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RHEA Research Seminar 'Black Pete' and 'Fat Maggie': Cases of Contested Symbolic Representation (Soumia Akachar & Karen Celis)

Monday, 5 December, 2016 - 12:30
Campus: Brussels Humanities, Sciences & Engineering campus
Pleinlaan 5
Room 5.61 (Van Gogh Room)
Lunch Seminar

Recently, two surprising debates filled the news pages. First, there was the heated debate around Black Pete (Zwarte Piet), a persona in the Dutch-Belgian traditional children's festivity who became associated with racism. Next there was the commotion around the Belgian Minister of Public Health Maggie De Block, who was under fire for being too fat for her function. What is similar in these at first sight disconnected cases, is that in both two seemingly trivial issues became highly politicized. In order to understand why such a commotion arises, why at this particular point in time and what the nature of the controversy actually was, our study contends that these two cases should be seen as processes of symbolic representation. The central point it makes it that the political debates originate in the friction between the agent - i.e. Black Pete and Fat Maggie - and the principal - i.e. the 'ideal society/political community' that is non-racist and holds it members responsible for their own health. Both debates were a public questioning whether the symbols are supportin, or at least not harming, the way the society/political community want to represent itself symbolically. Drawing on Lombardo and Meier's (2014) constructivist approach to symbolic representation, our contribution to the concept of symbolic representation and the relationship between the agent and the principal stresses the role that multiple audiences play in challenging the capacity of a symbol to stand for the principal they envision (ideal society, in our cases an anti-racist and healthy society). (Ilke Adam, Soumia Akachar, Karen Celis, Serena D'Agostino & Eline Severs)