For the first time in its existence, the European Parliament has taken a clear political position on the black face practice. According to Marike Lefevre, the European Parliament’s resolution on the anti-racism protests following George Floyd’s death constitutes a push towards abolishing the practice of black painting of faces to portray a certain character.
Recently, the European Parliament passed a resolution on the anti-racist protests following the death of George Floyd, the African-American man who died in the city of Minneapolis due to police violence. The resolution states, among other things, that the European Parliament condemns white supremacy in all its forms, including the use of slogans that aim to undermine or detract from the Black Lives Matter movement and dilute its significance. The Parliament supports the recent massive protests in European capitals and cities all around the world against racism and discrimination following the death of George Floyd and believes that our society needs to put an end to structural racism and inequalities.
The following amendment (see operative clause 16), which was also adopted by the Parliament (415 votes in favour, 216 votes against, 55 abstentions), is particularly noteworthy: “The European Parliament calls on the Member States to denounce and refrain from racist and Afrophobic traditions, such as the black face practice.”
Blackface in Europe?
The practice of blackface mentioned in the amendment can be dated back to the so-called minstrel shows: theatre performances in which (mainly white) actors would paint their faces black to caricature Afro-American slaves. In these musical shows Afro-Americans were mocked and depicted as foolhardy and primitive. The practice made its appearance in the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century. Influenced by the civil rights movement, the practice in the United States came to an end in the second half of the 20th century. Given these historical roots, blackface is a highly sensitive and emotionally charged issue today.
Not only in the US but in Europe as well, the black or brown make-up of a white person applied to depict a black/brown character clearly stirs up strong emotions. This practice can occasionally be seen in television programs and plays and is clearly present in certain traditions in Europe.
Think about the tradition of ‘Sinterklaas en Zwarte Piet’ (The Saint and Black Pete) in Belgium and in the Netherlands. The figure of ‘Zwarte Piet’ is criticized for its stereotypical caricatural characteristics, including a completely brown/blackened skin, frizzy hair, thick red lips and a smiley, silly attitude while serving his master Sinterklaas. Today, therefore, other images of ‘Zwarte Piet’ are presented. There are ‘Kleurenpieten’ (Coloured Petes) with faces in different colours such as red, blue, yellow and green (according to some because the ship of the Saint and his Petes sailed through the rainbow). Furthermore, there are also ‘Roetpieten’ (Soot Petes) whose face is covered with traces of chimney soot (as they come through the chimney to deliver the presents to the children). However, these alternative versions meet with resistance from certain individuals/groups who believe that ‘Zwarte Piet’ should continue to exist in what they consider to be the traditional form, i.e. a face that is painted completely black with the corresponding stereotypical characteristics. Whether this form is the original traditional form, is debatable, since the figure of ‘Zwarte Piet’ has changed several times throughout history. Moreover, his image still differs in various regions in Europe today.
European member of parliament Hilde Vautmans (Open VLD), claims she voted against the amendment because she does not want the Black Pete or the Soot Pete to disappear. However, this argument is not valid as the figure of the Pete in itself is not affected by the amendment. Only the stereotypical African characteristics referring to blackface are criticized. Soot Petes and Coloured Petes (stripped of the stereotypes) are not targeted.
Lesser-known traditions in Europe similarly cause commotion because they include blackface characters. For example, participants in the annual parade of the Belgian association ‘Noirauds des Bruxelles‘ paint their faces black and wear a contrasting white collar and high hat. Thus adorned they travel through the city to raise money for underprivileged children in Brussels cafés and restaurants. The ‘Noirauds’ represent so-called rich African nobles. In recent years, however, this tradition is being called into question. EU-commissioner Didier Reynders, for example, had to answer for his participation in the parade in which he was disguised as ‘Noiraud’ in 2015. A petition was even launched demanding that he resigned as (then) Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs. Due to increasing pressure, the association declared at the beginning of 2019 that they would no longer blacken their faces: ‘In folklore we like to stick to our old traditions. But we have a charitable mission‘, it said, ‘That mission is threatened by the fuss over our appearance. That’s why we want to evolve‘. Therefore, from now on the members parade in the colors of the Belgian flag.
The Carnival ball ‘Nuit des Noirs’ in Dunkirk in France also caused quite a stir. The participants have been painting their faces black for more than fifty years and have been dressing up with headdresses of hair with feathers, loincloths and chains of bones. Finally, the figure of ‘Le Sauvage d’Ath’ in the Walloon town of Ath in Belgium caused a similar commotion. This ‘Savage of Ath’ is a character from the procession of the traditional folk festival ‘La Ducasse d’Ath‘, which has been on the Unesco list of intangible cultural heritage since 2005. Le Sauvage de Ath is a black-painted man with a nose ring, a plumage and chains and is considered in Ath to be one of the central figures of the parade. Several anti-racism associations have made their voices heard loudly and clearly about this and claim that these renditions are racist and humiliating. They state that these interpretations contribute to stereotyping, discrimination and racism against black people.
Impact of this resolution?
Altough there are lots of traditions that cause commotion through their use of blackface, there was no common position among the European Union countries prior to this resolution. Although the resolution has changed that, its impact should not be overestimated. Being a resolution of the European Parliament, it only expresses the Parliament’s position on a particular subject. The resolution has political meaning, but it does not conclude anything. Resolutions of the European Parliament do not contain concrete regulations and do not expel action. The purpose of a resolution is to encourage the European Union, albeit within its powers, to take action and to develop concrete proposals. Incidentally, this is not the first political signal of this kind. In the past, the United Nations has expressed its concerns towards the Netherlands regarding the performance of Zwarte Piet.
This resolution can thus be seen as a push towards abolishing the practice of black painting of faces in order to portray a certain character. After all, it is the first time that the European Parliament takes a clear political stance on the contested practices using blackface. What consequences the Member States will give to this remains to be seen.
Marike Lefevre is a PhD researcher specializing in human rights law at the Leuven Centre for Public Law. She is working on a PhD in the framework of the FWO research project: “Popular Culture on Trial: European Human Rights as Agents of Cultural Change or Conservation?”.
An earlier version of this post appeared in Knack on 3 July 2020.
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