“It is totally racist and it maintains a degrading image of the black person, which has consequences in everyday life,” said Mouhad Reghif from Brussels Panthers group.
As it does every year, the parade of the Belgian folk festival called Ducasse d’Ath featured Sunday the character of “the savage”. A white actor wearing a ring in the nose, a black coat, and with face and hands painted in black interpreted the role. Chains clinging around his wrists and ankles, he shouted out incomprehensible sounds; spooked and cuddled children.
“This character has all the degrading attributes that black people are given in the racist imagery of our societies,” said Mouhad Reghif, a spokesman for anti-racism group Brussels Panthers.
“It is totally racist and it maintains a degrading image of the black person, which has consequences in everyday life,” he added.
Reghif, a 45-year-old IT engineer living in Brussels, explained that this “savage” character is “symptomatic of the problem we have in Belgium with the colonial history of our country.”
“People still think....that we brought civilization to Africa, that they have evolved thanks to us, which is totally false.”
The festival which dates back to the 16th century takes place every year in the small town of Ath about 60 km west of Brussels. The traditional parade held to mark the victory of David over Goliath has been recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
The group Brussels Panthers released a petition this month condemning the character as an offense to Black people. The petition was signed by dozens of both advocacy organizations and individuals, demanding the UNESCO to remove the heritage label from the festival.
The "blackface" usage which consists of the use of makeup to represent a caricature of a Black person, often by non-Black people is considered a deeply racist practice that has been used over decades, not only but essentially in the west, to mock and dehumanize Black people, thus justifying discrimination and racist practices against them.
The mayor of Ath rejected the criticism and told media that “it’s mostly people from outside who talk about racism, anti-black sentiment. At Ath, we never considered ‘the Savage’ to be a racist figure.”
“It is rather a character that the inhabitants of Ath adore... when one gets a kiss from ‘the Savage’, we have good luck all the year ahead,” added the mayor of the 30,000 people town.
The controversy brings to light a wider debate in Belgium over racism and how the country deals with its colonial past, one of the most brutal in history. Belgian King Leopold II had managed to convert the entire Congo (today composed of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo), a landmass that represents more than 2.500 million square km, into his own personal territory.
Estimates of deaths in that period range from 10 million to 15 million people, and some historians today acknowledged that it was a genocide, though very little of the horrors committed during almost a century is known in Belgium, as the education system carefully prevent the country from confronting its colonizer past.