An Exploration of the Zwarte Piet Debate on Twitter


“Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned,
Until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes,
Until the basic human rights are guaranteed to all, without regard to race, […]
Until all Africans stand and speak as free beings, equal in the eyes of all men, as they are in the eyes of Heaven,
Until that day, the African continent will not know peace.”

Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, General Assembly, 1963



We are two students in the MA African Studies at Leiden University. As part of the course "Language and Communication in Africa", we decided to dedicate this website to the exploration of the debate on Zwarte Piet that has recently been re-activited on Twitter in 2019.

With this blog, we aim at identifying trends in the way Zwarte Piet is portrayed and debated online and at presenting how social media can contribute to the decolonization of such a tradition. We want to shine light on the ways the online and physical world are fundamentally intertwined.

Lastly, and most importantly, we intend at participating to the wider discussion on the skewed representation of Africa and Africans in Western culture and media. Zwarte Piet is a racist caricature which ought to be questioned.

Welcome to our blog -  Enjoy our writing - Keep the debate going. 

  • AnissaSdm

#5 Twitter: an Educational Vocation?

Updated: Dec 6, 2019

The Extensive Use of English on Twitter: Reflections on the Educational Vocation of the Platform in the Zwarte Piet Debate

The Emergence of Educational Posts on Twitter

One common pitfall of Twitter is the absence of argumentation altogether. However, as a micro-blogging service, Twitter also offers users with the opportunity to use the platform as a proper blog, especially when writing a thread, a series of tweets related to each other and written by the same user. Or when just re-tweeting informational pieces such as articles or videos made by recognized figures (journalists, NGOs…). By making use of such tools, a trend of what could be called “educational posts” is emerging on Twitter.

In the Zwarte Piet debate, authors participating to this educational trend would post numerous tweets explaining the history and the story behind the figure of Zwarte Piet in detail, and coming up, afterwards, with an informed position in the debate. Users would also ask for information to be able to form an informed opinion or to change someone else’s.

Such educational posts and calls for education enable to introduce actual knowledge and information into the debate online, and they might enable the audience to think more critically on the issue.

It is something that is closely related to the format of Twitter and the online world. Indeed, if Twitter constrains people in their expression, the platform offers people with time to draft their posts and to do extensive research if they are willing to.

Using English in Educational Posts

When analysing these educational posts, an interesting phenomenon can be revealed: English seems to be the most used language. Why is that?

If these posts are written by Dutch people, then it could be a phenomenon of language shift fuelled by the will to reach a greater public than the Dutch one. However, it could also be because the prevailing language in the online world is English or that people answer in English when the original post is in English as well. These hypothesis as well as a few others are explored below:

The Netherlands is a diverse country with people from all over the world. Posts in English may result from this environment.

The Netherland might not be an English-speaking country, but the popularity of the language is high. Quality education received from an early age enables citizens to be proficient in English. In the meantime, as the country is attracting more people from abroad, the Netherlands is becoming a more and more diverse territory. In such a multilinguistic environment, language shift – especially with English – is a common phenomenon even in people’s daily life.

Twitter is an international social media platform on which the prevailing language is English. As part of the dynamics of the discussion online, when most people use English in their arguments, others also use English as a response.

Twitter, as a social media platform, serves people to approach wider audiences. Posting on social media can also be a good way to establish create public images and become “someone” who is recognized online. As such, Twitter implicitly pushes people to publish their thoughts in English even when English is not their mother-tongue. It, then, creates a cycle in which people will answer in English to these posts as well. It comes from both a reflex mechanism (a will to be understood) and a will to participate to the wide discussion.

The critique of Zwarte Piet originated in English dominant countries – especially in the US. People would then post in English to respond to the lambda American or participate in a wider discussion.

Even though the US is a country still struggling with persisting racism and widespread discrimination, this country is highly aware and conscious of race and racial interactions. As a result, it is one of the countries in which the debate surrounding Zwarte Piet, a Dutch and Belgian tradition, knows the most backlash. It impacts the national debate on the topic as people might be offended– or on the contrary, might appreciate – this foreign attention and judgement. People would then use English to participate to this foreign debate on Zwarte Piet.

One particularly example of this dynamic is the recent tweet posted by Kim Kardashian, the American businesswoman, and its extensive reception in the Netherlands[1].

In an education context, English may, then, be preferred to reach a wide audience and to offer more value to the argumentation.

People easily place themselves in a moral and justice position when they are criticizing others’ behaviors. As English is so widely used as an official language, it conveys the implications that the authors are talking about some serious topics while using English. Another reason is that the authors of educational posts are not only making their points, but also educating others about the background information of the issue. In this way, they should have done a lot of research to support their arguments. Most of the materials they referred to might be in English. Finally, as the authors are really dedicated to the research, they want their arguments to be seen by more people, that’s also the reason why they posted in English rather than in Dutch.

Concluding Remarks

Educational posts in English on Twitter regarding the Zwarte Piet debate greatly participate to making the discussion move forward. If the reasons for the use of English in these posts are not certain, the ideas of it being used to touch a wider audience and to respond to originally English posts may be preferred. Indeed, these posts inherently aim at reaching a wide audience.



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