This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands
The 11th of March was the first day of Spring in Brussels' city centre, and it passed like many first days of Spring have before in Brussels – a man read the morning newspaper on a park bench, a girl enjoyed her first ice cream cone of the season, a couple of tourists took a selfie with Manneken Pis and a white woman in blackface asked passersby if they wanted to donate for charity.
That woman is a member of the society of Noirauds – or "Blacks" – of Brussels. Every second weekend of March, the Noirauds hold a parade to raise money for children in need. It would have been nice if that had been all. If that had been all, the Noirauds would have just been a lovely bunch of people caring for the less fortunate. Alas, that is not all.
One day in 1876, a group of men from Brussels decided to anonymously raise funds for a nursery. They figured that the best way to keep their anonymity was by painting their faces black and going around the city's restaurants asking for donations. Every year since that fateful day, the members of the society do the same thing.
During their annual parade, the Noirauds are accompanied by a marching band, and besides the blackface they all wear turtle necks, loose trousers and white top hats. They also carry around black dolls – which serve as charity collecting boxes – and spears topped with black doll heads. Even Manneken Pis is dressed up as a Noiraud for the occasion. It's hard to blame Manneken Pis, since he's just a little boy made of bronze but you'd think human grown-ups would know better than that.
I asked Jean-François Simon, current president of the Noirauds, what he thinks he's doing. "We get that question a lot," Simon told me. "Even today, there was a couple that saw us and shouted that what we're doing is a disgrace. That's obviously not nice to hear, but we're only doing this to help. A lot of people just see us as a group of people who paint their faces black – they don't know the context. It's an old tradition and we're only raising money for charity. Sometimes people tell us blackface is forbidden in the United States. But to that I say, 'Alright, but in the United States police are shooting black people over nothing.'"
Simon doesn't see how the tradition would be racist or insensitive. "We've been wearing this costume since 1876. At the time, a group of men in Brussels wanted to save a nursery from financial troubles. When they tried to raise money at local restaurants they were turned away because the restaurant owners knew them. So they decided to paint their faces black and put on a costume, in order to raise the money anonymously."
But that isn't the full story. On the official website of the city of Brussels, the page on the history of the Noirauds reads: "At the time, the European discovery and exploration of African countries captured the public's imagination. It seemed ideal to dress up as an 'African nobleman.'" And when the society was first founded, its official name was "Conservatoire Africain", which translates roughly into "African protection society".
When I bring that up with Simon, he says he thinks I should see it in context of the times. "At the time, Europe was colonising Africa and that new continent mystified the people of Brussels. It was all very exotic. When those men needed a costume, they dressed up as African noblemen. We stayed true to that tradition and now raise about €50,000 a year for Belgian children in need."
Simon doesn't agree that it would make more sense for his society to start seeing the tradition in the context of these times, and stop blacking up. "It's such an established tradition. We only have to walk into a bar and people donate," he says. "People in Brussels recognise us. I don't really see the problem. We're using the colour black and the name, but we're doing something good."
Andrew Stroehlein is one of the people who do have a problem with the Noirauds. Stroehlein is an American living in Brussels, and works as the European Media Director at Human Rights Watch. "It's clearly a racist tradition," he tells me. Stroehlein previously described the December period in the neighbouring Netherlands as "the racist chocolate season", because Dutch Saint Nicholas' helper Zwarte Piet (or 'Black Pete') is blacked up. When the former Belgian minister of Foreign Affairs Didier Reynders marched with the Noirauds two years ago, Stroehlein expressed his outrage on Twitter. "It is just very offensive," he tells me now. "It's a relic from the late 19th century and it's not working anymore."
Stroehlein thinks that Simon's argument that the Noirauds have been doing the same thing since the 19th century isn't a very strong one. "That's a bad excuse. Slavery used to be a tradition, too. Some people don't want to move with the times, they lack some introspection. If they could step aside and see what they're doing from a distance, they could see how wrong it is to mock your fellow citizens that way," he tells me. "You can't dress up in such a ridiculous caricature and then say it's not racist. They're not just wearing blackface, but they walk around with spears topped with black heads, and the donations are collected in black baby dolls."
Offensive traditions can be dangerous, he adds. "Every time a powerful group in society offends a minority in such a public way, the chasm between those groups is widened. You have to put yourself in the position of the group that's being offended. Do we really want to live in a society where we don't stop and think before we act?"
However, Stroehlein doesn't think the Noirauds should be banned. "I don't think a legal solution is the answer – that could make things worse. People need to personally realise that what they're doing is wrong. We need to talk about it, protest their parade and hopefully they will change their minds some day."
If it's up to Jean-François Simon, that won't happen anytime soon. When I ask him when he thinks his society might stop blacking up, he tells me: "As long as we're not officially banned, the Noirauds will continue to exist."
See more photos of the Noiraud parade in Brussels below.