AFRICA IS A COUNTRY

Years ago, Karel De Gucht, the present European Commissioner for Trade, referred to Kofi Annan, then Secretary General of the UN on TV as an “Évolué” which was the term colonial Belgians used to refer  to the Congolese who had “evolved” and become more westernized (i.e. “civilized”). “Évolués” had to do exams to show how “civilized” they had become and got certificates if they passed. De Gucht meant of course that Annan was not your “typical African.” Was there an outrage? No. “De Gucht was not being disparaging. He was praising Kofi Annan,” was the usual response.

In 2007, when Barack Obama was running for US president, there was a question about him on Canvascrack, a popular national TV quiz show. The question was the technical term for a child of mixed parentage. The phrasing was a lot more offensive than I have suggested (Obama is the son of a N**** from Kenya and a white mother, etcetera). The answer was “Mulato.” I expected someone in the audience to stand up and call the quiz master to order. No one did. The show went on as normal. I wrote a piece denouncing it. Not only was the question wrong, but of all things to ask on Obama, it had to be that? I got a few comments from well meaning Belgians who told me that “mulato” and the “N word” are not as historically charged in Belgium as in other parts of the world and are therefore not offensive terms. I was told not to be too quick in seeing offense. And a friend of the quizmaster told me what a lovely person he really was.

When I was a city councillor in Turnhout, Belgium, a colleague, upset at our Mayor’s expectation that we toe the line  said, “we are not all N****s that we just nod. We are thinking humans!” The colleague who said this, I must admit, is one of the nicest people I know. He always gave me rides to meetings and so on but once he said that, it became obvious to me that he did not think we were equals. I mentioned this in an article I wrote a while ago and again, I got mails from people telling me about how it was not a racist thing to say, that it has been in use for a long time and that really there is a historical context for this. In the 60s, cars had bobbing black heads, and I shouldn’t be quick to take offense. And did not I say my colleague was a nice man?

When the leading Belgian newspaper De Morgen, which styles itself as progressive, published an image of Obama and his wife as chimps and passed it off as satire, they did not expect a backlash. They assumed that their readers would laugh and move on, and it would be business as usual. This assumption was rooted in two facts:

The first is that as a block, black people in Belgium have no political or economic voice and are therefore of very little consequence. They were not high on De Morgen’s consideration list when they published that article. There are no black newscasters (to my knowledge); very few black journalists (certain none in De Morgen as far as I know); my children were never taught by black teachers; I never saw a black bank clerk. There might be a black police man in Brussels, I have never seen any anywhere in Belgium. In fact, when Turnhout got its first black cab driver (about five years ago), we rejoiced.

The second fact is that there is a certain level of racial dementia in Belgium. There is an inability to judge what is racially offensive and what is not. Belgium has never confronted its colonial past and has therefore never moved on from it. There is a statue celebrating Leopold despite the atrocities he committed in the Congo. Zwarte Piet (with the black face, red lips and the kinky wig, reminiscent of the golliwog, so popular in neighboring Netherlands that even the Prime Minister gets into blackface) is considered a national treasure in Belgium.

Employers can say (and have said) “I do not want a black worker” without much fear of punishment. (Here’s a variation on that excuse.) The black immigrant is still expected to be grateful for the chance to live in Belgium and eat at the “Massa’s table” and not ruffle feathers.

Things will only change when Belgium realizes that no country is an island, that there are consequences for actions and that yes, the world has moved on. The media outcry outside Belgium at De Morgen’s misguided racist satire (and the apology from De Morgen) is already a start. The act of apologizing is a big step in the right direction (if only because as far as I know, this is the first time a Belgian media outlet has ever acknowledged, much less apologized for being offensive) even if the apology itself leaves a lot to be desired.

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Chika Unigwe's latest novel is Night Dancer (Jonathan Cape, 2012).


65 thoughts on “Belgium is an insular country. It lives like history happens outside of it

  1. Wouldn’t blame them. If only our stupid leaders did something other than stuffing their bellies with public funds… Would we have to leave home, seeking greener pastures in other countries? Skin color will always be an issue… No matter how much noise is made about it… Just like the issue of homosexuality in Africa, it is embedded in the psyche…

  2. Well, you know, black europeans care, and people interested in social justice, and people who like to think about how to fix the damage colonialism has wrought on people’s lives and make a better future for everyone. It’s like a ton of people, really. Basically everyone except Americans.

  3. Chika,
    You are entirely right with your analysis. So strange for me. My parents are almost 80 now but they taught us to treat people respectfully whatever their cultural background. I am hopeful though. Young people grow up surrounded by other youngsters from around the globe and learn to deal with diversity.

    As far as the satire in De Morgen is concerned that was so offensive whatever Mr Van Springel, the satirist, claims. I feel so deeply deeply ashamed.

  4. I do not want to take a position is this discussion as I don’t know the facts (I have only your report as a source), but I just want to put some points into a different context.

    – Zwarte Piet is black because he enters houses through the chimney. It has nothing to do with ‘black people’, nobody knows which colour his skin originally has. If ‘black people’ feel offended by this, it is them who are maybe too focused on racism?

    – “They assumed that their readers would laugh and move on, and it would be business as usual. This assumption was rooted in two facts: (…)”. Have you any proof for this? Maybe the reason why they assume nobody would make a big deal out of it is because they sincerely didn’t mean to offend somebody? Both perspectives (the two-facts-root and the harmless intentions) are possible and I do not see why one of both would be more probable?!

    – “Employers can say (and have said) “I do not want a black worker” without much fear of punishment. (Here’s a variation on that excuse.) The black immigrant is still expected to be grateful for the chance to live in Belgium and eat at the “Massa’s table” and not ruffle feathers.”
    Have you any proof for this? I don’t know where you got this information, but it seems as uninformed to me as the question proposers of Canvascrack ;-)

    Again, I do not want to take position, but I believe it doesn’t help your cause if you raise this critique in such a way that it is as questionable as the statements you are attacking.

    A researcher concerned about misconceptions.

    Jan

  5. The English word “n*gger” is not the same as our word “neger”, you’re confusing it with the offensive word “n*kker” who no one uses and dares to use. Hence your article is basically nonsense.
    Your generalisation makes no sense at all, everyone doesn’t think the same, as it is in Belgium.

  6. I feel so very ashamed for my country when reading this, because i recognize it and must agree. Especially with the reactions below, doing exactly what you are trying to bring to the attention: not knowing racisme when they see it. Saying it’s just a joke, you should have some sense of humor, and that “they” (I’m caucasian) don’t mind/think it’s funny, so why am i making a fuss? Mind you they don’t say these things when “they” are around. (I use “they” to illustrate the “we” and “them” mentality)

    But I beg of you, don’t think all belgians are like that. I’m not. And even if no one speaks up, it might be because they’re afraid of being judged (which is very likely), not because they agree or would do the same.

    I get that reaction are quite heated on this, because you’re calling a whole country racist… Which isn’t very tolerant and a little offensive.

    AND to Jan: about people not meaning to be offensive: well they are. Especially if you work at a newspaper you should think of that. And the fact that they think that most people would think it hilarious and were right proves the problem of the mindset of so many in our country.

  7. this article makes no sense, you have clearly no understanding about belgian culture. we are more progressive thinking if anything, not stuck back in time. also the n-word is not the same as the word ‘neger’. the comparison can not be made.
    i hope that one day america will learn from us and stop trying to be so damn politically correct about everything all the time, humor is the strongest weapon and can bring everyone together. i have friends from all ethnicities and we can call each other whatever we want, joking about it disarms it.

  8. From the comments most Belgians are making here, I think it’s no longer in doubt (to me) how pathetic most people in that country are

  9. I totally agree. It saddens me that people raise these issues where they aren’t relevant instead of raising them in the many places where they clearly are. There is very little understanding for irony and disarming humor (“hipster racism” as well as “hipster sexism”). That people are shocked means that they can’t at all understand to which extent you really don’t see any difference between yourself and the other. People who fail fail to understand this are tiresome as hell. And there’s a lot of them.

  10. The first step in solving a problem is to recognize that the problem exists. Based on De Morgen’s apology and on some of the comments here, I can tell that many Belgians are still in denial about the racism in their country.

    I’ve lived in Belgium, and Jenovation is right about people not trying to be politically correct about their racism: I’ve had people make monkey noises at my friends and I, an old woman refuse to let me sit by her on the train, landlords pretend that an apartment is rented (and later let someone I know visit the place), … I could go on and on.

    I hated the country and left. I doubt I will ever visit Belgium again and I admire black people who stay.
    I now live in the South of the US, and it’s interesting to me that a lot of people think that racism is worse here. I’ve faced racism a lot more in Belgium than here. It would take a long essay to compare racism in the US and in Europe. I know I prefer for people to be politically correct (i.e. polite) when I interact with them.

  11. Well here you get stuck on Zwarte Piet again. Now do you really think, that if you could somehow make Piet go away you would achieve a real change in the Flemish societies? You are railing against tokens of racism my friend, and will never achieve a real change.
    It may come as a surprise to you as it did to me, that when the subject of which country is the best to be in in the EU for a black person, the answer I hear most often is Belgium. Why that is I don’t know, but I have had that response many times over the years.Last month from a Nigerian in Agadez, Niger, someone who had travelled a lot – he said “Belgium”, but couldn’t really explain why. Neither can I.

    Here’s a video that is interesting to watch. I did, and thought to myself – this happened in the US, but could it happen here, in Europe? Please take a look.
    http://www.upworthy.com/know-anyone-that-thinks-racial-profiling-is-exaggerated-watch-this-and-tell-me-when-your-jaw-drops-2
    My thought is that it could certainly happen here, too, but much less likely than in the USA: The difference is how the fear is much deeper in the US. Fear of strangers, fear of black people, and general FEAR. Thus the need for small arms. Europe is a littlle better in that respect. Less fear, more tolerance. We’re certainly not perfect, but then – who is? There is so much xenohobia in Asia. And in Africa, too.

  12. I was deeply offended by that mocked up picture of the Obamas and this post effectively put my thoughts into words. Then, I read the comments that trailed it…and it dawned on me: Belgians are indeed racists. I will bear that in mind in future encounters going forward

  13. Chika Unigwe means well, and latent racism is a problem in many countries, HOWEVER :

    – this IS comedy : it’s made to look as “Vladimir Putin” posted the picture !!!
    – Vladimir Putin IS a racist
    – it IS funny to see Vladimir Putin being racist, because the joke is on Vladimir Putin
    – he who doesn’t find a joke funny has to leave and go read something else, somewhere else
    – if the analogy would have been Obama vs. the fascist apes in the movie Planet of the Apes, would THAT have worked as a joke ? It would have !
    – calling THIS racism is counter-productive because playing the Racist card at every single possible occasion, will, in the end, make “racism” an empty meaningless term, not unlike “greed” and “two-faced” and “intellectually dishonest”. We have to use the term Racism for REAL racism, so it remains a strong accusation.

    Sincerely, a Belgian in Belgium.

  14. Yeah because of ONE cartoon ALL Belgians are racists. How dare you..

    Are you a Nigerian ? How would you feel if I, when I read about Nigerians murdering Shell-employees, claim that ALL Nigerians are thieving murderers and cannot be trusted, and “I will bear that in mind in future encounters going forward” ?

    Would that be OK ? Would that be acceptable ? OF COURSE NOT.

    So please, don’t be a dumbass. And don’t discourage Belgians who fight against REAL racism every day. Thank you and have a nice day; Kritzmoritz.

  15. Jeroen, words evolves in meaning. The “neger” has evolved to mean exactly the same American word “nigger”. People who use that tend and strongly mean the American version, owing to lots of American moves that uses that word in a degrading form! It easy not to understand the racism we face when you are not in the same position.
    My heart breaks when I read some so called progressive friends’ posts or status on Facebook. Am am constantly still being looked upon as less knowledgeable than my white counterparts, even when it’s obvious it’s the opposite.
    I don’t generalise, but heck I have lived in Belgium for 25years, and seen that all the changes we fought and “slaved” for have yet to materialised. It’s time to simply look deep inside and start changing your mind set.. What Chika wrote is out of experience, and to classify that as nonsense is already questionable.

  16. Jan,
    On the issue of “zwartePiet”, I have heard the excuse that he comes in through the chimney and thus he becomes black.. I guess that also causes his hair to be curly! And going through the chimney must have painted his lips red and exaggerated!
    According to my research, this has it’s root in the fact that most high places people have a slave, and thus the holy man should also have one! This started with a Dutch writer!
    Trust me, it’s offensive if you sit on the train, and people would rather stand than sit next to you! Or next to you will be the last seat to be filled!
    I live this daily, you don’t know how racism feels in Belgium if you are not black!

  17. Jeroen, you’re right in mentioning that “neger” does not have the same connotations as the N-word. It is closer in meaning to the English “negroe” which (though it used to be less insulting) also isn’t actively used anymore.

  18. aren’t you all just a goddamn bunch of pussies ?! learn to take a fucking hit and stop crying about a few Belgian people saying the N word because we don’t think its that offensive. there’s much worse racisme going on in other countries. YES EVEN IN AFRICA !!

    this article is complete bullcrap, please write serious things about more serious matters you twats

  19. Yes Tom, you are right.. No need replying to people like you.. It will be a waste of bandwidth.
    We do know your type. Now why dont you give us a topic to write about, since you are the all knowing???!

  20. How about writing about racism in the southern states ? Or Racism in Africa between light skinned africans and darker skinned africans? instead of focusing on about 4-5 people in Belgium who didn’t even mean no harm. bunch of retards

  21. He’s using some strong language BUT he IS right !

    Millions of people are being called racists and murderers here because of ONE stupid cartoon ????

    I suppose we Belgians can learn something from Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Central African Republic, Egypt, Libya, Tunesia, USA, Russia, China, Congo, Rwanda, Ugunda etc etc etc huh.

    Those countries are SO much more enlightened !!
    What a paradise those countries are for people from a different ethic background and for gay people ! How nicely they treat women over there !! What a paradise for children those countries are.

    IT’S A FUCKING CARTOON MAN. Deal with it.

  22. Petrus, No those countries are not paradise either. I am a Nigerian by birth and I do know what prejudice befalls my fellow people who happens to be gay! AND yes we do talk about it! We fight it. we do not accept it! Just because those countries are backward in terms of human right means we need to forget when we are wronged by others? So we need to keep quiet because its bad in other places?
    What makes you think we are happy and we are not fighting the oppression we face in our homelands? Another misconception?
    No Petrus, its not just a Fucking carton.. Its as offensive to me as someone putting a Christian cross in a pot of shit and calling it satire.. and I am not religious!

  23. Comedy IS offensive sometimes. Deal with it.

    Why do you think politicians are AFRAID of comedy ?
    Why do you think politicians want to BAN comedy in totalitarian regimes ?

    Because comedy has the POWER to RIDICULIZE people.
    Because comedy can undermine the prestige of people.

    Obama-as-an-ape is used here to RIDICULIZE PUTIN !!!!!!!!!
    The joke is that “Vladimir Putin” posted the cartoon !!!!!
    How many times do we have to say it ?

    You seem like an intelligent guy. Why don’t you understand that we – in Belgium – have developed a different style and approach to comedy ?

    Do you honestly think a serious article from you or me will “open people’s eyes” ???
    Hell no ! But an offensive cartoon might !!
    The cartoon is portraying Putin as a racist, and in stead of acknowledging this, you have a go after the maker of the cartoon ???

    I’ll admit, it’s not the best cartoon ever, I can do better, but the INTENTION was to ridiculize PUTIN, not Obama ??
    Aaargh… I can’t *believe* you cannot see this.

    Your English is impeccable, you THINK, WHY can’t you accept that the author of this failed cartoon had the best of intentions ?
    De Morgen is the most progressive paper in the country man. It’s made for an audience of SMART people.

    Smart people don’t join the angry mob when the angry mob wants to see the blood of an innocent man. A racist would never get a job at De Morgen. And the paper apologized.
    WHAT MORE DO YOU WANT ?

    This is getting annoying.
    It is NOT for you, nor the angry mob to censor COMEDY.
    Eddie Murphy. Richard Pryor. Dave Chappelle. Chris Rock. They all insult people for comedic purposes. Shall we ban them ?

    THINK MAN. THINK !!!! I know you can do it.

  24. I think part of the problem, is the obsession with being a “visible minority”, in countries were black people are a numerical minority. People aren`t going to accept you because there are more black municipal councilors, newscasters, politicians, footballers etc. That is tokenism. My advice to fellow Africans living in alienated communities: is to navigate these communities on your own terms: culturally, commercially, artistically, linguistically, etc. Look at the Afrocentric cultural and musical events hosted in Europe: Who is in the audience? Who are the organisers? Predominantly white people.

    I`m an African living in Europe. Do I face subtle racism regularly? Yes. Does it worry me? Yes, but not enough to write lengthy articles about it. I prefer to support the community in more meaningful ways: patronise African shops; attend and organise cultural events; open media (TV, radio, internet…) outlets.

  25. Thank you Roger for bringing soms philosophy into the debate. Wise words.

    All these people nagging here have never been to Belgium.
    IS there racism in Belgium ? YES.
    Are we doing something about it ? YES.

    Things change, but gradually, just like women’s rights at the time.

    An angry mob never changes anything.

  26. Petrus,
    I do not intend to flog the issue long and unnecessary. I live in Belgium, already 25 years.. I love it! Its been my home and am proud to carry the Belgian flag!
    I read the original article! I got the satire and I understood the intention of the the writer, but its so extremely a wrong way to go about it. I read De Morgen daily!
    This comedy, i hope you can see, awaken something in some of us black people living in this country, as its was meant to awaken something in other people…

    One of my question is, was it necessary to use the picture of a black president as an ape to draw attention to Putin’s racism? or was it the easiest, more attention grabbing stunt?
    The most degrading thing you can do was to depict a black person as an ape or monkey!
    Putin is homophobic and a fascist.. whats wrong with some satire of him using homophobic slurs.

    Does it feel right when some years ago in Sint Niklaas, a couple refused to be married by a black mayor? and I overheard someone say “I’d rather be single than be married by a monkey”

    Changes do come when we talk about issues. De Morgen asked us to talk about it, and that is exactly what we are doing.. I am in no way condemning Belgium and Belgians as a whole.. No way!
    I will be condemning my family and my best friends.
    But we cannot just sweep things under the carpet and move on.

    No, I am not among the angry mob.
    Culture ends where racism begins!

  27. Whatever the intent, the “satire” offended. It is arrogance to think that intent matters: the whole point of expression is to communicate, and if it communicates poorly, then the responsibility lies with the one expressing the thought. If someone doesn’t give a damn about how his/her work is received, why put the work out there in the first place?

  28. First of all, let me correct one thing: Being rejected by a potential employer on the grounds of your skincolor, religion, gender, etc… is not legal in Belgium and people have been convicted for violating these laws. Belgium does not complacently allow racism to take place.

    This brings me to the rest of your article in which you as an African interpret the things that Belgians do, in an African way. And yes, I understand how the word ‘neger’ sounds like ‘nigger’. But it doesn;t have any derogatory meaning in the eyes of Belgians. A neger is a dark skinned person, specifically from Africa. This doesn’t say anything about the person, except that it factually denotes this person origins and skincolor. This is not racist, this is fact. When I lived in Malaysia they called me ‘orang putih’ which means white man, literally. But it does sound a lot like orangutan, doesn’t it? My point is, that even though it sounds like ‘nigger’ and it shares a common etymology, is that it surely doesn’t have the same weight pressing down on it. At least nothing compared to the centuries of slavery and segregation as in the U.S.!

    So when I call you a ‘neger’ to your face, it’s like you calling me whitey. It’s simply fact, not racism. It’s true that there aren’t a lot of people of African descent in Belgium, but then again, it isn’t Africa and we never imported slaves here. We did advertise work in the mines in Morocco and other North-African countries to get cheap unskilled laborers. These people still live here and are now active in politics, economics and most other branches of society.

    And we’re still going to make fun of them! I promise you. Because that is how we make everyone equal here. We may poke fun at you, but we poke fun at everyone. And we don’t mind when you poke fun at us either. But that’s our culture. It’s how we do things here. It might not be easy to deal with, if you were raised in a culture where racism is on top of peoples minds. In Belgium, racism isn;t on everyone’s mind, and political correctness is seen as something that’s more of an option. Because we realise that it’s not what you say, it’s what’s in your heart that counts.

    And if this doesn’t satisfy you, well, there’s a whole continent where you can go and be a majority. It’s full of Africans and African culture, and Africans are mostly in charge, but they also allow white people to take office in some countries. Not a lot though… There are also no cultural traditions there that depict dark skinned people as working for white skinned people, in an effort to repay that old bearded man for saving his life once. I’m sorry if this last paragraph sounds a bit ironic, but I am serious. The culture of Belgium is something worth preserving, and when you come here, you’ll have to accept it. You’re welcome to still practice the traditions of your own culture ofcourse, but in exchange you’ll have to abide while we follow ours.

    Racism does exist, in Belgium and everywhere else. But don’t try to pin the crime on a person or a people who use words without second thought. Who have traditions that relate to their past. And even though a tradition may have it’s origin in less-than-racially-correct happenings, it doesn’t mean that the people following it, are racist. That, my friend, would be a generalization. And let that multi-syllabic word be exactly the cause of racism. And also the spark that ignited this reply. Because you sir, have generalized Belgians as being casual everyday racists. I am a Belgian, and I take offense to your generalization. Which is why I am defending myself and other Belgians here. But I’ll forgive this transgression, in the way we should forgive most people. We all make generalizations, it’s a basic survival tool. It’s instinct, so don’t blame people for it too fast. First consider wether it’s actual nonsenical racism (e.g.: this kind of people are horrible baby-eating cannibals and are therefore less than us) or just a generalization based on observable facts to make things easier (e.g.: people from Africa are all brown).

  29. So, if someone reads Swift’s Modest Proposal and doesn’t understand that it is satire, we should say that Swift is to blame? It’s obvious that context matters: if you put up a caricature of Obama as a monkey on your Facebook page, you’re a racist. If you use it in order to mock not Obama but Putin, as the Morgen did, you may have exercised poor judgement and not realized that it may be misinterpreted, but you have not done anything racist.

    It’s not because so many people in Belgium are in denial about racism that it’s NEVER appropriate to say: ‘perhaps you’re reading too much into this’. There is lots of racism, just read the vile things that get written under every single article that has even a peripheral connection to immigration. But, in this particular instance, although the picture on its own would undoubtedly be racist, I do not think that the broader contexts points toward racism. The journalists never implied that it was okay to portray people as monkeys, nor did they encourage people to do so. It was a failed attempt at mocking Putin. Nothing to write home about, let’s focus on more important things.

  30. I agree with the beginning of your comment but the rest is rather problematic. You can’t just say “we’ll make fun of you and you can also make fun of us, so that’s okay”. Humor can also be used to maintain structural power imbalances and keep people ‘in their place’ by legitimizing racist discourse and giving an easy way out to racist people (“it’s only a joke”, “why are you so sensitive”, etc.). I think we must be careful about jokes that are only funny if you accept racial (or gender) stereotypes: racist jokes can in fact be considered harassment and racial discrimination.

    Likewise, it’s a problem that racism is not on people’s mind in Belgium. Most people I know would deny being racists but, once you talk about certain topics, they in fact have MANY racist attitudes and stereotypes that they have never examined. Racism is not just about calling people names or saying that you won’t hire black people. It can also be unconscious and, although the article is inaccurate in many ways, we should not jump to the conclusion that racism is not a problem in Belgium.

    Please also refrain from telling people that if they don’t like it here, they’re free to go elsewhere. You can be Belgian and not be white. And, even if you’re not Belgian, you can point out real problems about Belgium and the gap between what we preach and what we actually do. This is how thousands of people have been marginalized for so long and are always reminded of their origins, even if they were born here.

    If you look above, you’ll see that the Morgen cartoon has been over-hyped. But I can’t help agree with the author when I see so many fellow Belgians not only saying that but restricting racism to its most egregious manifestations in order not to have to face the fact that there is a lot of racial bias in Belgian society.

  31. oh come on… leave comedy to the comedians.

    You’re really making a mountain out of a molehill. ONE picture. ONE PICTURE ?????

    OK you asked for it…
    What would you say if white women would be outraged about black rappers calling women “bitches” and “white bitches” and “ho” and what not.
    And then I come, and I say “hey Richard, you listen to that shit, you’re a SEXIST”.
    and “the worst thing you can do to a white woman is call her a prostitute”

    Will you defend the black rappers, saying “yeah but they don’t MEAN it that way” and how will YOU prove you are not a SEXIST ?

    Let’s see how you handle this one friend :-)

  32. Just for the fact that you make it seem like every single person in Belgium thinks the same on this subject is ridiculous , i’m not saying there is no racism in Belgium , because sadly there is still racism all over the world , i don’t what you did here for 25 years , sitting in you’re room thinking about how racist people are in Belgium , because if you went out and got to now belgian people you would have noticed that almost all belgian people are friendly and NON RACIST PEOPLE who don’t judge you by the color of you’re skin but for the person that you are . But when i read you’re article and the way you paint a picture of all belgian people in general i can’t even begin to take you serious . And about “zwarte piet ” it may seem like a strange cultural custom but how can you be against something that only brings joy and happiness to little kids .

  33. May I step in as a British person of Nigerian origin, working in Belgium? I know Richard personally. Richard is maried to a Belgian, so he has nothing against Belgians. He has been working as an IT professional in those 25 years.

    I think we need to differentiate between ignorance (that leads to racism) and light hearted banter. Unfortunately, any ethnic minority around the world experiences this. White South Africans do as well. Racism is not unique tto belgium or any country in the world, so I agree that labelling the entire country is quite unfair.

    However, please let us look at the article highlighted above. Unlike other light-hearted jokes, where the French poke fun at the English and vice´versa, depicting a blcack person as an ape still retains the sub´context of balck people being not human and therefore not worthy of any respect. Whether it was meant in this context or not, it is irresponsible of the newpaper to publish such a picture using a term that will be seen by black people as offensive. That to me seems to be the issue here, not Belgium as a country. A few does nto represent the majority.

    Just my two cents….

  34. Permit me to talk about Zwarrte Piet. The issue is that some people have also used it to infer that balck skin, hair and lips are somehow “inferior” in countries like the UK or USA. I understand traditions are important to you, but perhaps since the world is changing and we have to deal with different people form differnet cultures anyway, this character could be depicted by people of all races in the future? Children don’t really care about his race, they care about Christmas and presents. That way, Belgians retain a tradition that is dear to them and no one gets offended. Just my opinion….

  35. I don’t know De Morgen enough, but when reading the joke I found it was obviously to mock Putin’s racism, even if the ‘joke’ (not funny) could have been done a hundred different (better) ways.

    Now, about Belgium being a racist country: there is racism in Belgium, of course. Like in any country, believe it or not. But accusing a whole country of being racist goes too far for me (as well as the people that fight a daily fight against discrimination, which is my concern today). Especially when reading your arguments. And I’ll try to explain why, coming back on your criteria to determine how a whole country can be called racist.

    1) We don’t have 1 black newscaster? Correct; we have 2 and used to have 3 (ever heard of Pierre Migisha, chief of sports on biggest private channel, for instance?)

    2) But hey, maybe sports is no ‘news’! Then no, we don’t have a black TV anchorman yet. Could this be because… our two biggest TV news stars on (French speaking) TV are actually from… Moroccan origin? Two women, by the way… Glad you didn’t call us racist AND sexist ;-)

    3) As a racist country, Belgium should not only hate or despise blacks, but most foreigners, right? So, why do we elect Ministers & Secretaries of State of Greek, Italian, Moroccan or Turkish origin? And re-elect them?? And even make them… Prime Minister???
    By the way, did you not know there are also deputies of Congolese origin or did you skip that fact? Belgium must be a really strange racist country, isn’t it? We’d hate black people but we’d vote for them? Strange…

    4) You’re asking yourself if there are Black bankers, black policemen, and as an inhabitant of a neighborhood we call ‘Matonge’ in Brussels, I can’t help laughing until… Oh wait… you are from Turnhout, that lil town the size of a big village??? That place where half of the foreigners are… employees of the local Chinese takeaway shop? (see how easy it is to exaggerate? ;-). I think I get it now…

    Well, dear Chika, I strongly advise you to leave your small ‘redneck’ city next time you want to write about ‘Belgium’. I don’t know… try a city, for a change, and you’ll notice it’s not different from any other city in the world. Beware, though: you’ll meet racists in cities as well. A lot more than in your ‘village’, even. But you’ll also meet plenty of people from all over the world, living in a city where black-white thinking has been abolished for a long time now. Try Brussels and its 147 nationalities, for instance. Where no one knows (or cares) what it feels to be a ‘true Belgian’, because no one knows such species.
    See, Chika, as I’m living in Brussels, this is the way I see my city now: as a lab for the future; a place where you have more chances to meet someone from Mongolia (my friendly neighbour, e.g.) than someone born in Brussels from Brussels parents. Did you know that nearly 30% of those ‘racist’ Brussels inhabitants were born… in a foreign country? And that 55% of those ‘racist’ Brussels citizens have parents born in another country (same goes for most of the bigger cities, I’d say)?
    I understand that, while living in Turnhout, you might have another impression…

    The only conclusion to me is: racism is everywhere and should be fought at all costs. But pointing a whole country as being racist and ‘insular’ is just as stupid as… hmm… racism itself, sorry.

  36. Of course there’s racism here just like in any other country. Not saying that it is a normal thing but I’m acknowledging the fact that it is present. Although the “What is racism and what isn’t” topic is one then can be discussed for a long time. In Belgium we have a pretty black sense of humor (no pun intended). A lot of jokes that are made would be offensive in America for example. That doesn’t always mean it’s racism, but maybe a matter of bad taste. I have to disagree though on the point where you say that black people here don’t get chances or jobs just because we’re racist towards them. That my man is a lousy generalisation without any proof. There are only a small amount of black people here compared to asians or morrocans for example. It would be the same to say why you rarely see native americans in the parliament in the USA. But anyway, if it makes you happy to believe that this is a country full of racist white people who hates the black community nobody can stop you. Have a good day

  37. Unfortunately, this has depleted into name callings and people who not in a single sense understand the “context” of this debate.
    For the info of one of the commentators, there was no where I in any way generalise Belgians as racist, and yes to another, when black rappers use words like “ho” or “bitches” I find that seriously insulting to my mother, my wife and my daughter! Why would you assume I would be tolerant of them, because am black and they are too??
    There are some jokes that are simply offensive and people should know that..
    We went through slavery, we went through colonisation, we are going through degradation being depicted as apes…. I do understand some people do not get it why someone like me can be so offended about those pictures.
    A jewish person will not be too happy if you had said as a joke that Hitler did not do a good job…
    No one should find that funny! that is repulsive..

    Am happy at least this article, thanks De Morgen, thanks Chika,has made us see that at times we feel really marginalised.
    And yes, most of the time, people do make jokes about being a Nigerian, I must be a 419er, that is a nice joke I like!

  38. I hear you, dear sir. And I agree with you. The problem for me, though isn’t about All Belgians being guilty but rather the ease with which cases like this are explained away or laughed away or excused by my Belgian friends. The concept of wrong on this matter isn’t as damning or repulsive to them as it is to me

  39. I’m glad the rest of the world is starting to take notice of Belgium. I doubt their viewpoints of ‘outsiders’ will change much though. I lived there for 18 years as an immigrant. I learned the language fluently, worked, and even made some good friends. However, contrary to the US where I’m from, I observed no possibility of self criticism or insight in most Flemish people I encountered, almost universally. The only reaction to any objective observation was met with hostility, defensiveness, or some kind of attack on my character or country of origin. Racism is in the eye of the offended party, not the person committing the act. You can talk till you’re blue in the face about Zwarte Piet’s soot, it won’t change how others experience your actions. The question to truly ask is why the opinions of Americans, or Belgians of color, or even the president of the free world don’t mean anything to the average Flemish person? I’m very offended at what was done to my president in De Morgen and by Radio 1 and I refuse to believe those in charge were too stupid to know any better, why shouldn’t my feelings count enough for the Flemish to care about it? Is it maybe because I am not seen as equal to them? To all the commenters who can’t see the harm, what you’re really admitting is that you believe you are worth more as a human being than those who are offended. That IS racism and it is apparently very deep. The comments about this topic (and Sinterklaas) around the web only prove this point. If you keep fighting so hard for your right to be racists, that’s exactly what you’ll be called.

  40. Regarding Swift’s Modest Proposal:
    As I stated, with art, intent does not matter: execution does.

    If a joke has to be explained, it’s a bad joke. Art should speak for itself: I can look at a Van Gogh painting and appreciate it without knowing his life story, what he had for breakfast before painting it, who he was sleeping with. I shouldn’t have to interview the satirist to be able to get it.

    Your stance sounds very much like a singer saying, “I intended to hit that note – it’s the audience’s fault that they think I sound flat.” All artists intend to create good art – but not all do.

    What is making this a bigger issue is that it’s exposing nonchalance about some Belgians nonchalance about what black people think. There’s an arrogance in saying, “I didn’t mean to be offensive, so your feelings don’t count.”

    And the whole “we should be focussing on bigger things” argument is one that I don’t think you really want to use: it’s often employed by those who want to strip government funds from cultural endeavours – I mean, why use taxpayer money for museums, libraries, orchestras, etc. when there are bigger things like poverty, hunger and education. That you appreciate Swift makes me think you would not argue for defunding art in favour of “bigger things”.

  41. The only language many Europeans understand is violence. Unfortunately, somehow , i feel our over-dependence on them gives them this urge. Africa has been too silent and accepting.

  42. I am from Belgium. And I can tell you Belgians are not like this at all. Do not insult an entire country for interpretations of words from individuals. Thank you.

  43. Well well…, although I also cannot tolerate the images that were published in ‘de Morgen’, putting the ‘racist idiots’ stamp on a whole country is simply too generalising… it’s not because some idiots say or do things that these facts apply to a whole country.

    Please check your facts…

    You could also have written about the manner the politics have dealt with the racist politic party ‘vlaams blok’, they were simply ruled out by manner of blocking them off in what was called a ‘cordon sanitaire’, meaning all politic parties simply refused talking with them;

    The ‘zwarte piet’ affaire you describe is not what it looks like at all: the REAL story / legend is this: a catholic saint comes every year (6th december) bringing gifts to all children, he walks over the roofs of the houses on a horse, an drops the presents through the chimney. To be able to do this job, he has the help of boys who climb through the chimney, because the chimneys are covered with coal, the boys faces are black… thus: this is not a racist picturing of black people, but simply a ‘piece of theatre’. The zwarte piet’ is not a racist stereotype, it’s a white boy that goes down a chimney and gets his face dirty… It’s is not Al Jolson, it’s Oliver twist….

    You could also have written about the way the belgian citizens have conducted during World War II, hiding and helping thousands of jew people with disregard of their own lives.

    You could also wave written about the brave boys who where the only ones to have stopped a train going to the Auswitch camps, rescuing hundreds of jews going to a certain death…

    You could also have written about the fact that our prime minister is a/ coming from immigrant family and b/ is gay.

    Racism is a bad thing, it’s all over the place. Don’t just point the finger and judge ALL people. That’s racist too…

  44. I live and work in the UK. Recently I worked in Belgium for a year commuting bank and forth regularly.
    After working in Belgium for a few months, I started to notice how casual racism is ingrained in the society. Some of my colleagues who are brilliant and lovely in all other ways would make casual racist comments completely unaware that these comments are offensive and wrong. Sometimes even in meetings followed with a laughter. I sometimes I wondered whether my colleagues genuinely thought they were superior to other races or they just simply got used to making casual racist remarks…

    Slowly, I started to notice that in Belgium I struggled to find couples of different races like you would in the UK, for example. Also other than official get together like school, work and transport you would struggle to find people of different races doing social activities together… like say… a group of young friends from different races having a drink at the bar, or friends from different races having lunch at a restaurant.

    This is really shocking when you imagine the number of international organisations having headquartered in Brussels, Belgium.

    It felt to me as if the world moved on and left Belgium behind.

  45. You seem to forget that in Belgium, immigration from non-European countries like Morocco only started 50 years ago, and most immigrants from black Africa only arrived during the last 10-15 years. Because of this, they often don’t speak the local language yet and have very little affinity with European culture. Before this rather recent immigration wave, Belgium was almost exclusively white, unlike the US where different races have been living together for centuries and share the same language and culture.
    If you say there are very few black people in public positions like newscasters, bank clerks etc…. this has often more to do with the fact that they’re so new here rather than with race. Turkish and Moroccan people, who have been living here for a generation longer than most black Africans, are often working as politicians, journalists and are speaking the local language fluently since the younger generation grew up here. Besides, have you ever heard about Wouter Van Bellingen (Flemish politician) or Sandrine Van Handenhoven (newscaster)? Both are black, but one was adopted by a Belgian family and the other was born in Belgium. Sandrine’s mother (Congolese) was even prosecuted and put in prison by a Congolese judge because she wanted to marry a white man, something like that would be unthinkable in Belgium.
    So I’m truly sorry for you if you feel offended by certain things you’ve seen or heard in the press, but just be careful before calling a whole country like Belgium racist or backward, cause then you’re doing the same thing you don’t want people to do to you (classifying people and judging a whole group)
    Besides, I also think that the Obama cartoon was very offensive, personally I’m a big fan of Barack Obama. But then again, when Bush was in power, there were also cartoons published in progressive news papers where his facial expressions where compared to those of a chimp…
    I personally think you’re overreacting about a lot of things and putting them out of context in order to create a very negative atmosphere about Belgians, which is not very nice.

  46. Besides, I agree that Leopold II did horrible things in Congo and should not be remembered in a positive way. On this, I’m sure most Belgians would agree, as his crimes have been exposed in the media more than once.
    Employers in Belgium are not allowed to refuse job candidates based on ethnicity or they will face legal charges. Only, it’s sometimes very hard to prove if a racist boss refuses to hire a candidate only because of the skin color, they could easily give another false reason. But things like this happen everywhere!

  47. The Anglo-Saxons and their fake political correctness. Please get a life.

    By the way in Belgium foreigners can vote, which is not the case in many western countries. Not a very racist thing to have in place.

  48. Maybe you should crawl out of your little box, and look at it all – from a non racist perspective.

  49. The lack of understanding in Belgium about how racism works always surprises me. The picture in De Morgen, even as an attack/joke directed towards Putin, is highly offensive. How people can try to justify that I don’t know.

  50. I agree that the picture was offensive and the paper apologized for it afterwards, but can you explain to me why a picture of Obama compared to a chimp is racist but a picture of Bush compared to a chimp is not racist? If you think one is racist but the other is not, doesn’t that mean you’re the one who’s implying that black people look more like monkeys than white people?

  51. @Dani: The reason is because black people have been portrayed as/called apes and monkeys as a way to make them seem less than human for centuries, while whites haven’t been. The thinking that blacks were not quite people was used by colonialists to justify slavery – and is used by some non-blacks to justify continued discrimination against blacks. This has not happened to whites as a race, to my knowledge. The false equivalency often comes up as a feeble argument in questions like, “If there’s an International Women’s Day, why not have an International Men’s Day?” The reason, of one thinks even a little, is that every other day is International Men’s Day: men earn more than women for the same jobs, outstrip women in positions exponentially (despite females being the majority in most countries), and have not had their accomplishments ignored throughout history (as women have). A little critical thinking is necessary here…

  52. I agree with Dani. This is all about cultural communications. Fans around the football fields of Europe make monkey noises and ape gestures and throw bananas onto the field. I have never heard of a white player thinking that it was directed at him. Monkey gestures, noises and thrown bananas are thus explicitly understood by white players to not be directed towards them. The fans also know that as do the black players.
    Using Dani’s gender example: the words “master” and “mistress” originally meant the same thing, albeit one was for the lady of the manor the other for the man of the manor. Today “mistress” has a sexual connotation. It’s just words and their meanings that change over time depending on how people use them. To hide behind that and use these loaded (and racist) symbols is very dangerous and De Morgen should have known better.
    Another example: Throwing a shoe at Bush was a huge symbol and insult in the Muslim world. But it was not taken seriously by Bush, his entourage and the western media (other than as a petty act of aggression).

  53. Quite true, throughout our education system people from southern continents were always portrayed as ‘poor’, ‘uneducated/stupid’. And in need of help, those ‘arme zwartjes’. So never as equals. Oh, and our development organisations used to organise those classes in school. Maybe time for Belgium and the wider development sector to reflect on their contribution to today’s racism.

  54. Good evening,

    I just wanted to react to your article depicting Belgium as a racist country. There is no anger or frustration on my part but I’d like to set a few things straight.
    First of al Mulato or ‘een Mulat’ in Flemish and ‘un métisse’ in French are terms that are completely appropriate to use. I’d like to invite you to talk to a Flemish ‘Mulato’ (I never heard this in English so I guess that’s why your perception of this word is so different of ours) in Ghent or Kortrijk. Of course you can also try this in Charleroi, Brussels,… for the French term, you’ll soon see that no-one will be offended.

    Vincent Company is a métisse and probably one of the most loved Belgians for his character, personality as a whole and because. Not even his sports performance matter but mostly him as a person. Additionally you could look up Ketnet: the most viewed show by Flemish children aged from 1 to 16. You’ll soon notice a man… Melvin. I don’t need to elaborate.

    Then Zwarte Piet, he is not necessarily of black skin but he’s black… because he brings gifts to children through the chimney. Also he listens through the chimney if children are being good.

    In any self-respecting company a manager who states he does not want a black employee this man will be despised. I don’t know where you found proof that a man can say this, this is a very subjective statement.

    To finish you forgot to mention Belgium hosts a enormous variety of different nationalities, accepts everyone in our social care and has a very generous policy towards immigrants as 10.4% of our population is an immigrant.

    Have a good week

    A group of Belgian students

  55. Regarding Zwarte Piet not being black, as someone else pointed out: did the chimney also make his hair tightly curled? Also, what I know of the legend of Zwarte Piet, he is the one charged with punishing bad children – instilling fear in some of them. So the black figure is relegated to being the bad guy for children to fear, while St. Niklaas is all about goodness. If you’re not aware of the power of tropes (white is purity and good, black is evil and bad), Zwarte Piet plays right into it. If Flemish culture were full of other black figures to provide a spectrum, Zwarte Piet would not be so objectionable. This is not to say that Belgians are racist (I have many wonderful friends who are Belgian and not racist in the least). But De Morgen’s tone-deafness at the Obama “parody” shows that some Flemish need to re-examine their ways of thinking – or accept being judged as racist by a lot of people.

  56. The war against the despicable and gruesome evil called RACISM that still continuously thrives in almost every nook and cranny of the globe will not be won via the parochial prism of unfounded generalization. Wise to always keep in mind that generalization in itself, is, in most cases, extremely deceptive and possesses a highly potent and contagiously venomous sting that’s capable of paralyzing all senses of rational and objectivity.

    Trivializing and shrouding the realistically demoralizing impact of racism on black folks under the guise of linguistic and cultural misunderstanding as some have laughably attempted to do in their comments here will not contribute an ounce of gun powder to the ammunition depot of the war against racism either.

    As an outspoken, sensitive, uncompromising, injustice despising and equity loving black man who has shared most of his life between the United States and Belgium, the indelible physical and psychological scars of racism that I’ve had to bear over several decades on both sides of the isle, and the excruciating pain of the fresh emotional racial wounds I suffered as recent as last month, are heart-wrenching and visibly towering.

    But does that mean that I should discard with my sense of objectivity and yield to temporary amnesia when it comes to accurately distinguishing between sunshine and rain? Should my agonizing pain automatically obliterate my fundamental educational ability to separate the wheat from the chaff? We must always endeavor to call a spade a spade, let the truth be the truth, and never allow our eagerness to unleash years of internalized and accumulative racial torments we’ve suffered to cloud our faculty of sound judgment.

    Even under the blazing and scotching sun, we should never forget the cool breeze that soothes us intermittently.

    Yes, there’s no iota of doubt in my mind that the depiction of the most powerful couple on the face of the earth as apes by De Morgen was horrible, deplorable and it irked me to the bone….still does….in a way none of my white sisters and brothers will ever truly comprehend….coz, as the authentic lyrics of Bob Marley affirms, “who feels it knows it.” But to categorically condemn ALL BELGIANS as racists on account of the insensitive and uncivilized action of one print media is not only blatantly preposterous and a gross violation of the rule of fairness, but also dangerously counter-productive.

    Is there racism in Belgium? ABSOLUTELY. Are ALL Belgians Racists? ABSOLUTELY NOT. And anyone who thinks otherwise definitely need to get his or her head examined.

  57. Belgium is a racist country and every black man who has worked there will tell you that. I will not piss there any day . Racists Bigots. They stole from Africa and stood by when Rwandans butchered each other. Mate, move to the UK . At least we have rights here and most of the things Belgians consider not racists will be unlawful in this country.

  58. Wierd article. Edwin: you’re being a anti-belgium racist mate. I am pretty sure I can find a lot of quotes from lots of different countries / people / politicians / tv-presenters / etc from everywhere in the world allowing me to conclude whatever I want and generalise an entire population of a collection of those events. This is exactly what happens when you start generalising / becoming a racist. And what you seem to dislike from others doing to you, is actually the same thing you are doing to others.

  59. Oops… now I feel a huge amount of racist / angry / insultant comments coming my way :-)

  60. I agree with you Dani 100%. Sometimes a joke about people can become racism just because someone wants to interprete it that way. If you feel everybody is equal, then there’s no issue to have some fun / make a joke with / about your neighbour. E.g. the way someone speaks funny english, e.g. some french people. I e.g. have been asked if there’s electricity/light in my country. Sometimes a joke is intended to be funny, nothing else. But sometimes some people really want to see racism, especially when they assume ALL people from belgium are racists.

  61. Because, bush is white (not letter ally but u know what I mean ) and Belgians are white, so it feels like laughing or mocking your own brother. In Obama’s case, he is of another race and that is racist. If you think it was not racist then why do you think they needed an apology for that.

  62. Dear Miss Unigwe,

    I would like to add my two cents, as a legal resident, who came to live with his family in the spring. My experiences do not extend to the Flemish side, as I live in Liège. What I experienced in 6 months was a different kind of rejection. Being white, and male, I am not a subject of racism, or sexism, rather xenophobia.

    At my very first trip to the municipality I had to discover, that despite being an EU-member for 10 years, and a member of the Schengen Zone for 7 years, trained officials had no clue if I need a work permit, or not. The answer is no, as it is required only for Romanians, Bulgarians, and Croatians. Many occasions, when I go to a headhunting agency, almost immediately the first thing is “first we look into, if you need permit, and call you back” which is just a nice, hard to prove way of saying “we know you can work, but still not recommend you to anyone”. I speak four languages, aside for French and English also German, so in theory it represent value, in my last occupations worked for more, than 5 years, so thinking I would be lazy, who mooches off the social system would be incredibly wrong.

    Still, some of your statements made me cringe. At my first headhunter appointment, the lady, who was very nice in welcoming was a Belgian with Asian descent, and with impeccable French. My French is middle level (never had money and time to perfect it), compared to all the people I meet, regardless of color, my level presents an Easter Egg. Since I haven’t gone to school here, I can’t comment on teachers, but I have you know, the police force in Liège is represented by Belgians of all descent, and not just traffic cops.

    I go on, and dare to say, you don’t seem to express (even if you have) much experience outside your own former city. You claim, they never faced their colonial past, disregarding that it is not true. Certainly, there is racism and xenophobia in Belgium, however in my experience all people speak the same French, free to speak their own, free to have their own culture, people are not forced into ghettos or separate sides of towns, and most importantly, unlike in Ferguson, people aren’t getting shot and killed over alleged attempts to grab a gun.

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