The Executive Board would like to start a university-wide discussion about the role of ‘Zwarte Piet’, or Black Pete. The question is, how should the sidekick of Sinterklaas look during the coming Sinterklaas celebrations? In a letter to all students and employees, the Executive Board calls for a debate. Chair of the Executive Board Pauline van der Meer Mohr explains to EM why she wants to start the debate now.
The ‘Zwarte Piet debate’ is being held in many corners of Dutch society. Why do you believe it is important to also stimulate this discussion within the university?
“In late 2014 we announced our plans to give careful thought to possible alternatives to Zwarte Piet’s traditional appearance – alternatives that do justice to the continuing status of Sinterklaas as a feast for everyone. And as far as we’re concerned, this is still our main point of departure. In light of the upcoming Sinterklaas celebrations, we would like to give the members of the EUR community an opportunity to share their views on this subject. The recent letter is intended as a ‘kick-off’ for this discussion.”
Why has the Executive Board decided to organise a public debate, rather than simply declare its own position on this matter?
“Universities are an ideal environment for open discussion. In a sense, we have already declared our position by stating that we believe that Sinterklaas celebrations should be ‘inclusive’ – in other words: everyone should feel free to join in the fun. We are now asking the EUR community to tell us how we can keep it that way. We will take these viewpoints and suggestions on board when we determine how the university will be celebrating Sinterklaas in 2015.”
The ‘Zwarte Piet debate’ can become very heated – to the point of people actually getting arrested. Aren’t you afraid of unleashing similar passions here within the University?
The discussions regarding Zwarte Piet have indeed become very intense, and I don’t rule out that some people in the university community also have very strong opinions on this matter. But there’s nothing wrong with a lively debate, as long as people substantiate their positions with solid arguments. I am confident that this will be the case at our university, and that we can show respect for one another’s viewpoints.
In your letter, you write: “This university can send a powerful message by making the Sinterklaas celebrations inclusive to all.” Which indications have you received from the university community that people feel alienated from the existing celebrations?
“At the end of last year in particular, a number of staff members indicated that they felt uncomfortable with how Sinterklaas was being celebrated here on campus, and specifically with Zwarte Piet’s appearance. We take this kind of message – in which people indicate that they cannot identify with these celebrations – very seriously.”
In the letter there are hints that the Board has a particular position on this matter, for example the sentence: “Just because something is a tradition, it need not be a justification for its continued existence.” Aren’t you afraid of disturbing the process of ‘open discussion’ with this statement?
“On the contrary. What we are actually saying is that, as far as we’re concerned, it is OK to hold the argument ‘traditions are there to be maintained’ up to scrutiny.”
Will the Executive Board keep the option open of a traditional black (or brown) Zwarte Piet at EUR celebrations?
“The figure of Zwarte Piet has already seen a number of changes in recent years. And I expect him – or her! – to change even further in the years ahead. After all, as history teaches us, public perceptions are constantly evolving too. When we meet to decide on Piet’s appearance during the upcoming Sinterklaas celebrations, we will be taking account of the various viewpoints shared with us in response to the letter.”
The figure of Zwarte Piet has already seen a number of changes in recent years. And I expect him – or her! – to change even further in the years ahead.
What is your own perspective on Zwarte Piet?
“As a first-year student, I took part in Sinterklaas’s arrival in South Rotterdam, dressed up as Zwarte Piet. That’s the first time I became aware that for some, the figure of Zwarte Piet is less innocuous than for others. But leaving that aside, I’d rather not let my personal views influence the discussion right now, since we need to make an administrative decision on this matter – which means that we have listen carefully to what everyone has to say.”
How do you like to celebrate Sinterklaas at home? With or without Piet?
When I celebrate it with my own family – particularly now that the children are a bit older – it’s mostly about the surprises (humorous packages), the personalised poems and the playful way in which we tease other family members about their peculiarities. Our poems are signed ‘Sint & Piet’, or otherwise just ‘Sint’. Neutral, at any rate.
What do you ultimately expect to achieve with this debate?
That we take time to carefully reflect on the criticism that people have levied against the celebration of Sinterklaas as celebrated until recently. And that while we may not be able to satisfy everyone, or convince them, we have nevertheless heard and understood each other’s arguments. And that we make a serious contribution to the nation-wide debate. And finally, that we arrive at Sinterklaas celebrations that everyone can enjoy.