Author: M. G.
Folk traditions can sometimes be a bit racist - they are centuries old and humans were - and many still tend to be - racist, everybody knows that. These days the UN is leading a debate about these matters, more precisely about the abolition of the Dutch and Flemish folk character Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), the assistant of Sinterklaas (Santa Claus but different, as he comes from Spain). I must say I've never heard about Zwarte Piet, but I personally think he's OK. For some he's the helper of Sinterklaas, for others he's Sinterklaas' personal slave. For some he's a happy and funny character, for others he's the insulting parody of a black person.
The UN started their research as The Netherlands and Belgium asked UNESCO if Sinterklaas & Zwarte Piet could be added as cultural World Heritage and they ended up conducting an investigation about Dutch people and racism against the black community. The researchers said that, according to their information at the moment, Piet's traditions should be abolished - one of their points is that usually black people don't paint themselves in white going in the street saying "this is how white people look like". Piet was born during the Dutch colonial empire, therefore it could have a racist-connoted origin, but it's not proven. Moreover, in the Huffington Post you can also read about the worries concerning how children can react to this kind of parody, for example, sometimes in schools black kids are called Zwarte Piet as an insult. When policemen in the Dutch city of Rotterdam once tried to go out undercover dressed up like Piet, they had to arrest many people because of their racist comments - "You would not want to know all the things which are shouted at our Piet's" they said.
In Italy there are a lot of folkloristic characters too. They are related to the carnival festivities and they're a funny representation of the inhabitants of a certain Italian city. Most of them were born more than 500 years ago, when Italy was not united in a single country but divided in tens of different small states. People from other cities were strangers and their language was also different because of their local dialects. It was a period of division and racism too. Still, these characters became part of the Italian theatre tradition and are part of the cultural identity of Italy.
Zwarte Piet is different from the rest of people in the Netherlands because of his skin colour. Ok, and so what? I don't think the traditions themselves are a problem - Zwarte Piet isn't a person, it's a character and therefore everybody interprets him in a different way. He's not even a man, because women dress up like him too. He just belongs to people's imagination and that can be racist or tolerant, depending on the person. I wonder if banning Zwarte Piet would stop racism in the Netherlands and I doubt it: if Piet was abolished and forgotten, racists would just find other names to insult black people. So what's the point? I really would like to know why they're so sure this is the right way to fight racism.