Belgian Foreign Minister Dons Blackface for Charity Parade

Didier Reynders has been lambasted for wearing black makeup at a traditional Belgian fundraising event bearing colonialist undertones.

by Melodie Bouchaud
Mar 19 2015, 8:30pm

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Belgian foreign minister Didier Reynders has come under fire for participating in a centuries-old Belgian tradition in which members of the Noirauds ("Blacks"), a philanthropic organization, dress in what they claim to be the clothes of 19th century African noblemen and don black face paint while parading through the streets of Brussels.

The tradition, which aims to raise money for children's charities, takes place annually on the second weekend of March. Members of wear blackface, white top hats, ruffles, and stockings as they amble through the Belgian capital, accompanied by a fanfare band called Le Conservatoire Africain (the African Conservatory).

Reynders posted images of Saturday's parade to Twitter and to his blog, writing that, "The Noirauds' motto is 'fun and charity.' Both components have been fully met again this year and it is with joy and good humor that I have attended."

But the purported "humor" of the episode was not shared by everyone.

The first to voice shock over Reynders' participation in the event was French reporter François Beaudonnet, a correspondent for television channel France 2. In an article published Wednesday, Beaudonnet questioned whether it was appropriate for the country's foreign minister to take part in a folk tradition that carries such strong colonialist undertones.

The images of Reynders in blackface also triggered a flurry of reactions on social media and comments in the Belgian press, and beyond.

The tradition of the Noirauds dates back to 1876, when Brussels dignitaries launched a fundraising campaign to build a day care center in the capital. They decided to collect money in the city's restaurants, and used blackface to maintain their anonymity. 

"We put this makeup on to be noticed, yet to remain anonymous," one of the group's members told France 3.

The organization's president, Jean-François Simon, told VICE News that the founders of the group had originally picked out their costumes because they were "inspired by Africa." The historic parade was born just a few months after the 1876 Brussels Geographic Conference, an Africa-themed summit organized by King Leopold II.

Ever since, the tradition has been rooted in Belgian folklore, with very few raising an eyebrow at the bizarre tradition, except for a contingent of bloggers and minority advocates

The Mayor of Brussels Yvan Mayeur also reportedly took part in the parade this weekend.

Simon said he was surprised by the accusations of racism that have surfaced since the event.

"We're surprised by the big song and dance made by the reporter on France 2," he told VICE News. "Our movement is not racist, we have black fundraisers who must also wear black makeup because their skin is brown, not black, and we help all children, regardless of race."

In Belgium and France, the concept of blackface is not as controversial as it is in the US, where the practice was basically phased out of society following the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, although high-profile incidences periodically surface in America, particularly around Halloween.

In 2013, a journalist for French ELLE stirred up controversy abroad after posting an image of herself disguised as Solange Knowles on Instagram. She later issued a public apology, saying that she, "didn't realize the seriousness of her action."

Follow Mélodie Bouchaud on Twitter: @meloboucho

Image via Wikimedia Commons