‘I think you should change it!’: the Spice Girls guide to calling out racism

One of the essay questions that students on my music and politics module have been able to make their own, several times over, is one that columnists and gender studies academics were already debating in the late 1990s, when most current undergraduates were born: were the Spice Girls feminists?

I owe this one to a young woman called Emma who proposed it the first year I taught this module at Hull, who wasn’t sure something so recent and everyday and feminine and from her own experience was suitable for a history essay, even one where you have to choose your own topic like this; and of course it was, because that’s exactly the kind of thing that thinking like a historian can illuminate, so I added it to the list of ‘Past essay titles on this module have included’ in our handbook the next year, to give a signal that yes, the 1990s and childhood and girlhood and pop music are all part of History.

Other students since then have framed the Spice Girls idea their own way and, more than once, turned it into first-class work. I like to think getting the chance to find out how formative moments from your childhood were actually part of gender history is one of those transformative experiences that university teaching can create when teachers trust students to be independent and support them to do more with their knowledge than worry if they’ve got the answer ‘right’.

I won’t pre-empt future students working out how their childhood fits into the history of feminism, consumerism and any other context we might fit the Spice Girls into, but I will mention something I’d started to forget about them since they became, like the other nineties girlbands, commercial reunion fodder: the authenticity of their friendship and solidarity in the early years that still shone through the multinational industry they quickly became, the emotion behind what so many fans wanted to watch, be and buy.

This clip from a Dutch children’s TV show in 1998, which coincidentally resurfaced just as the Internet was getting ready to commemorate 20 years since the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – another artefact of 1990s popular culture in which so many women were able to recognise themselves, then talk about it through the nascent mass internet – shows the group of friends you wanted them to be, standing up for their best mate when the presenter confronts them with the blackface carnival character Zwarte Piet, but also shows how in their early twenties they’d already grasped something it takes a lot of white women, including me, much longer to learn – what you can do in the heat of the moment when someone does something racist.

Before we go any further, Zwarte Piet is a character from Dutch Christmas tradition, a sprite or demon who accompanies Sinterklaas (St Nicholas) to bring presents to children. He’s dressed as a servant from the Golden Age Netherlands, when Amsterdam was at its height as a colonial metropole, and traditionally is always played by a white person in blackface. Which is where the problem lies.

People of colour and their white allies have been protesting against the racism of Zwarte Piet for years, and some Dutch public institutions have very recently started to compromise by dressing their Zwarte Piets in a light dusting of soot (though that doesn’t change the character’s origins in the caricature of a black slave).

Many white Dutch people contend that since the Netherlands was a more benign imperial ruler than those slave-trading Brits, Dutch people can’t be racist and neither can Zwarte Piet; read Flavia Dzodan on how present-day Dutch racism makes that so unconvincing, or see Gloria Wekker’s excellent White Innocence for a book-length explanation of how Dutch racial ‘exceptionalism’ hides how long and how intimately race and whiteness have formed part of Dutch national identity.

In mainstream Dutch public opinion, all the more so in the late nineties, bringing out Zwarte Piet a few weeks before Christmas is no more controversial than – is the equivalent of – a British kids’ TV show bringing out Santa, so that’s exactly what the Paul De Leeuw show did in the middle of an interview with its star guests, the Spice Girls, late in 1998.

This fifty-second clip, unearthed by a Spice Girls fan site, says as much as many feminist blog posts about calling out racism and how you often get treated when you do.

Mel B, the only woman of colour in the Spice Girls, is the first to realise that De Leeuw and his producers are about to put her in the extremely uncomfortable position of having to perform the emotional labour of appearing as a star and role-model for children while surrounded by five gurning, waving characters in infantile blackface, knowing that hardly anyone is even going to realise why that might make her upset.

Calling out – which isn’t not in character – ‘I don’t like them! They’re not very good!’, she’s backed up at once by (it sounds like) Geri and Mel C, shouting ‘No!’ and not letting the interview stay business as usual. As white women and allies, they can use their whiteness as well as their membership of the same world-famous band to say: this isn’t how just one person feels because she’s black, this is something none of us find acceptable. ‘We don’t like them!’, as it becomes, is an even stronger, unified message.

Rather than making themselves the centre of attention as the woke white girls (in the nineties, we’d have said ‘right-on’) who know Zwarte Piet isn’t OK, however, they give Mel B the space and the reassurance to say what she wants to say: ‘I think they shouldn’t paint their faces! You should get proper black people to do it. You shouldn’t paint their faces. I don’t think that’s very good.’

De Leeuw’s reaction is also a classic example of derailing a conversation about racism – along the same lines as hundreds of Zwarte Piet conversations, and their equivalents in other countries, online and offline.

First he falls back on the argument that Zwarte Piet is part of Dutch ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’; then he turns the exchange into a joke that only reveals how far Zwarte Piet does depend on aggregated racist stereotypes as Africa by calling one of the Piets ‘Winnie Mandela’.

‘I think you should change it!’ says Mel B. ‘You shouldn’t have their faces painted… this is the nineties!’

Late nineties Britain, even as society liked to tell itself it had overcome the open racism of the 1960s and 1970s, was characterised by many forms of systemic racism, including an alarmingly high number of black people dying in police custody; the specific expression of racism the Spice Girls were encountering here, blackface on television, had gone off air in 1978 with the end of The Black and White Minstrel Show.

‘Yeah, but that’s culture!’ says De Leeuw.

‘Update your culture!’ says Geri – sadly not in tight enough focus for a gif – and Mel B is able to restate her point about blackface: ‘You should get proper ones! Proper black people!’

Another version of the clip, with a few extra seconds, shows De Leeuw doing something that anyone who’s called attention to racism, sexism or harassment will recognise: turning the person who pointed out the problem into the problem and making them feel responsible for spoiling the atmosphere.

(No-one in contemporary feminism writes about this more vividly or poetically than Sara Ahmed, who’s given a generation of feminists – many of whom grew up with the Spice Girls as icons – the words to understand that it really isn’t just them.)

When De Leeuw says, ‘I warn you, you mustn’t spoil a children’s party… don’t spoil a children’s party,’ he both reiterates the narrative that Zwarte Piet is an innocent children’s tradition, nothing to do with racism, and throws the responsibility back on Mel B for ruining the children’s Christmas treat.

The Spice Girls don’t march off altogether, as their ‘Wannabe’ personas might have suggested and as some stars would; other clips show them carrying on the interview. It’s still clear that the white women in the band are letting Mel B take the lead and using their own stardom and whiteness to have her back as best they can.

I wonder what impression this show might have had on a young Dutch fan of the Spice Girls, who might have been seeing for the very first time that idols she looked up to had a dramatically different view of a tradition that her parents, her school and wider Dutch society had always treated as normal and everyday.

Whether or not you think that the Spice Girls, as a phenomenon, were feminists, in the middle of a Dutch TV show at the end of 1998 they still managed to do something it’s taken many white feminists much longer to learn.

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