NWO subsidy for Black Pete research

How innocent is the figure of Black Pete, really? That is one of the questions that RUG financial ethicist Boudewijn de Bruin seeks to answer with the help of approximately 700,000 euros provided by research financier NWO.

De Bruin, professor of financial ethics, will hire two PhD. candidates and one postdoctoral researcher to look into the effects of repeated exposure to stereotypes concerning a particular population – including the image of the buffoonish and clumsy Black Pete. ‘But it’s not just about that’, De Bruin emphasises. ‘We’re also looking at stereotypes about women, minorities, and other social groups.’

Tunnel vision

The research is concerned with epistemic injustice, the phenomenon of someone unjustly seeing you as stupid or untrustworthy. It’s a concept developed by the British philosopher Miranda Fricker, who is also involved in the project. Examples of this injustice would be not believing a witness because he is black, or an asylum seeker. ‘It’s a new area of research’, says De Bruin. ‘It’s mainly concerned with credibility and open-mindedness, but it also the effects of navel-gazing or tunnel vision.’

De Bruin suspects that when someone watches a video of the traditional ‘50s household – a wife in the kitchen and the husband coming home from work – that it influences how credible he thinks women are. However, such stereotypes probably also influence the image women have of themselves.

Taking out a mortgage

‘We know for example that women who take out a mortgage pay half a percentage point more than men in the same situation’, says De Bruin. ‘It’s possible this is because they don’t spend as much effort looking for the best deal and trust the advice from friends and acquaintances instead. But why is that?’

De Bruin thinks it is perhaps because women are often confronted with the prejudice that they are not as good at finding information. ‘If that causes you to see yourself as less trustworthy, you are more likely to ask friends.’

Not taken seriously

Similar mechanisms can also play a role in healthcare. When a doctor makes a patient feel like he is stupid and is not taken seriously, that patient will be much less forthcoming with information. ‘We know that there are systematic instances of miscommunication between higher and lower educated people in healthcare, even though doctors think they spend an equal amount of time on all patients.’

If De Bruin is right, that would also mean that the buffoonish Black Pete is not as innocent as many people think. And De Bruin thinks that will also have political consequences.