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Young children associate Black Pete more with clowns than with black people

Older children more frequently link Black Pete with a black person. Both younger and older children think positively about him. This is the conclusion of a study conducted by Judi Mesman, Professor of Diversity in Parenting and Development.

Link with black people not previously investigated

One of the arguments in the sometimes heated Pete debate is that Black Pete represents a negative stereotype of a black person who is slightly stupid and the servant of a white man. Children, the argument goes, learn to associate this stereotype with black people. Mesman is the first researcher to investigate whether children really have such associations.

Random sample of 201 children

Mesman investigated to what extent young children make the link between Black Pete and black people. Her sample consisted of 201 children aged 5 to 7. They were asked what features they associate with Black Pete. The children used cards to categorise Black Pete: a black person, a clown and a white person. Only 11% of the children placed Black Pete in the black person category and the clown in the white person category. Older children did show more of a tendency to categorise on the basis of skin colour: categorisation on the basis of skin colour was apparent in 3% of the 5-year-olds, 11% of the 6-year-olds, and 20% of the 7-year-olds.

Children with experience of ethnic diversity more frequently categorise on the basis of skin colour

Children's drawings of the Sint and Pete. (Source: sannethijs.blogspot.nl)
Children's drawings of the Sint and Pete. (Source: sannethijs.blogspot.nl)

This categorisation was also more common in children from white families living in ethnically mixed neighbourhoods and children from non-white families living in predominantly white neighbourhoods than in other children. Mesman: ‘It seems that experience with ethnic diversity makes children more aware of skin colour and that they subsequently use skin colour as a categorisation tool.’

Kind helper

The children interviewed clearly view Black Pete as a helper, but they have a generally positive image of him. Children were asked to assign cards with features (such as kind or naughty) to Black Pete, a black person, a clown and a white person. Since there were two cards for each feature, every figure had a 50% chance of being assigned a given card. Approximately 80% of the children assigned Black Pete cards with words such as kind, clever and hard-working. Children were much less likely to associate Black Pete with the words lazy (19%) or stupid (35%). Those children who did attribute negative properties to Pete did not also attribute them to the black person, but rather to the clown.

Parents’ and children’s opinions often fail to match

Mesman also investigated whether children are influenced by their parents’ opinion. The parents interviewed were in general highly educated (approximately 75% of the mothers and 60% of the fathers). Their opinions did not match the spontaneous descriptions that their children gave of Black Pete, nor did they match the way in which the children assigned features. On the contrary, the children of parents who were in favour of changes in the Black Pete tradition were slightly more likely to link Black Pete to the black person and attributed to Black Pete more stereotypical features such as helper, lazy or stupid.

More aware of the negative features

Judi Mesman
Judi Mesman

Mesman: ‘It may be that these children have heard their parents talk about it and are therefore more aware of the potentially negative features of Black Pete. The limited influence of the parents’ opinion is probably due to the fact that parents tend to hide their opinion of Black Pete from their children so as not to interfere with their enjoyment of the festivities.' 

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New study among older children

The Professor of Diversity in Parenting and Development wants to involve older children in her investigation to see whether categorisation on the basis of skin colour continues to increase as children grow older. She is also launching a new study on how children look at ´real´ people with a dark skin colour and the role of parenting in this context. Mesman: ‘Surprisingly, there hasn´t yet been any systematic research on this topic in the Netherlands.´ 

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