The Netherlands has a questionable tradition, but still doesn’t get half as much attention as America.

This year, footage of American police officers brutalising people of colour dominated our screens. No wonder then that the conversations happening in Europe about racism often focus on the notion that it is largely an American problem — a horrifying spectacle that we simply witness from across the pond, and in which we play no part in.

It’s ‘Them’ not Us!

In overwhelmingly white-dominated university classrooms across Europe, the US is often the go-to example used to talk about both historic and current race issues. Perhaps this is just because this is the American-centric world we live in. The US is simply the easiest example to use as its race issues are more widely known, more visceral, and arguably more explicit.

Whatever the exact reasons, I think a contributing factor is that it allows us to remove ourselves from the problem, and to avoid uncomfortable truths. Often unconsciously and seemingly inconsequentially, we constantly abstract the problem of racism either to a different time or a different place. This allows us to foster an implicit idea that somehow, we are less guilty of it or that concerns over racism don’t require as much attention in our very own countries.

Zwarte Piet

I studied my Masters degree in Philosophy in the Netherlands. Our discussions often centred around discrimination, racism, and other related moral issues. Despite that fact that we were in the Netherlands, and that the majority of my peers were Dutch, we didn’t once mention Dutch problems in relation to racism. To me this was all the more strange given the Dutch colonial history, which rivals that of Britain, and the fact that on the streets every November you can still to this day see numerous parades starring Zwarte Piet, or ‘Black Pete’ as it’s known in English.

Now if you’re lucky enough to not know about Zwarte Piet, I’m sorry that I’m about to ruin that. He is a character connected to the Dutch Christmas tradition of Sinterklaas, playing the ‘helper’ role to their Father Christmas. There are some disagreements as to the character and his origins, but it is commonly accepted that Piet is a black person. The problem is that in parades and celebrations around the country, he is usually portrayed by white people who don a black face, complete with bright red lipstick and curly wigs.

This has in recent years, perhaps unsurprisingly, caused some controversy. But despite some mild backlash, a survey from 2018 suggests that up to 88 per cent of the Dutch public do not perceive Zwarte Piet to be a racist character and are opposed to altering the character’s appearance. I was beyond shocked that this supposedly free and tolerant society could be so oblivious to what most outsiders would surely consider blatantly problematic at best, and downright racist at worst. 

It’s not just the Dutch, though

This article however isn’t about calling the Dutch out on their problems. After all, this would be committing that same error of fixating on the racism of other countries without being introspective about our own, homegrown problems. 

My experience in the Netherlands made me think of all the racism and discrimination we are blind to in our own countries and cultures. If my classmates could excuse, look past, or simply not see the most on-the-nose and casual racial discrimination, then how much do we miss or ignore in our own society?

Zwarte Piet is arguably easier to spot than most other manifestations of racism, but this then leads to an uncomfortable conclusion. If such obvious incidences of discrimination happen without acknowledgement, then how do we begin to bring attention to all the less-tangible, more complex and systemic cases that can’t be seen parading down the street in curly wigs and handing out candy to little kids?

I’m certainly not aiming to preach to the choir here, but instead appeal to the yet unconverted. Namely, I appeal to those in the British public who aren’t convinced that racism is a big issue in the UK. Those whose natural instinct is to come to the defence of traditions and common practices, which are seen as harmless but leave room for doubt. I am asking you to acknowledge your human fallibility, and propensity for not always being capable of seeing the whole objective truth — especially when it doesn’t directly concern you.

We must realise that when we look outside for problems of racism affecting other countries, we’re often staring at a mirror which shows us our own problems, too. Instead of discussing segregation-era US with its vast inequalities in wealth and opportunities between white and black families, we need only look at present-day UK and the data that shows a very similar picture.

The phenomenon of Zwarte Piet tells us two important things. Firstly, that it’s incredibly easy for a society to miss obvious racism — even when it’s literally staring us in the face. Secondly, and the main message I wish to convey here; that if we only see racism as some export from abroad, then we end up ignoring and overlooking issues happening in our own backyard — right now.

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