Zwarte Piet: A Rascist Heritage?

As the debate surrounding the Dutch tradition grows louder, Laura Kraak examines the intricacies of including it on UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.


Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet. Who does not love this good-natured man and his entertaining black companions who visit the Netherlands and Belgium every year to give presents and candy? The Sinterklaas celebration has been rated the most popular Dutch tradition (Strouken 2010). Nevertheless, the tradition has been increasingly subject to criticisms. Particularly the character of Zwarte Piet is controversial. In countries such as the United States or the United Kingdom it is unthinkable to dress up blackface, since it is considered racist and offensive. However, most Dutch people love Zwarte Piet. They defend the tradition as their cultural heritage and deny any malevolent intentions.

In an interesting development the Netherlands recently ratified UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Similar to the well-known World Heritage Convention, countries can nominate items of their cultural heritage for an international list. As the most popular Dutch tradition, the Sinterklaas celebration will logically be nominated by the Netherlands. However, it will be interesting to see if UNESCO will accept this tradition. For a place on the Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), a tradition cannot be in conflict with the UN’s Human Rights instruments. Depending on how one interprets the character of Zwarte Piet, this could potentially be problematic.


Who is Zwarte Piet?

The debate about whether or not Zwarte Piet is racist returns every year and the arguments usually get stuck somewhere when one party argues that Zwarte Piet is a slave and the other party claims he only seems black because he is a chimney sweep. In reality it is unclear where this character comes from. Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas, was the bishop of Myra in Turkey in the fourth century AD. Although little is known about his life, soon after his death he was worshipped all over Europe. Throughout the ages he has been portrayed with a black devil by his side. This character probably functioned as a contrast to the white and noble saint. In many societies people dressed up to role-play these characters and act as a bogeyman to make children obedient.

In the Netherlands of the nineteenth century Sinterklaas’ companion received more typical African characteristics. In the illustrations of a children’s book by Jan Schenkman (Schenkman 1850), Sinterklaas’ companion wore the clothes resembling those of Moorish pages, had big red lips and an Afro hairstyle. There are no sources that explain why Schenkman chose to portray Sinterklaas’ companion this way. It is also not clear from the book whether this character is a slave or free. There is, however, no question that this character held a subordinate position.

Despite the haziness of Zwarte Piet’s provenance, he was certainly no chimney sweep. He was either a devil or a subordinate black servant. Not particularly positions people would like to be identified with. Opponents of Zwarte Piet argue that this unequal relationship between Zwarte Piet en Sinterklaas teaches children that black people are inferior to white people. However, defenders of Zwarte Piet argue that this relationship is not unequal anymore. Today, Zwarte Piet is no longer a servant but a friend, colleague or manager of Sinterklaas.

Zwarte Piet as intangible cultural heritage

Despite this annual debate about whether or not Zwarte Piet is racist, the Netherlands will nominate the Sinterklaas tradition for UNESCO’s Representative List of ICH. ICH is not about beautiful old ruins or even paintings or objects. ICH is about heritage we cannot touch, such as rituals, songs, and traditions. Items that are currently on the Representative List include the tango in Argentina, the Mexican cuisine, and carpet weaving in Iran. As these examples show, many different types practices can be considered ICH. One of the problems with the concept of ICH is that it is quite difficult to draw boundaries.

In fact there are many cultural practices that are morally or ethically problematic. Examples include female genital mutilation, bull fighting, and ritual slaughter. By adding the requirement of compatibility with UN’s human rights instruments, UNESCO attempted to put a boundary on ICH in the context of its lists1.

For some cultural practices, this is fairly straightforward. Female genital mutilation would not make it on the Representative List. This practice can be seen as conflicting with Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. However, Zwarte Piet is part of a tradition that finds itself in a grey area, where it is much harder to determine whether or not it conflicts with human rights. If dressing up as Zwarte Piet is racist, arguably the practice would be in conflict with Article 20.2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: “Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.” However, there is no consensus about whether or not Zwarte Piet is racist. Moreover, there are no cases of hostility or violence against black people of which it can be proven that Zwarte Piet was the cause. Neither can we really speak of hatred, considering Zwarte Piet’s popular role as a children’s friend.

It will be interesting to see what UNESCO’s interpretation of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet will be. This case illustrates one of the complications of safeguarding the big diversity of forms ICH on an international level, since there will undoubtedly be ICH in other cultures with controversial elements.

An important characteristic of ICH is that it is not static. Forms of ICH change and adjust themselves to the time. UNESCO emphasizes this characteristic. Listing traditions should not freeze them. This poses many challenges, and the Convention is subject to much debate and criticisms. But for the Sinterklaas tradition this would mean that if it gets a place on UNESCO’s Representative List, there would still be room for the introduction of White, Asian, Middle Eastern or Indian ‘Pieten’.


Laura Kraak (’11) is currently an MPhil student at the University of Cambridge working on Archaeological Heritage and Museums. She is a volunteer at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.


1 It should be noted that both UNESCO and the UN’s human rights instruments have often been criticized for promoting Western norms and values.

SCHENKMAN, J. 1850. Sint Nikolaas en zijn knecht. G. Theod. Bom
STROUKEN, I. 2010. Dit Zijn Wij. Pharos Uitgeverij