More shocking than the fact that Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders recently appeared in public wearing blackface may be that neither he nor anyone else in the Belgian political establishment seems particularly embarrassed by it.
Reynders posted photos on his own blog showing himself with a group known as the noirauds, or “the blacks,” a Belgian organization dating back to the 19th century that collects money for children’s charities. The Brussels city government website has a page on the noirauds, which denies that they are a “bad joke” from years past and explains that the “African notable” costume was originally intended to provide anonymity for the collectors and was adopted at a time when the exploration of Africa had captured the public imagination. Given Belgium’s particularly ugly colonial history, this elucidation really only makes it worse.
According to Reuters, Reynders hasn’t gotten much criticism from other Belgian political parties, but has been denounced by organizations representing Belgium’s sizable African population. “In other civilized countries his political career wouldn’t survive this, but in Belgium he just continues,” said the Nigerian-born author Chika Unigwe.
Belgium’s certainly not the only country with a blasé attitude toward blackface—see the Netherlands’ “Zwarte Piet” Christmas tradition or the popular Japanese singing group Rats & Star. And certainly this sort of thing is hardly unheard of in the U.S. today. But you would think someone whose job was to represent Belgium to the rest of the world would know better.