Dr. Isabel Awad and dr. Jiska Engelbert (ESHCC) don’t understand the decision to keep Zwarte Piet at Erasmus University. “We were actually expecting the university to draw on its intellectual resources to come up with sensitive revisions to the celebration.”
We would like to express our profound disappointment with—and distance ourselves from—the EUR’s reaction to the ongoing debate about the Sinterklaas celebration and, more specifically, about the racist character of Zwarte Piet.
‘Come up with sensitive revisions’
We were actually expecting the university to draw on its intellectual resources (experts in Dutch and world history, cultural studies, sociology, marketing, international relations, migration studies, development studies, media and communication, etc.) to come up with sensitive revisions to the celebration. We assumed that precisely because of its academic excellence, international character, and location (in one of the Netherlands’ most diverse cities), the EUR would actually play a leading role in this respect.
Instead, what we read in the international pages of EM (#5, p. 30) was that “Erasmus University Rotterdam keeps its traditional Piet,” while not calling him “Zwart” anymore and opting for a “brown rather than a soot black” face painting. Far from taking any kind of leading role—the EUR’s director of marketing explained to EM—the university would wait and follow (minimum) legal requirements and make changes only “[i]f the Council of State decides that the current Zwarte Piet is unacceptable.”
After talking with colleagues in our department, we are convinced that this decision does not represent many people who work in the EUR. Some of us find the traditional Piet clearly racist and will thus not participate in the EUR’s celebration. There are others who do not share our view. However, they also agree that the celebration needs to be adapted to avoid offending any social group. Among the people we have talked with, keeping the Pieten as they are, with painted black or brown faces is not a real possibility at this point, all the least in a university like ours.
The EUR Sinterklaas celebration will take place rather late this year (November 29). Moreover, the changes required to turn this into a respectful celebration are neither expensive nor time consuming (we would be happy to contribute with a detailed proposal in that respect). Thus, we still hope that those who organize this event will reconsider their decision.
Dr. Isabel Awad and Dr. Jiska Engelbert are Assistant Professors at the department of Media and Communication (ESHCC)