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.