Community isn’t the only NBC show being re-examined for racially insensitive material. The Office is also returning to the cutting room due to a controversial scene from its final season, which aired in 2012-2013. According to Variety, NBC and Netflix have removed a scene featuring a character in blackface from its season nine holiday episode, “Dwight Christmas.” The scene will no longer appear on Netflix, NBC’s Peacock (when the show hits the service in 2021), or syndication.
In the episode, Jim convinces everyone to celebrate a traditional “Schrute Pennsylvania Dutch Christmas,” ditching the traditional holiday cheer for a more…rustic approach. Enter Dwight as Belsnickel, a character from Dutch folklore presented in the episode as a more hardcore “gift-bringer” than that jolly old Santa. As Dwight says in the episode, Belsnickel was created to inspire the fear that Santa doesn’t. This makes him much “cooler” in Dwight’s opinion.
We also learn in the episode that Belsnickel has a helper named Zwarte Piet (the English translation is “Black Peter”), a clearly racist folkloric character that is traditionally played by a white person in blackface and red lipstick. In the episode, Dwight has his assistant Nate (Mark Porksch) dress up as Black Peter before calling off the stunt when he realizes the stunt is racist. This leads to a scene where we see Nate walking through the Dunder Mifflin parking lot in blackface and dressed in renaissance attire before turning back.
The Black Peter tradition has been the subject of re-examination in real-life, too. In 2018, National Geographic reported on protests in the Netherlands over the character, with many Dutch people calling for Black Peter’s removal from traditional holiday celebrations in the country. “Neo-Nazis responded violently” to these protests, according to Nat Geo.
If you Google “Black Peter” right now, you’ll find quite a few articles questioning the racist imagery and meaning behind the character. Anti-racist campaigner Jerry Afriyie told Aljazeera in 2018 that Black Peter and the character’s right-wing defenders were “Dutch racism in full display.”
As for The Office, series creator Greg Daniels released a statement concerning the Black Peter scene in “Dwight Christmas,” calling blackface “unacceptable” and apologizing for including the scene in the episode.
“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,” said Daniels. “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 removal of Black Peter from The Office is just the latest in the media’s symbolic response to the George Floyd protests that have swept the globe, bringing racism to the forefront of the global discussion. 30 Rock creators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock also asked NBC to remove several episodes that include the blatant use of blackface. Other shows that have had episodes cut due to blackface include Scrubs and Golden Girls.
Hopefully, these symbolic cuts and acknowledgements of the overt racism sometimes employed on TV and movie screens in service of a “gag” will lead to real change in the industry.