Last Saturday, Belgium’s Foreign Minister Didier Reynders—the country’s main face to the international community—proudly painted his face black and participated in the Noirauds parade in Brussels, which features among other heirlooms a representation of an African’s head on a spike with a golden ring through his nose.
Just about anywhere else in the world, a public official appearing in blackface at a public rally would have created public outrage, but in Belgium his appearance has caused barely a shrug. The incident sparked an uproar in the international media, but many Belgians simply couldn’t understand what the fuss was all about—it was all in good fun, some said, and it was for charity, raising money for disadvantaged kids. Couldn’t the world just leave one of Belgian’s oldest parades alone?
The answer must be no. First of all, “charity” doesn’t excuse this offensive behavior: surely there must be a more sensitive way to raise funds for needy children.
As for the issue of “tradition,” as a Belgian, I say it’s long past time for us to start confronting racism in our society and the inappropriateness of dressing up as stereotypical African clowns.
The Noirauds parade, in which Belgian’s leading citizens march through the capital dressed up as “African noblemen,” dates its origins back to 1876. That may make it one of Belgian’s oldest parades, but it also coincides with one of the most brutal periods of the country’s colonial history, the colonization of the vast Congo region by King Leopold II.
King Leopold II ruled Congo as his own private property from 1885 until 1908, when his well-publicized brutality caused the Belgian government to take over administrative control of the colony. Under the guise of a charitable cause—the “uplifting” and “civilizing” of the Congolese people, King Leopold II brutally exploited the region, providing the inspiration for Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and one of the greatest international scandals of the period. Some 10 million people are believed to have perished during the period.
In many ways, the efforts by activists to expose the atrocities committed in the Congo was one of the world's first international human rights campaigns. Prominent activists like the British Consul Roger Casement exposed the killing sprees committed during rubber-collecting expeditions, and authors like Arthur Conan Doyle contributed book-length studies with titles like The Crime of the Congo. Under international pressure, the Belgian government eventually ended their own King’s rule and annexed the Congo as a colony, although brutality and segregation continued for many decades more.
The simple act of appearing in blackface has long been seen as offensive to people of color, and is an unacceptable act of racism in much of the world. But in the context of Belgian’s own brutal colonial history, it shows a remarkable lack of knowledge and lack of introspection to parade around the city in a colonial era tradition, carrying the head of an African on a pike—one of the exact forms of punishment conducted against Africans in the Congo of King Leopold II.
That many Belgians—including our Foreign Minister—seem surprised by the uproar demonstrates how far the country has to go in confronting its own history, let alone showing sensitivity to fellow Belgian citizens of African descent.
I have a question for the honorable Minister: Would you wear that outfit to your next meeting with President Obama, or with an African leader? And to my fellow Belgians, would you want your Foreign Minister to do so? Clearly not. It’s inappropriate in such meetings, and it’s equally inappropriate at a parade.
Ending such insensitive traditions has nothing to do with political correctness or an attempt to impose a sterile internationalist culture. As a proud Belgian, there is nothing I love more than describing our rich traditions, exuberant celebrations, and our national joie de vivre to my foreign friends - preferably over a few Belgian beers. We should be proud of our culture, but that doesn't mean we can't change objectionable aspects of that culture. We have done so in many areas: women have been provided with opportunities denied in decades past, and most of us have come to embrace our fellow gay and lesbian Belgians as welcomed members of our society. Change is what makes cultures resilient.