“These blackface events constitute so many acts of symbolic violence towards the black communities of Belgium — acts that are mirrored by the acts of real physical violence and material discrimination that the same communities also encounter, and which we have constantly and systematically denounced,” the petition by the Brussels Panthers says.
The Ducasse d’Ath festival has drawn spectators to the Belgian town on the fourth Sunday of August for six centuries. Originally intended to commemorate the consecration of the local parish and its patron saint, the parade has since grown to include 22 floats of brightly colored “giants” representing historical or religious figures.
UNESCO — the United Nations’ agency dedicated to culture, science and education — added the festival to its list of traditions and practices across the world that should be protected as “intangible cultural heritage” in 2005. The criteria for this designation describes these practices as “inclusive” and “representative” of the places where they occur.
“While fragile, intangible cultural heritage is an important factor in maintaining cultural diversity in the face of growing globalization,” UNESCO’s online description reads, “an understanding of the intangible cultural heritage of different communities helps with intercultural dialogue, and encourages mutual respect for other ways of life.”
But the Brussels Panthers have pointed to one particular character in the Ducasse d’Ath procession that they say is antithetical to this goal: the “savage.”
The character — played by a white Belgian man wearing blackface, a large nose ring, a headdress and chains — has appeared on a parade float each year since 1873. “The ‘savage,’ chained and agitated, testifies to the taste of exoticism in the 19th century,” the town’s website for the festival says.
The mayor’s office in Ath released a statement Wednesday saying the mayor, Bruno Lefebvre, met with activists to “ease tensions.” The town will start a dialogue after this year’s festival to consider changing the parade — but on Sunday, the “savage” will appear as planned.
The statement acknowledged that blackface “could have a Negrophobic character," while defending Ath’s “savage” as a “super star” and not a “racist character.”
“We understand that some may be shocked by the character as such,” Lefebvre said. “We need, as hosts, to be pedagogical and didactic.”
UNESCO could not be reached for comment.
Anti-racism activists have decried the character as a racist and colonialist glorification of Belgium’s colonial past. Belgium’s King Leopold II colonized what is now Congo in the 1880s, ruthlessly exploiting workers there to harvest rubber and using violence to terrorize the local population into submission.
More than half a century after Congo achieved independence in 1960, Belgium is still grappling with this history. The country’s Africa museum overhauled its exhibits this year in an attempt to remove racist images, but critics have said the institution didn’t go far enough. And the museum drew international condemnation this month when some guests wore blackface and colonial garb to a party there. (The institution has since apologized).
Blackface, widely seen as a racist relic of Jim Crow-era minstrelsy in the United States, remains ubiquitous in Belgium and other European countries. In 2015, Belgian foreign minister Didier Reynders dressed up in blackface at a rally. And the Netherlands has continued a controversial Christmastime traditional that includes blackface.
By petitioning UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay to remove the Ducasse d’Ath festival’s cultural heritage designation, Belgian activists hope to draw attention to this wider phenomenon, Brussels Panthers spokesman Mouhad Reghif said in an interview.
“We thought, if we can stop this character in that carnival, which is really famous and recognized by UNESCO, maybe blackface will stop in Belgium,” he said.
Reghif called anti-black racism a “big problem” in Belgium, and he said supposedly entertaining events such as parades hide its more pernicious roots and effects.
“It is the duty and the responsibility of all of us to work to spread a culture of tolerance and peace, but this will never be realised as long as some of us are still the target of negrophobic acts, and as long as so many popular and social events contain negrophobic elements,” the petition to UNESCO reads.
Activists and academics from across the world have signed the document, which Brussels Panthers sent to UNESCO two weeks ago. Reghif said the group has not yet received a response.
UNESCO’s director-general cannot strike events or practices from the intangible cultural heritage list unilaterally. A special committee reviews requests for adding or removing listings, but member states and the U.N. General Assembly must sign off on most changes.
Earlier this year, UNESCO formally condemned a float in another Belgian carnival in Aalst as racist and anti-Semitic, and the body began a process to reconsider that festival’s cultural heritage status. A U.N. group of experts separately called on Belgium to do more to recognize “the violence and injustice of its colonial past.”
This year’s festival in Ath will kick off this weekend. Activists plan to protest the parade, Reghif said, despite having received hundreds of threats in the weeks since Brussels Panthers circulated their petition.