Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders appeared in blackface at an annual folklore festival in Brussels on Saturday, causing an international media storm that put a spotlight on the country's race relations and led to calls for the former colonial power to grapple with its bloody history.
Dressed as an “African notable,” according to the City of Brussels, Reynders tweeted a picture of himself at the Noirauds event, a yearly festival dating back to 1876. At the rally, Belgium’s wealthy citizens don top hats, ruffs and blackface — all under the eye of Belgium’s Queen Paola, who presides over Les Noirauds, or The Blacks. The country’s elite collect money for disadvantaged children and a kid's trip to the circus.
The images quickly circulated around the world after French broadcaster France2 reported on the event, noting that the tradition’s imagery could appear racist but that this didn’t dissuade Reynders from taking part.
The minister told the broadcaster it was “a very enjoyable experience” to participate in the folkloristic tradition while raising money for the children. “I think that’s what counts most today,” he said.
“The motto of the Noirauds is 'fun and charity,'” he said on his blog. "[I]t’s with happiness and good humor that I’ve taken part in this.”
Local media largely ignored the story until international outlets took notice earlier this week, in a reflection of the cultural divide that persists between government officials and communities of immigrant descent.
Belgian newspapers first debated the nature of Reynders’ appearance Thursday, only after Human Rights Watch’s Andrew Stroehlein and Nigerian writer Chika Unigwe drew attention to the issue.
“Does this make his position as Foreign Minister untenable? Surely some counterparts abroad will refuse to meet with him after this, no?” Stroehlein tweeted.
"Nothing's changed since the days of Leopold," said Unigwe, who referred to Belgium as suffering from "racial dementia." Another tweet read: "Will Reynders welcome his U.S. colleague dressed up like this?"
King Leopold II of Belgium annexed the Congo as his personal possession in 1885, nearly a decade after the Noirauds' tradition took hold in Belgium. During his reign, millions of Congolese were killed or died in construction projects and in the country's rubber industry.
On Thursday, Jozef De Witte, director of the federal government’s Equality Center, defended the minister’s choice to appear in blackface, calling the international reactions “exaggerated.” Historically, participants dressed up and painted their faces to remain anonymous, he said, and so Reynders’ appearance had been taken “out of context.”
“If we were living in a land full of black people, Reynders would have painted himself white,” he told Flemish newspaper De Morgen.
Rob Belemans of the Flemish Center for Cultural Heritage said he understood the sensitivities surrounding the tradition, but stopped short of calling Les Noirauds racist. “What’s normal to one can be insulting to the other. Just because something is misunderstood, we don’t need to condemn it collectively,” he told Flemish newspaper De Standaard.
Wouter Van Bellingen, director of the Minority Forum, a national nonprofit organization, called on Reynders to take his position as minster of foreign affairs seriously. “This is inappropriate and points at a total lack of empathy for a person of color,” he told Flemish newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws.
Their comments are reminiscent of the recurring controversy surrounding Black Pete, the country’s other folklore tradition with roots in colonial history. A children’s character with fat lips and pierced ears, Black Pete is the bearer of gifts in December in Flanders and the Netherlands, where policymakers recently announced a makeover of the character was underway.