Black Pete and the Academic Arena EO

Black Pete and the Academic

Can Zwarte Piet still be black? What does the academic have to say about this? Or should we keep silent?

So I am asked to participate in a debate on national TV at 'Arena - Dit is de dag' as an expert: “the professor on emotions.” Leiden University appears in capitals under my name when I first start talking. I am not there on my own behalf, I represent the oldest university in the country. The responsibility weighs heavily. The discussion is about the Zwarte Pieten, “Black Petes”, the army of black helpers who accompany Saint Nicholas when he distributes presents to all Dutch children on his own birthday, December 5th, to make them happy. All children? Well, yes, uhhh, or perhaps no. Maybe not black Dutch children?

Emotions and feelings of nationalism are running high between the camp of people who want to keep Zwarte Piet, because according to them he symbolizes Dutch tradition, and the camp who say the persona of Black Pete is racist and originates from or at least embodies the 300 years of Dutch institutionalized enslavement of black people.

Live on television, I am asked the first question: “Why these strong emotions?” I launch into my theoretical explanation about the function of emotions. This is obviously not what the presenter wants to hear. I am interrupted and others take over. After a long 10 minutes, I get the microphone again, my second chance.
I cautiously leave the path of the academic, the empiricist, and I strike out on my own. I wonder aloud why we have a national two-minute silence every year on May 4th to remember and honor the people who died in World War II, whereas the memorial day for the abolition of slavery on June 30th only attracts a couple of hundred people at the Surinam Square in Amsterdam.

A few minutes later, I get another turn to speak. I now recall that years ago the Amsterdam Transport Company wanted to introduce surprise checks on people’s tickets on trams. This raised strong protest from WW II survivors, for whom this evoked horrible memories. Although they were a tiny minority, their protest was immediately respected and the checks were called off. The other side of the table snaps at me “You cannot compare the Holocaust with Black Pete!” Of course not, yet I am talking here about all those people who died in slavery. It’s not up to me to tell their descendants not to feel the association with our history of slavery, is it?

But who’s talking here? I have not done any research in this area. Am I still representing Leiden University? Although the current norm may be that we, as academics, should refrain from taking sides in politics, Naomi Ellemers, professor in Social Psychology at Leiden University, clearly states that it is not norms but values that serve as our primary guiding principles. Values reflect our ideals, denote what we think is important, what we want to achieve.

In 1970, it took the philosopher and linguist Frits Staal more than 50 pages to discuss the role and responsibilities of the academic in his paper “The Academic as Nowhere Man”. He strongly advocated that science without values becomes worthless in itself. If we accept this view, this means that we should express and discuss our values; they are an integral part of our work, and thus should be open to criticism.

So that is what I did. I expressed my values. My values for a society in which people can have different concerns, different histories, different perspectives on life, but should be respected and given credit. I expressed my strong value that a minority point of view can take precedence over a majority view. And to be honest, it felt really good to express this openly what values I want to stand for, and am willing to defend.