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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

    • 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.

  4. 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…

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

    • 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?

      • @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…

      • 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).

      • 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.

      • 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

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