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A constructive discussion about an inclusive Sinterklaas celebration

How can we make Sinterklaas inclusive as a national holiday? And what does this mean for our University community and Dutch society as a whole? These questions were the focus of the first edition of ‘Come Talk to Us’, a series of online dialogues organised by the Diversity & Inclusion Expertise Office together with study associations and student networks.

On 11 November around 20 students and staff members met online to enter into a dialogue about Sinterklaas. Because any issue in society at large is also an issue within our University community. Siela Ardjosemito-Jethoe from the Diversity and Inclusion Expertise Office organised the online meeting together with the Afro Student Association (ASA). This was the first edition of Come Talk to Us, which gives students and staff the opportunity to discuss matters relating to diversity, inclusion, discrimination and racism.

‘Change is already happening, but it will be too fast for some and too slow for others.’

Facilitate a dialogue

Diversity officer Aya Ezawa began by explaining the initiative. ‘Our University community – students and staff alike – has become much more diverse over the past ten years. This means we are faced with a wider range of perspectives, and questions are asked about why we do what we do.’ Ezawa believes specific techniques and skills are required to discuss complex and sensitive topics in a constructive fashion. ‘This can be hard at times – and that’s not a bad thing. As Expertise Office we want to help facilitate a dialogue within and with the entire University community.’

Personal perspective

After a short introduction to the history of Sinterklaas, the figure of Zwarte Piet as his servant and the debate about this that has raged for decades, the four panel members gave their opinion on the subject. ASA chairperson Glenpherd Martinus, whose childhood was spent in the Netherlands and the Netherlands Antilles, said that for them the topic touches on the theme of identity. ‘I’m Dutch, and Sinterklaas is a Dutch tradition. But if I don’t feel at ease with it, if it isn’t a celebration for me, where do I fit in?’ Tamara Soukotta, an International Studies lecturer, wondered whether it was possible to make Sinterklaas inclusive at all. ‘Even if Zwarte Piet goes, it’s still a western-oriented, originally Christian tradition.’

‘It’s a celebration that is about togetherness, spending time with your family and friends. That sense of community is valuable, and something that we should hold on to.’

Whose voice is heard?

Fayo Said, a student assistant at the Expertise Office, spoke about her childhood memories, and how the weeks before Sinterklaas were the best weeks of the year. ‘I still feel happy when I hear Sinterklaas songs – even though I now see it very differently indeed.’ She believes that the discussion often focuses on the question of whether Zwarte Piet is racist when it is really about a much bigger question of who is allowed to be critical of Dutch society or a Dutch tradition. Professor of Global Labour and Migration History Leo Lucassen agreed. ‘With this topic I think about voice: whose voice is being heard?’ He remarked that there have been objections to the character of Zwarte Piet in the past: in 1944 Afro-American soldiers protested against the racist blackface in liberated Limburg. ‘The discussion has always been started by migrants – sometimes together with white Dutch people. And every time, today too, it’s all about the question of who gets to sit at the table.’

Constructive dialogue

With these first questions and considerations in mind, the attendees split up into smaller breakout groups to discuss two key questions: Which elements of Sinterklaas do you think are worth keeping? And how can these form the basis of an inclusive Sinterklaas celebration in the future? They used the dialogue method, which places the emphasis on speaking from your own experience and listening to others, and helps people with very different opinions engage in a dialogue. It proved to be a success: in this diverse group of participants there were supporters and opponents of changing the tradition, but they proved capable of constructive discussion. They listened properly to one another and sought consensus.

‘I’m pleased that students and staff with different experiences and perspectives have come together and engaged in a constructive dialogue about a sensitive topic. It’s what I would have expected from an academic community.’
- Vice-Rector Hester Bijl

Sense of community

Most of the attendees were positive about the feeling of togetherness that Sinterklaas brings. ‘Togetherness, fun, family time, that the holiday is celebrated with friends, family and at school, with the whole community in fact: that sense of community should definitely be kept,’ one of the moderators concluded. And the teasing poems, with or without ‘surprises’ [similar to 'Secret Santa', a gift hidden in a handmade creation, ed.], were also mentioned as a valuable part of the tradition. If and whether further changes should be made to the tradition remained a subject of discussion. ‘Let it change from below instead of imposing change from above,’ said one person. Someone else mentioned how traditions are always changing and so too is our Sinterklaas tradition. Siela Ardjosemito-Jethoe added: ‘But it will be too fast for some and too slow for others.’

Different opinions at one table

It was not to be expected that a solution to this complex discussion would be found in one evening, said diversity officer Ezawa afterwards. But she was pleased with how it went. ‘It was unique to have people with very different opinions sitting together at the table, and feeling free to share those opinions and learn from one another. That’s something already, and is a good start.’ 

Academic community 

Vice-Rector Hester Bijl said she was pleased with the Diversity and Inclusion Expertise Office’s sessions, and emphasised the importance of dialogue. ‘I’m pleased that students and staff with different experiences and perspectives have come together and have shown that we can engage in a constructive dialogue about a sensitive topic. Even about Zwarte Piet and Sinterklaas. It’s what I would have expected from an academic community.’ 

What now with Sinterklaas? Bijl: ‘It’s important that our students and staff think about the historical origins of the character of Zwarte Piet and the relationship with racism. But as was clear in the discussion, Sinterklaas is a tradition that is about togetherness, which means you want it to be fun for everyone and therefore to be an inclusive celebration. That is what we need to work on together.’ Ezawa added: ‘The challenge then is to think about which steps we can take together to achieve this. That’s homework for all of us.’

Come Talk to Us!

We want to talk with the whole University community about topics relating to diversity, inclusion, discrimination and racism. The Diversity and Inclusion Expertise Office is therefore holding a series of dialogues: Come Talk to Us. If you want to join in, the next session will be in February. Sign up for the Diversity and Inclusion Expertise Office newsletter, or follow the Diversity and Inclusion Expertise Office on Facebook or Instagram. And if you have any ideas for the sessions, feel free to contact the Diversity and Inclusion Expertise Office.

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