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More awareness of racism in Netherlands in wake of Zwarte Piet debate

The fierce debate over the status of Zwarte Piet has prompted greater recognition of the extent of racism in the Netherlands, new research claims.

An actor dressed as Zwarte Piet, complete with blackface make-up.The Netherlands Institute for Human Rights (CRM) called for the government to give racial discrimination the same priority as homophobia and anti-Semitism. 

The question of whether Zwarte Piet, or “black Pete”, should continue to be included in the Netherlands’ Sinterklaas celebrations in early December has been the focus of an increasingly polarised debate in recent years. The character is almost invariably played by white actors in blackface make-up.

Critics say the role is outdated and offensive to ethnic minorities, but defenders of the tradition claim it is an integral part of a traditional Dutch children’s festival and dismiss any suggestion of racism.

Last year a UN official attacked the character as a throwback to slavery who should be abolished. In response, a Facebook petition in support of Zwarte Piet swiftly gathered two million likes.

“The Zwarte Piet controversy has led to the discussion about racism in the Netherlands becoming polarised,” wrote the CRM in its report.

“Many people who cherish the Sinterklaas tradition see nothing wrong in Zwarte Piet and perceive Dutch non-whites as complaining about discrimination that does not exist.

“Those who contend that Zwarte Piet is a racist stereotype (whether or not with a colonial background), which can cause problems for black people, find white Dutch people who refuse to change anything about it to be racist and heartless.”

The report also noted that the “dismissal and ridiculing of people’s hurt feelings” had sparked outrage beyond the Netherlands’ borders.

But it goes on: “The debate has had the necessary effect. The stories of people who feel hurt by the character of Zwarte Piet have been heard and they have been able to explain what it means to be confronted for years with a caricature of themselves.

“This has led to a broader perception of the Sinterklaas tradition as a whole, the role played in it by Zwarte Piet and the significance of this cultural tradition for the Netherlands.

“The tentative conclusion is that the Netherlands is a step closer to recognising the fact that racial discrimination exists here as well.”

The Zwarte Piet question will come to the fore again on Thursday when a judge is due to rule on whether Amsterdam’s mayor, Eberhard van der Laan, was right to authorise last year’s arrival parade last November.

The case was brought by a group of campaigners who argue that Van der Laan “did not consider the balance of interests carefully” in deciding to let the event go ahead.

Verene Shepherd, the adviser to the UN who called for the practice of blacking up to be abolished, is visiting the Netherlands this week to investigate the treatment of people of African origin.