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Artillery Row

Denounce Black Peter – or else!

How a London loneliness charity excluded an old man for not conforming to its anti-racist agenda

John looked forward to his regular Zoom meetings with South London Cares, a charity that’s part of a group of five similar non-profits set up by an ex-Labour spin doctor called Alex Smith. Established in 2014, its raison d’être is to introduce older people living on their own to community-minded young professionals in the hope of making them feel less lonely. In many ways, John is the ideal beneficiary. He’s a 74-year-old retired civil servant and while he has plenty of hobbies to keep him busy – such as playing the viola da gamba – the charity provided him regular opportunities to meet his neighbours.

John is well-travelled and he’s learnt not to be too judgmental when it comes to other people’s traditions

But all that changed on 2 December 2020. John was in a Zoom meeting called “South London Stories”, along with two dozen others, when one of the young thrusters raised the subject of Zwarte Piet (Black Peter). According to the Christmas tradition in the low countries, Zwarte Piet is a loyal servant of St Nicholas, helping him distribute gifts to children. The Feast of St Nicholas is celebrated in early December in Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg, and men dress up as Zwarte Piet to hand out sweets and cakes, often wearing curly wigs, bright red lipstick and blackface. Needless to say, Zwarte Piet has been the subject of considerable controversy in these countries, with critics claiming the character is a legacy of their colonial past. Nonetheless, he remains a popular figure in Holland, with most Dutch citizens supporting the tradition and saying they don’t regard Zwarte Piet as racist.

In the Zoom, one of John’s elderly neighbours expressed their disapproval of Zwarte Piet and he got the sense, both from the young professionals and the South London Cares employee leading the discussion, that all the older people in the group were expected to do the same. But he didn’t feel comfortable about it. He wasn’t inclined to vigorously defend the tradition, which he didn’t know much about, but he didn’t think it was right to condemn the folklore of another culture. John is well-travelled and he’s learnt not to be too judgmental when it comes to other people’s traditions. So when it was his turn to speak he said he didn’t find the character particularly offensive.

Afterwards, he got a call from a South London Cares employee who told him he’d given the wrong answer. Zwarte Piet was a racist tradition, he explained, because it perpetuated a stereotype of black people as subordinate and unintelligent. The caller acknowledged that, in describing the character as inoffensive, John may not have intended to hurt anyone. But it was a hurtful thing to say nonetheless and his comment had been recorded as an “overt act of racism”. He was told that he was being given a formal warning and if he wanted to avoid a “red notice”, which would result in him being banned from any further meetings, he had to apologise to the group and commit to understanding where he went wrong so he could do better.

John hadn’t expected to be chided for being politically incorrect

John was slightly taken aback. He had thought the charity wanted to make people like him feel wanted and loved and hadn’t expected to be chided for being politically incorrect. Indeed, the website has a testimonial from a 30-year-old volunteer called Fran about the relationship she’s developed with an 86-year-old. “I don’t feel like I have to watch what I say around her – we talk about race, religion, upbringing, all sorts!” she says. Reading that, John thought he could talk in a relaxed, unguarded way. Yet here was an officious young man threatening him with social exclusion if he didn’t sign up to the charity’s anti-racist agenda. To John, it felt as if he was being asked to engage in some ritual of self-abasement – to apologise on behalf of the white race for the sins of colonialism and slavery.

Many people in his position would have crumbled under this pressure, but not John. He politely explained that he had nothing to apologise for – he couldn’t help it if he didn’t find Zwarte Piet offensive – and a few weeks later he received an official letter telling him he’d been banned.

When I spoke to John he said he should have seen the writing on the wall when the charity included a pro forma statement on its website about the “inspirational leadership” of Black Lives Matter last June. It contained the usual pieties about the scourge of “systemic racism in our communities”, an acknowledgment that the charity was “part of the problem” and a commitment to rooting out “systemic injustices built up over centuries”.

“It reads like it’s been written by another organisation that provides charities with these hand-me-down sermons,” said John.

South London Cares, like so many other charities, may have been captured by the woke cult

To my weathered eye, there was another explanation: South London Cares, like so many other charities, may have been captured by the woke cult. The reason the executives of these charities all sound like they’re reciting from the same script is because certain words and phrases – “systems of oppression”, “our blind spots and inactivity have led to failings”, “anti-racist learning and training” – have taken on a liturgical significance. It’s a way for these activists to signal their fealty to the cult – the equivalent of loyalty oaths. So South London Cares may now have a new purpose. Instead of mobilising young professionals to provide support and companionship to older people, its mission is to re-educate these unenlightened dinosaurs — creating a valuable social network and then threatening them with excommunication if they don’t produce the right Pavlovian responses to “racist stereotypes”.

In the letter John received telling him he was no longer welcome, the charity included a long list of thoughtcrimes, including “microassaults”, “microinvalidation” and “microinsults” (“Suggesting a black volunteer and black neighbour may get along based on skin colour”). Committing any of these sins is enough to trigger an “amber” warning. I cannot think of many 74-year-olds who would emerge from a Zoom session with one of these Red Guards without blotting their copybook.

Needless to say, South London Cares receives plenty of money from the state, as well as Comic Relief, the Mercer’s Company and Deutsche Bank, and its website includes ringing endorsements from Theresa May, Sadiq Khan and Tracey Crouch, the ex-Minister for Loneliness. No doubt the intentions of its founder and employees are good and I’m sure it still does lots of valuable work. But it feels like it has lost its way in the past 12 months. I tried to speak to Alex Smith to discuss this case, but he declined to comment for the record. Let’s hope he can disentangle his charity from the nasty, authoritarian woke cult that appears to have captured it and John is readmitted without having to abase himself at the altar of BLM.

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