This piece was inspired by an episode of The Cooler, KQED’s weekly pop culture podcast. Give it a listen!
There are countless reasons to love the Spice Girls. And now we have one more. Back in the ’90s, the Spice Girls used their platform to espouse more progressive attitudes around feminism and gender equality:
But they didn’t stop there. Recently resurfaced footage from an appearance on a ’90s Dutch talk show reveals that they also used their voices to speak out against blackface.
Before we get to the clip, some necessary context:
In Belgium and the Netherlands, they celebrate Christmas and St. Nicholas a bit differently than we do in the States. Sinterklaas, their version of Santa, is not helped by elves and flying reindeer; instead, he’s assisted by “Zwarte Piet,” which translates to Black Pete. This character, described as a Moor from Spain, was introduced back in 1850. Every year, Dutch and Belgian people channel Black Pete by covering their faces in black makeup, painting on big red lips, and clipping on gold earrings.
Despite accusations of racism, many continue to defend the practice because relegating an entire race to an offensive costume is tradition (translation: confronting one’s colonial past can be awkward and they’d rather not). To sidestep the controversy, some Zwarte Piet lovers now claim that Santa’s black “helper” is actually white, and the blackface presentation is supposed to symbolize soot that got all over him while going down a chimney.
But people are slowly starting to accept the fact that traditional customs can also be super duper racist. And guess you knew that way back in the 1990s. The Spice Girls, of course!
While on a publicity tour through the Netherlands, talk show host Paul De Leeuw decided to bring out a band of Black Petes. The Spice Girls immediately tried to shut it down, yelling “We don’t like them! NO!”
Melanie B, a.k.a. Scary Spice, the only person of color in the group, elaborated: “I think they shouldn’t paint their faces. You should get proper black people to do it. I don’t think that’s very good.”
Leeuw dug his heels in: “No, no, no, that’s tradition, that’s culture.” He then pointed out one of the white people in blackface and said, “One of them is Winnie Mandela. Hello, Winnie!”
“It’s the ’90s!” a grossed-out Melanie C, a.k.a. Sporty Spice, pointed out.
Leeuw, however, stayed on message: “But it’s culture!”
Geri, a.k.a. Ginger Spice, smacked that lame excuse down: “Then update your culture!”
The moral of the story: History is not kind to those who insist on being racist for whatever reason. And the Spice Girls are always right. Enjoy:
— 20 Years of Spice (@SpiceGirlsFilm) March 9, 2017