A woman dressed up as Zwarte Piet. Photo: Getty.
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A Dutch court has ruled that “Black Pete” is offensive. How did it take so long?

A Dutch court has ruled that the Dutch Christmas character, "Zwarte Piet" or Black Pete, a white man in blackface, is offensive.

Yesterday, a court ruled that one of Holland’s much-loved Christmas traditions was “insulting” to black people and perpetuated racist stereotypes. The Amsterdam mayor was given six weeks to decide whether or not he would hold the city’s annual Sinterklaas parade, a Christmas street party. What could possibly be so legally problematic about that, you might wonder?

The problem begins with Zwarte Piet. Like most Dutch children (you’d never guess it from my name, but my mother is from the Netherlands) I eagerly anticipated Zwarte Piet’s visit each year. He’s the trusted helper of Sinterklaas, or Father Christmas. Father Christmas is old and fat, so he needs his obedient side-kick Piet to scale down all those Dutch chimneys and deliver sweets and presents.

Zwarte Piet translates as Black Pete. And why is he black? From all the soot, I was told. Yet even a small child can see that Zwarte Piet is more than a little grubby. His face is painted black, he has thick, cartoonish painted on lips, and tight black curls. He’s a white man in blackface.

In recent years, this has become the subject of fierce national debate in Holland. Of course, it is absolutely baffling to outsiders that the racism of Zwarte Piet should still be under discussion in a 21st century, multi-cultural society. There are of course plenty of Dutch people who maintain that Zwarte Piet is an outdated, racist tradition that ought to have been abandoned decades ago. And I’m with them. 

But there are also plenty who argue that it’s simply an innocent bit of festive fun. Perhaps we all tend to be weirdly, irrationally attached to Christmas traditions. When I first wrote about this subject last November, Dutch relatives contacted me to suggest I had simply “misunderstood” the point of Zwarte Piet. Almost all of the Netherlands loves Zwarte Piet, the deputy Prime Minister Lodewijk Asscher argued at the time, and “you can’t say the whole of Holland is racist”. And so, he concluded, with an astonishing jump in logic, that Zwarte Piet can’t possibly be racist. 

Sometimes the pro-Piet camp engages in long pseudo-historic analysis to try and prove that Zwarte Piet was definitely not a slave, implying that the blackface is just some inexplicable curiosity. Other people have gone so far in their defence of this “harmless fun” that they have sent death threats to anti-Zwarte Piet campaigners. The far-right in Holland has made alarming advances in recent years, and the Zwarte Piet debate has revealed another ugly dimension to these politics.

Yesterday’s court ruling is limited in scope. Within six weeks the mayor of Amsterdam will report back on his decision. Last year, Amsterdam authorities made a ludicrously small adjustment to his outfit: Piet stopped wearing earrings as these are seen as symbols of slavery. This year, they might make more drastic changes: perhaps Zwarte Piet will really just have a couple of smudges of soot on his cheeks.

Yet even if Amsterdam’s Sinterklaas parade is banned, this won’t stop other cities from holding theirs unless they too end up facing legal proceedings. Here’s to hoping that next year’s Sinterklaas parades will be truly fun for everyone (apart from the racists) and that Holland will finally let go of its strange love for blackface Zwarte Piet. 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Britain is running out of allies as it squares up to Russia

For whatever reason, Donald Trump is going to be no friend of an anti-Russia foreign policy.

The row over Donald Trump and that dossier rumbles on.

Nothing puts legs on a story like a domestic angle, and that the retired spy who compiled the file is a one of our own has excited Britain’s headline writers. The man in question, Christopher Steele, has gone to ground having told his neighbour to look after his cats before vanishing.

Although the dossier contains known errors, Steele is regarded in the intelligence community as a serious operator not known for passing on unsubstantiated rumours, which is one reason why American intelligence is investigating the claims.

“Britain's role in Trump dossier” is the Telegraph’s splash, “The ‘credible’ ex-MI6 man behind Trump Russia report” is the Guardian’s angle, “British spy in hiding” is the i’s splash.

But it’s not only British headline writers who are exercised by Mr Steele; the Russian government is too. “MI6 officers are never ex,” the Russian Embassy tweeted, accusing the UK of “briefing both ways - against Russia and US President”. “Kremlin blames Britain for Trump sex storm” is the Mail’s splash.

Elsewhere, Crispin Blunt, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, warns that relations between the United Kingdom and Russia are as “bad as they can get” in peacetime.

Though much of the coverage of the Trump dossier has focused on the eyecatching claims about whether or not the President-Elect was caught in a Russian honeytrap, the important thing, as I said yesterday, is that the man who is seven days from becoming President of the United States, whether through inclination or intimidation, is not going to be a reliable friend of the United Kingdom against Russia.

Though Emanuel Macron might just sneak into the second round of the French presidency, it still looks likely that the final choice for French voters will be an all-Russia affair, between Francois Fillon and Marine Le Pen.

For one reason or another, Britain’s stand against Russia looks likely to be very lonely indeed.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.