How could Belgium's foreign minister possibly have thought this was a good idea?
Foreign Minister Didier Reynders paraded through the streets of Brussels wearing blackface last weekend, as part of a gathering of a charitable organization called Les Noirauds — "the blacks."
He proudly tweeted photographs of himself in blackface at the event on March 15, which was met with considerable — and entirely unsurprising — criticism.
According to the Brussels city website, Les Noirauds was founded 133 years ago to save a Brussels orphanage on the verge of bankruptcy. Today the group assists children around the country. That sounds nice! But does it really require blackface?
The city government page also says the group adopted their costumes in 1876 because "at the time, the exploration and discovery of the countries of Africa spoke to people's imaginations, and the costume of an 'African VIP' was ideal to ensure the anonymity of the fundraisers, often good middle-class people and regular clients of the restaurants where they were collecting money."
In other words, these costumes have their origins in the European exploration of Africa, a time when Africans were stereotyped as inherently primitive, backward, and badly in need of European civilizing. Those attitudes were deeply damaging to Africans. They provided justification for Belgian King Leopold's colonization of the Congo, in which millions of people were murdered or worked to death, and which some historians have likened to genocide.
As Jenée Desmond-Harris wrote last October, blackface is still unacceptable even if the wearer doesn't have a specifically racist intent:
But here's the thing: not feeling racist when you're wearing blackface does nothing to change how it affects those who see it (and today, thanks to social media, that doesn't just mean your trick-or-treaters, or the guests at the party you attend — it means the world).
Your innermost thoughts don't change the impact blackface has on the people of all races around you, or the way it reinforces stereotypes and the idea that blackness is, at best, a joke.
Mr. Reynders is not just a random citizen, either. He's the country's foreign minister, the official who represents Belgium in foreign affairs — including its relations with the leaders of African countries. Such as, for instance, the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Peter Bouckaert, a Belgian who is the emergencies director for human rights watch, tweeted, "Shame on you" at Reynders, asking if he would wear blackface to his next meeting with African leaders: