Questions for ESN about Zwarte Piet
The party was organised by the ESN Mentor and Integration Committee and was held at SKLO building on the Kraneweg on Sunday evening. Photos of the event posted by the committee on their Facebook page show several committee members in black-painted faces with afro wigs and red lips.
When questioned about the decision, Jedidja Louman, ESN’s PR coordinator, gave a statement on behalf of the ESN Groningen board. ‘We follow the tradition, which is what the activity is about. We don’t want to put a value judgement on it.’
ESN is the Erasmus Student Network, a non-profit organization for international students with branches throughout Europe. The Groningen branch is one of the largest in the Netherlands, and they are comprised of several sub-committees, including the Mentor and Integration Committee that hosted the event.
Controversy about the traditional depiction of Sinterklaas’ helper has escalated over the past few years, even reaching several court cases to decide whether or not the character’s appearance is racist and in violation of Dutch anti-discrimination laws.
Taku Mutezo, the international student representative in the University Council, questions the decision and sees it as culturally insensitive. ‘I can understand the fact that they wanted to expose the international students to Dutch culture and tradition, but personally, I found it on the verge of insensitive to go that far, considering the fact that this is currently an ongoing debate in the Netherlands with students in the art faculty even going to the extent of protesting.’
‘I think that integration is great, but so is cultural awareness, and part of cultural awareness is considering those – even if they are a minority – that may feel uncomfortable with certain practices’, Taku says.
Old tired response
Mustapha Abdu-Aguye, a PhD candidate in nanoscience at the RUG and former board member of African Student Community, was disappointed by the choice as well. ‘I didn’t expect to see that there,’ he says. ‘I did not have the stomach to look through all the pictures.’
‘My gut reaction is that this is a clear message to those who find it disturbing to buzz off’, he says, ‘but then, I know that if anyone brought it up, you’d get the same old tired response: “it’s a tradition, we mean no harm”’
Although he finds it a strange, he says, ‘one has to grow a thick skin to certain things, and this is just one of them.’