Leiden researcher studying when kids connect Zwarte Piet to race

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Zwarte Pieten (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/EnSintClopedie). Zwarte Pieten (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/EnSintClopedie)

Judi Mesman, professor of diversity in education and development at the University of Leiden, is studying how young children who still believe in Sinterklaas see Zwarte Piet and when they start connecting him to race. The initial results of her study shows that these kids rather association Piet with fantasy characters and clowns than other people with dark skin, she told NRC.

The study started in in November, just before Sinterklaas' arrival in the Netherlands. Her test group was 201 children between the ages of 5 and 7 years, mostly from highly educated white parents, so not representative of the entire population in the Netherlands. 18 percent of the parents whose kids participated in the study said that they think Zwarte Piet is racist.

For her research Mesman or one of her research assistants visited these kids at their homes and gave them various tasks to do, such as cards showing different people which the kids had to divide into groups. The aim of these tasks were to find out how the associate Zwarte Piet.

"There was certainly not an overwhelming automated response to divide based on skin color", Mesman said to NRC. A large group of the kids divided the cards based on other things, such as "this one has something yellow on the sweater", or "these have their jackets open". According to Mesman, some kids found the tasks difficult because they could not see an obvious way to group the people on the cards. Mesman's own 7 year old daughter could really not understand that she could divide the people by skin color instead of just in the groups of "really exists" and "fantasy".

Mesman's study also looked at how the kids judge Zwarte Piet, and the results were again opposite to the stereotype, she said. According to Mesman, the kids found Zwarte Piet "nice, important, sweet and a hard worker". The other people on the cards, black and white, were sometimes described as lazy. 83 percent of the kids did classify Piet as an "assistant".

The kids opinion of Zwarte Piet mostly did not have anything to do with what their parents think.

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