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14 Sep, 2019 15:11

How to wear blackface & get away with it: For starters, be a Belgian minister

How to wear blackface & get away with it: For starters, be a Belgian minister

Wearing blackface regardless of time and context is definitely one of the deadly sins in cancel culture scripture. So should this politician slated for the EU Commission brace himself for a mob with virtual torches and pitchforks?

Didier Reynders was recently nominated EU Commissioner for Justice after a long and storied career in Belgium. Currently both the foreign affairs and defense minister under Belgian PM Charles Michel, Reynders has held a post in government continuously since 1998.

But he may prefer to forget one not so distant episode in his lengthy public service career now that he is going international. In 2015, the minister donned blackface paint for the annual gathering of a philanthropic group known as the “Noirauds” (“Blacks,” roughly), who help to raise funds for disadvantaged children. While few took issue with the group’s goals, the festive costumes of its members – tail coats, top hats, ruffled collars, and blackface – was another story.

The attire did draw some criticism when Reynders wore it. European media director for Human Rights Watch, Andrew Stroehlein, assailed Reynders for participating in the festival, calling it “shocking and embarrassing,” and mused whether Reynders ought to lose his post in government.

Wouter Van Bellingen, a Belgian politician who then headed up the country’s Minorities Forum, said the move was “inappropriate” and showed Reynders’ “total lack of empathy for people of color.”

The politician not only survived the controversy but was rewarded with the defense portfolio in December 2018, and now with the nomination for EU Justice Commissioner, in charge of the rule of law and consumer protection.

This was probably not that surprising. Europeans’ sensibilities about blackface are not as acute as those in America, and four years ago woke outrage wasn't the career killer it is now. Even now some of its victims sink like comedian and actress Sarah Silverman and some swim like Virginia Governor Ralph Northam.

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The Noirauds themselves do not deny that the face paint is meant to mimic the appearance of Africans. A page on the group’s website states: “When we were founded in 1876, we [were] in the middle of a period of discovery of Africa,” adding that the costume “represents the African notables.”

European “discovery” of the continent certainly left not only traditions that didn’t age well, but plenty of misery and horrors. In particular, Belgian King Leopold II ruled Congo as a personal colony from 1885 to 1908, when it was transferred to state control after the scale of abuses and atrocities that happened there became known to the European public.

Recognizing the “spirit of the times,” and perhaps the widespread view that blackface minstrel shows are offensive or demeaning, the Noirauds decided earlier this year to change their get-up, opting to paint their faces the colors of the Belgian flag.

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While Reynders’ abundant experience in governing may qualify him for the EU Commission portfolio, it remains to be seen whether his nomination will be approved in the European Parliament. The position will certainly make his public profile transatlantic, so the minister’s contentious past might still trigger culture warriors across the pond and come back to bite him.

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