Open letter to our students and colleagues

Dear students and colleagues

The 6 December will soon be upon us. As per annual tradition, Sinterklaas will gallop over our roofs on horseback. His helper then descends through the chimney and deposits gifts for children who have been very good over the past year. This is an age-old tradition in Belgium, northern France and the Netherlands. And maybe a student association might stumble into a classroom with a Sinterklaas and his helpers...

Now the old Sinterklaas might have some trouble fitting into the new world. We live in a very diverse society, and that is where the problem lies. In this fast-changing world, we are constantly adjusting our outlook. Progressive insight: that is what it is all about. You adjust your opinions, you become aware of prejudices that are very often based on tradition: a ready-made frame of mind that you were given at home, that you picked up at school or university...

In this open letter, I write to you about two traditions that are under great pressure today: the ‘zwarte pieten’ (Black Petes) and student initiations.

These are two rituals that go back centuries. Such rituals create bonding experiences; forging the family or group of friends together. But times change and insights mature. Traditions may and sometimes must be questioned.

Around 1850 in the Antwerp region, it was customary to lock a cat in a barrel during a fair with only its tail hanging out. A cheering crowd rolled the barrel over the pavement, and whoever could pull off the tail won... Not all traditions should be kept unchanged, that much is clear.

On zwarte pieten

Sinterklaas’s helpers wear a livery suit, a centuries-old uniform worn by servants or lackeys at royal courts. Sinterklaas also wears antique vestments: those of a holy, very venerable bishop.

Until recently, Sinterklaas’s footmen always had a pitch-black face, with bright red accentuated lips, wearing a frizzy wig and gaudy jewellery. This portrayal of Zwarte Piet was in fact a caricature of an African. Piet was often also portrayed as a dumb footman. He handed out sweets, but he was a frightening man who stuffed naughty children in a burlap sack. This type of Zwarte Piet is a racial caricature and portrays black people as inferior, dumb and frightening.

Nowadays, people are often unaware of the deeper meaning of rituals. And so, year after year, the Sinterklaas ritual with its zwarte pieten was often copied, and copied without any racist intentions.

But our views change. The world is becoming more and more diverse. As a child in the 1960s and 1970s, I grew up in a very white world. Immigration started from Morocco, which we called 'guest workers' back then, and that was about it. When I studied at UAntwerp in 1976-1981, there were only white students there. How different the world is now! How different our university is! This ubiquitous diversity is a challenge, but above all it is a rich source of knowledge, experience and inspiration. It also forces us to adjust our preconceptions – the great debate on the 'decolonisation' of our thinking has its place in this and must, of course, be taken into consideration by students and colleagues.

For many students and members of staff at our university today, a traditional Zwarte Piet is like a slap in the face. They immediately recognise the deeper meaning of this humiliating stereotype. Even when research continues to show that people in Flanders are discriminated against due to their origins or their skin colour when looking for a job, renting a house, going to school, joining a sports club, etc. It is also about children wanting to scrub the black off their skin, because in addition to being called a ‘filthy n...', they often hear 'zwarte piet' as a swear word directed at them.

Fortunately, the interpretation of ‘Zwarte Piet' has evolved over the past twenty years in Flanders. This is thanks to artists and producers like our alumni Hugo Matthysen and Bart Peeters! The footman has become a helper; he does not need to punish children any longer because there are only good children. Piet is often much smarter than the very old Sinterklaas, and he does not have to be African either: away with this caricature! The piet in his livery suit has some sooty smudges at most because he climbs down chimneys.

A few years ago, I asked the UAntwerp Staff Association to have the venerable Sinterklaas accompanied by sooty Petes (roetveegpieten) for the annual Sinterklaas party for staff and their children. With this open letter, I also call on the students and the student associations to follow that example. Because sometimes tradition has to make way for respect.

Student initiations

Speaking of student associations... When I talk to them about student initiations, the word 'tradition' is often mentioned. Like Sinterklaas displays, student initiations are a ritual. These old rituals are often adopted without much thought; things can sometimes go wrong with poorly thought-out traditions.

Student initiations have been around in Europe since the Middle Ages and are a universal phenomenon, also found in Asia and elsewhere. They are a variant of the rites of passage and initiation, with which we mark the great moments of our lives, such as birth, puberty, marriage and death. In these official rituals, the form is paramount, as it has been handed down from tradition. In such rites of passage, three phases can be distinguished: the rite of release, where the newcomers (m/f/x) step out of their old position; the border phase, where they stay in no man's land, without any characteristics of the former or later position; and the last phase, the opening rite, where they are incorporated into the group. The transition to the third stage begins with tests in which the newcomers have to prove that they have become 'mature'. This opens the way to be officially included in the group.

The three phases are not present in all rites of passage, and the emphasis also tends to shift. With that in mind, let us analyse student initiations more closely.[1]

In many Flemish secondary schools, the final-year pupils celebrate their last Hundred Days in a playful manner. This ritual, 'chrysostomos', actually corresponds to the first phase, the rite of release, of what will later become their student initiation.

As for the initiation itself, I would like to emphasise that there are many fine student initiations. The problem, however, is that initiations sometimes slip into a tradition where the second phase is overemphasised. So the 'border phase', when you lose your identity and are actually reduced to zero... This very easily opens the way to humiliation, and this is often the most problematic part today.

Smearing people with all kinds of grime, calling them names and scolding them and so much more... All of this may well have had a place in this old ritual, but the question is whether humiliation and belittling can still be accepted today. The answer is: no. Respecting the physical and psychological integrity of everyone is a fundamental right. We have also gained a lot of knowledge about peer pressure and its destructive power, which sometimes leaves neither those being initiated nor those doing the initiation in a position to say 'no'. Many of the established practices of the second phase are definitely not okay. Again: sometimes tradition has to make way for respect.

A letter to Sinterklaas always ends with a set of good intentions. That is also the case here. Many student associations have endorsed the intention of UAntwerp and the universities of applied sciences and arts in the region to work out roadmaps for what constitutes a 'good' student initiation, in consultation with Antwerp City Council. We must transform the ritual of humiliation into a ritual of welcome. Whereby the main emphasis shifts from the second to the third phase: the opening rite. After all, in initiations the emphasis should be on a warm welcome that is based on fundamental mutual respect. So we are going to work on that. Good student initiations can be very valuable experiences.

We need to create this shift because at our university, respect and lived diversity must be a common thread in our thinking and actions everywhere and at every level.

It is great to see that year after year, students and colleagues from all over find each other at the university to seek knowledge and insight, and to set up and put together the most diverse activities and projects.

When I emphasise respect and openness, this is also linked to an urgent need to focus even more on interdisciplinarity and intellectual cross-pollination, when faced with the great challenges of society. This is important for all of us: young and old, across the boundaries of faculties and disciplines.

And if these are not good intentions... Long live Sinterklaas!

[1] Cf. the 2020 research report by Evert Lambrechts, Samen gaan we erdoor. Werken aan een open en verbindend doopklimaat (We will go through this together. Working on achieving open and unifying initiation experiences), UAntwerp, Department of Sociology. Please consult: