Just like the Americans have their War on Christmas, in the Netherlands we have our annual debate about whether Zwarte Piet is racist. What both debates have in common is that it is only one side that is doing all the "debating"; the sane majority needs nothing more than a resounding facepalm in reply.
Normally I would tend to take the same approach, but today it occurred to me that there is a simple, systematic way to think about this question, almost as if it were a legal issue. (Which it isn't, yet. Thank God for small graces.) So I thought I'd lay it out.
In my view, something can be racist by intent or racist by effect. (I know, I spend too much time doing European competition law.) It is intuitively obvious what it means for an act to be motivated by racist intent, whereas a racist effect means that the act has an unreasonable disparate impact on different races. Of course, in practice that disparate impact will often be intended on some level, but it is still useful to distinguish the two cases. (And, speaking of European law, note that in Common Market Law discriminatory intent without a discriminatory effect is not unlawful, although in practice it will be difficult to prove.) I fail to see how something can be inherently racist if it is neither motivated by racism nor has any kind of disparate impact.
This means that we can simply look at them each in turn. The first prong is quite simple. No one that I am aware of is claiming that the tradition of Zwarte Piet persists in order to promote a racist ideology, or otherwise because of racist intent. The tradition is observed by people of all ideologies and ethnicities, including a large majority who cannot plausibly be accused of being racists. Of course, I'm sure there are those who are batshit insane enough to suggest that one can be a racist without knowing it, but I'm not even going to dignify that with a response. (And even if that were true, how could such an unsuspected racist belief be the reason for any conscious choice?)
Note that blackface is an American tradition that has no equivalent in the Netherlands. The Zwarte Piet tradition dates back to around the same time as blackface, the mid-19th century, long before anyone in the Netherlands knew what blackface was or why it is unavoidably connected to a tradition of racism to the point of being per se racist. (By which I mean that anyone using blackface is deemed to know this tradition, and accept and intend the racist connotation of that institution.) Calling Zwarte Piet an example of blackface assumes the conclusion, and is therefore illegitimate as an argument.
That leaves disparate impact. This one is a bit more tricky, because it is unquestionably true that some black people are genuinely shocked and hurt at seeing Zwarte Piet. I'm still ruling it out, though. The problem is that, hurt feelings aside, there is no disparate impact. Again, this is - to my knowledge - undisputed. And the emotional impact that the Zwarte Piet tradition might cause is caused entirely by the (subjective) meaning that the person in question gives to what he or she sees. Specifically, people are hurt because they believe Zwarte Piet is racist. But this simply shows that the argument is circular: Zwarte Piet is racist because some people interpret it as racist. All it takes is for them to pull their heads out of their assess and educate themselves about the tradition and its meaning for people today, and the problem would be solved.
Unfortunately, my compatriots' love for White Liberal Guilt is much to great for them to be able to resist asking the question, so I'm sure this debate will continue year after year for as long as I shall live. Nevertheless, I will continue to treat the question with all the contempt it deserves.
The same goes, by the way, for the recent choice in Amsterdam to take the cross off Sinterklaas's hat, in order to avoid offending the Muslims: