s school “the Petes last year were orange”.

There were no such concessions at Eversheds Sutherland in Brussels in 2019. And the photo received nothing but praise from individuals engaging with the post, suggesting that plenty of other people do not perceive Black Pete as a racist hangover either. Associates at the regional offices of Allen & Overy, Baker McKenzie and Jones Day all gave it a thumbs up on LinkedIn.

Eversheds Sutherland said it would now check other offices weren't committing un-diverse howlers.

"Our intention is for all our festive season celebrations to respect the cultural diversity of our firm", it said, "and we will now review the position with all our international offices to ensure that any elements of local tradition and custom are appropriate."

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Comments

Brrrrrap 13 December 19 09:07

There is not a "none of the above" option for those who may think blackface is as offensive as a clown-faced character shown to a person with a skin pigmentation condition.

Problematic Pete policy 14 December 19 15:48

Timely article, Rof.

Had a long conversation with Dutch colleagues this week about Zwarte Pietre and why, despite efforts by local administrations to remove him from official Christmas events. They agreed the country is still displaying the feelings in the 2018 study you cite above, ie "...Most respondents did not regard Black Pete as racist.." Very surprising in our liberal 2019 society and quite a few colleagues were shocked that its still going on. However, they felt the debate was polarised between the "its traditional" or "that's just what we do, get used to it or leave" and the sensible folks. However, when we discussed wider examples, they also felt that simply banning things without accompanying education leaves people feeling disenfranchised and upset. 

Additional thoughts:

1. Let's not close the debate on what is offensive; Let's not be taken in by that do-gooder myth that nativity plays cannot take place in schools because people 'who believe in other religions may be offended'. Rubbish. Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism and, yes, even, Islam have all existed for thousands of years in pluralist societies. They don't need non-adherents proactively creating offence on behalf of non-Christians where none exists. Option for kids who are offended to simply not participate?

2. While Black Pete is an interesting example of the usually inoffensive Dutch causing consternation, let's also remember that there are plenty of offensive/racist activities happening in non-white countries about white people too eg China, India. If we accept that no country has got it 100% right and we are all somewhere on a scale, perhaps we won't be so shocked when examples like this come to light?

3. Still no idea why Justin Trudeau thought blackface was a good idea in 80s Canada.

Frustrated This Is Even A Discussion 18 December 19 17:45

@Problematic Pete policy 

I appreciate you're sending a message of 'let's hold hands' here but... after reading this, I hope you'll understand why some may consider the suggestion that there is a conversation to be had or concessions to be given in this case to be pretty insulting to black people who have been putting up with these things for many many years with little to no say.

What we should be remembering is not the hypothetical white people in your example. We should keep in mind that a 'generally accepted by black people as racist against black people' behaviour has happened which was then posted (presumably with, at best, apathy by the predominantly white people in that image) on the globally available social media page of an international law firm and said firm will, lest we forget, *likely have black employees all over the world who will likely come across this image*.

We should also be remembering that many of these traditions were established with blatant disregard to those it negatively affected due to their contemporaneous status as minorities, slaves, third (if lucky) class citizens, colonised peoples etc etc. It is very possible that they are only 'okay' today because those it was negative towards had no say for generations. Ad those still debating whether or not it is okay are predominantly not those it mocks. 

As an aside, where a culture or tradition is historically based on perpetrating harmful images of minorities or disenfranchised groups in society, its not really comparable to a nativity play. Those kids can just not participate. Black people can't just opt out of seeing blackface, especially where it rocks into their office whilst they are working or has been posted on the social media page of a well known international law firm which may actually employ them...