Accepted Paper:

The Zwarte Piet debate: race, cultural heritage, and citizenship in the Netherlands  

Author:

Markus Balkenhol (Meertens Instituut)

Paper short abstract:

In this presentation, I will analyse the debate about Zwarte Piet as a negotiation of citizenship and belonging that reveals the ways cultural heritage and citizenship are racialized in the Netherlands today.

Paper long abstract:

The Dutch debate about the figure of Zwarte Piet shows the entanglements of cultural heritage, race, and citizenship in the Netherlands today. Zwarte Piet is a blackface figure with frizzy hair, thick red lips, and golden earrings who wears a servant's costume. The tradition is arguably the most popular calendar feast in the Netherlands, and is celebrated both in the intimate context of the family as well as in huge public events where the "arrival" of Sinterklaas is attended by thousands of spectators.

While this racial stereotype has always been a sensitive issue, two crucial developments have transformed the debate about Zwarte Piet into a public concern with citizenship and belonging in the Netherlands. First, the violent arrest of two black artists/activists during a manifestation in which they stated that "Zwarte Piet is racism". Their critique of the blackface figure, but more importantly their own blackness led to their immediate exclusion from the imagined community of the nation: they were addressed as strangers who had better "return to where they came from". Second, spurred by growing domestic and international protests against Zwarte Piet, an alliance of different civil organisations lobbied to include the Sinterklaas tradition in the national inventory of intangible cultural heritage, a long list for the Unesco's list of intangible heritage.

In this presentation, I will analyse the debate about Zwarte Piet as a negotiation of citizenship and belonging that reveals the ways citizenship is racialized in the Netherlands today.

Panel Heri003
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