Maastricht University, as an institution that prides itself on being international and inclusive, should speak out against the tradition of Zwarte Piet, say the Maastricht Students Against Zwarte Piet in this opinion article.
Sinterklaas festivities have begun, and this year it was decided by ‘Stichting Sint Nikolaas Maastricht’ that there will be both traditional and alternative Zwarte Pieten. Traditional Zwarte Pieten involve blackfacing, a derogatory form of stereotyping with origins in racial violence and systems of racial inequality. There is an undeniable connection between the Dutch colonial history of slavery, the slave trade, and the Zwarte Piet character.
There have been reports from recent years, including 2019, of international students and staff members who stumbled across blackface characters in Maastricht during the Sinterklaas festivities. They have described it as a confronting and frightening experience. Blackfacing creates an unsafe and non-inclusive environment for students and staff, especially those from an international background. Maastricht University is yet to initiate a conversation with its community to warn them that this racist tradition continues to exist in the city in which they live.
Maastricht University is an academic institution that prides itself on being a highly international and inclusive community. Therefore, the university should take responsibility in speaking out against this dehumanising tradition. Despite the mass national media coverage of movements against the traditional Zwarte Pieten occurring all over the country, they haven’t done this yet.
Maastricht Students Against Zwarte Piet (MAZP) is a group of students and staff from the faculties and schools of Maastricht. MAZP has come together to demand that the University:
- Openly acknowledges that Zwarte Piet is racist
- Actively prepares international students and staff about Zwarte Piet being present in the wider Maastricht surroundings
- Takes a stance against blackface
In November 2019, MAZP launched a petition asking for those living and studying in Maastricht to support these demands. On Wednesday morning 4 December 757 people had signed it. The petition will be handed to the Rector of the University, Rianne Letschert, by the 10th December, as the representative/spokeswoman for Maastricht University and its Executive Board.
As Woman of the Year, we recognise Prof. Rianne Letschert’s progressive approach to advocating for and implementing inclusivity within the University’s environment and hope that this will continue in the University’s response to the non-inclusive, racist figure invoked in Zwarte Piet. Doing so would mean Maastricht University would become the second institution in the Netherlands openly acknowledging the problems surrounding Zwarte Piet and racism.
So far, the petition has mobilised important support from students and staff, while furthering the community’s understanding of the reasons why traditional Zwarte Pieten are racist. Alongside this, MAZP’s petition has built a strong support network for future actions and progress. With the support of the Maastricht community, MAZP will continue to demand that the University takes a stance if they are not met. This is not simply a seasonal struggle. It will continue throughout the year, moving towards an ultimate goal: ensuring that 2020 is Zwarte Piet free.
Cecilia Marziali, on behalf of Maastricht Students Against Zwarte Piet