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 There are of course plenty of Dutch people who maintain that Zwarte Piet is an outdated, racist tradition that ought to have been abandoned decades ago.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.

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Why Britain’s Bangladeshis are so successful

In an age of fear about immigration, the success of the Bangladeshi population in Britain has a deeper resonance.

No day is complete without fears about immigrants failing to integrate in Britain. Romanians, Bulgarians and Syrians are among the ethnic groups now seen to be a burden on society, poorly educated and with few in good jobs, if in work at all.

A generation ago, much the same was said of the Bangladeshi community. Tower Hamlets, where the concentration of Bangladeshis is greatest, was the worst performing local authority in England until 1998. Until 2009, British Bangladeshis in England performed worse than the national average.

Today the Bangladeshi population is thriving: 62 per cent got five good GCSEs, including English and Maths, in 2015, five per cent above the average. The improvement among the poorest Bangladeshis has been particular spectacular: the results of Bangladeshis on Free School Meals (FSM) improved more than any other ethnic group on FSMs in the last decade, according to analysis of Department for Education figures.

Partly this is a story about London. If London’s schools have benefited from motivated Bangladeshi students, Bangladeshi pupils have also benefited from the attention given to the capital, and especially Tower Hamlets; 70 per cent of Bangladeshis in Britain live in the capital. But even outside the capital, Bangladeshi students “are doing very well”, and outperform Pakistani students, something that was not true in the recent past, says Simon Burgess from the University of Bristol.

The success of Bangladeshi girls, who outperformed boys by eight per cent in 2015, is particularly striking. Increased gender equality in Bangladesh – the gender pay gap fell 31 per cent from 1999-2009 – has led to Bangladeshi parents in England taking female education more seriously, says Abdul Hannan, the Bangladesh High Commissioner in the UK. He traces the development back to 1991, when Khaleda Zia became the first female prime minister in Bangladesh’s history; the country has had a female prime minister for 22 of the last 25 years.

The roots of the Bangladeshi population in Britain might be another factor in their success. The majority of Bangladeshis in the country hail from the city of Sylhet, which is central to Bangladesh’s economy and politics, and renowned for its food. “Our forefathers were the pioneers of the curry industry and we have followed in their footsteps,” says Pasha Khandaker, owner of a small chain of curry houses in Kent, who was born in Sylhet. Brick Lane alone has 57 Bangladeshi-owned curry houses; throughout England, around 90 per cent of all curry houses are owned by British Bangladeshis, according to the Bangladesh High Commission.

Other ethnic groups are less lucky. The skills and social and cultural capital of the British Pakistanis who originate from Mirpur, less integral to Pakistan than Sylhet is to Bangladesh, leave them less able to succeed in Britain, says Dr Parveen Akhtar, from the University of Bradford. The Bangladeshi population is also less constrained by kinship ties, Akhtar believes. In some British Pakistani communities, “individuals can live their lives with little or no contact with other communities”.

Younger British Bangladeshis have benefited from how their parents have become integrated into British life. “The second generation of Bangladeshi children had better financial support, better moral support and better access to education,” Hannan says.

As Bangladeshis have become more successful, so younger generations have become more aspirational. “Before you were an outlier going to university. As more people did it started to open the doors,” says Rushanara Ali, who became the first MP born in Bangladesh in 2010. She has detected an “attitude change about university for boys and girls.” Nasim Ali, a Bangladeshi councillor in Camden believes that, “the focus was on young people getting jobs when they turned 16” a generation ago, but now parents are more willing to spend extra money on tuition. 

Huge challenges remain. While the employment rate of Bangladeshis has improved – the proportion of women in work has risen by one-third in the last five years, according to research by Yaojun Li, from the University of Manchester – it still lags behind educational performance. Nine per cent of working age Bangladeshis are unemployed, almost twice the national average, Li has found. It does not help that the 12,000 Bangladeshi curry houses in Britain are closing at a rate of at least five a week. This does not reflect a lack of demand, says Khandaker, who is also President of the Bangladesh Caterers Association, but the government’s immigration restrictions, making it harder to find high-skilled chefs, and the increased ambition of young Bangladeshis today, who aspire to do more than work in the family business.

But, for all these concerns, as the soaring Bangladeshi children of today progress to adulthood, they will be well poised to gain leading jobs. David Cameron has said that he wants to see a British Asian prime minister in his lifetime. Hannan tells me that he is “positive that one day we will see someone from Bangladesh in the leadership”.

Nothing would better embody the sterling rise of the 600,000 British Bangladeshis. In an age of fear about immigration, the success of the Bangladeshi population in Britain has a deeper resonance. It shows that, with the right support, migrant communities can overcome early struggles to thrive. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.