Essentializing ‘Black Pete’: competing narratives surrounding the Sinterklaas tradition in the Netherlands

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The Netherlands’ most important tradition, the celebration of the feast of Saint Nicholas, (Sinterklaas) has become subject to nation-wide contestation. As Dutch society has become more multicultural, partly due to the immigration from the former Dutch colonies in the West-Indies, new sensitivities have arisen about this institutionalised heritage practice. At the core of the controversy is the figure of Black Pete (Zwarte Piet), Saint Nicholas’ black-faced companion. Some communities within Dutch society perceive this figure as highly menacing and insulting. To the majority of the population, however, Zwarte Piet is an essential part of its heritage and identity. The ensuing controversy can be understood as a matter of heritage narratives conflicting. These narratives do not just give meaning to the tradition, but are also instrumentalized by actors in the debate to achieve their goals. They are used to justify or reject the appearance of Zwarte Piet, and to critically debate Dutch identity. In this article we reconstruct the Zwarte Piet narratives, and explain why these are so incommensurable. Naturally, we also pay attention to what is at stake for the activists on all sides.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)716-728
JournalInternational Journal of Heritage Studies
Issue number9
Early online date15 Jun 2016
Publication statusPublished - 2016


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