Wouter Van Bellingen: Black Pete is an aberration that will become history

by , under Enrique Tessieri

Wouter Van Bellingen, 45, is a Flemish human rights’ activist who has fought for racial justice in Belgium. One of the issues that he has challenged is the racist legacy of Black Pete (or Zwarte Piet). Apart from issues like cultural appropriation and disrespect for minorities like blacks, the United Nations declared in 2015 that Black Pete was a “vestige of slavery.”  

Elected in 2007 as the deputy mayor of Sint-Niklaas, Van Bellingen became the first black deputy mayor of Belgium. Presently is the director of Integration Pact (Integratiepact), an association that promotes integration and inclusion of migrants and minorities in Belgium.

Every year Flemish- and Dutch-speakers celebrate Black Pete from the end of October to December 6.

Van Bellingen remembers as a child and adolescent growing up in Flanders that Black Pete was “mental torture” for him and other black children.  Blacks are the most discriminated group in Belgium and at the lower end of the poverty scale. Black Pete reinforces stereotypes about blacks like belittling their intelligence, according to him.

“Since my classmates knew me they didn’t mess with me at school,” said Van Bellingen. “They [white children and adults before] would come up to total strangers and touch your skin and ask if it was going to stain them. It is not a joke. Some believed that our black skin stained theirs.”

Van Bellingen said that when he was a child, he avoided going to stores because total strangers would stop him on the street and yell, “Look Black Pete!”

“I went to see an MP last week, and her daughter, who was of mixed race asked if she could scrub her dark skin and become white,” he said.

Despite the racism that Black Pete brings out in white people who pay homage to this offensive character to blacks and minorities, Van Bellingen says that matters are improving.

“Matters are getting better in Belgium,” he added. “If you looked at the shops five years ago, you could find Black Pete everywhere. I believe it will eventually vanish.”

Van Bellingen said that his children will still have to suffer “the mental torture” he went through, but by the time he has grandchildren, Black Pete character will become history.

“The majority of the people who live in Antwerp have immigrant backgrounds,” he continued. “The majority disapprove of this practice. It will first disappear in Flanders and then in the Netherlands.”

 


 

Wouter Van Bellingen, who became Belgium’s first black deputy major in 2007, has campaigned fearlessly against Black Pete/Zwart Piet. Photo by Enrique Tessieri.

Growing up with Black Pete got worse for Van Bellingen as he got older.

“I always knew that Black Pete was not a normal thing,” he continued. “At the age of seventeen, I became more aware of the problem, and in 2007, I met an American who told me about Black Pete and how offensive it was.”

Van Bellingen said that when he was a child he could somehow cope with the whole thing, but in his 20s it got unbearable.

“It was at that point when I thought about doing something to stop Black Pete,” he explained. “When I spoke out against this character, people didn’t take me seriously at first but laughed. They said that there was nothing wrong with Black Pete because he was a nice person.”

Those laughs that Van Bellingen received when he started to challenge Black Pete from 2007 openly turned later on to  death threats and hate speech.

 


 

 

An old Swart Pete with Saint Nicholas and a newer version without him in shops in Antwerp this month.

According to Van Bellingen, there are fundamental differences between the reasons behind Black Pete in the Netherlands and in Belgium.

“In Flanders, we are mainly Catholics and in the Netherlands, people are mostly Protestant,” he explained. “Catholics have saints and not servants like in the Netherlands. While Belgium was involved in the slave trade, contrary to the Netherlands, blacks from their colonies weren’t allowed to live in Belgium.”

Black Pete made its way to Flanders in the 1860s, but Dutch television had a significant impact on its spread in Belgium.

“Traditions have changed over 40 years in Belgium,” he said. “Before women used to be housewives and today that is not normal anymore. There were also in 1958 human zoos in Belgium with black people. By respecting ‘traditions,’ it means that I must be stuck in a cage [like in the human zoos of the past].”

  1. Toiset Soundit

    “Every year Flemish- and Dutch-speakers celebrate Black Pete from the end of October to December 6”

    Also French speakers celebrate it. Please correct, Belgium is a bilingual state. In Wallonia and bilingual Brussels people also celebrate Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, only there they refer to the blackfaced character as le père fouettard.

    On top of that Flemish is no language. We speak Dutch, albeit a variant, like English has variants, speaking of Flemish as a language is belittling, and is in fact a form of cultural appropriation. Please correct. I agree with the rest of the text. The Piet-thing has racist connotations and I think this tradition needs to be changed.

    Note however that Van Bellingen is a nationalist (was born in a family of Flemish nationalists and was member of Spirit, a so-called left-wing Flemish nationalist party which collaborated with the social-democrats) and is considered a total failure as a manager by actors in the field of diversity, integration and migration. Take my word for it.

    He is indeed responsible for the Integratiepact, which is a fetish of the radical right NVA-minister Liesbeth Homans.

    By the way Enrique: Onnea Suomi 100 vuottaa. Also migrants are part of Finland. Maybe people with migrant background like you should voice their love of the nation a little more explicitly, I am sure there are tons of ’em who do. But not Enrique, no he thinks inclusion and integration is a one way thing.

    Instead Enrique prefers to rake up a story concerning Belgium and the Netherlands instead. Priorities, priorities.

    Cheers

    TS

  2. Toiset Soundit

    “Every year Flemish- and Dutch-speakers celebrate Black Pete from the end of October to December 6”

    Also French speakers celebrate it. Please correct, Belgium is a bilingual state. In Wallonia and bilingual Brussels people also celebrate Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, only there they refer to the blackfaced character as le père fouettard.

    On top of that Flemish is no language. We speak Dutch, albeit a variant, like English has variants, speaking of Flemish as a language is belittling, and is in fact a form of cultural appropriation. Please correct. I agree with the rest of the text. The Piet-thing has racist connotations and I think this tradition needs to be changed.

    Note however that Van Bellingen is a nationalist (was born in a family of Flemish nationalists and was member of Spirit, a so-called left-wing Flemish nationalist party which collaborated with the social-democrats) and is considered a total failure as a manager by actors in the field of diversity, integration and migration. Take my word for it.

    He is indeed responsible for the Integratiepact, which is a fetish of the radical right NVA-minister Liesbeth Homans.

    By the way Enrique: Onnea Suomi 100 vuottaa. Also migrants are part of Finland. Maybe people with migrant background like you should voice their love of the nation a little more explicitly, I am sure there are tons of ’em who do. But not Enrique, no he thinks inclusion and integration is a one way thing.

    Instead Enrique prefers to rake up a story concerning Belgium and the Netherlands instead. Priorities, priorities.

    Cheers

    TS

  3. Migrant Tales

    His TS, thank you for your comments. We can split hairs about whether Flemish and Dutch are the same languages. People in Belgium, those from Flanders, don’t tell you that they speak “Dutch” but Flemish or flamenco in Spanish. With respect to Wouter, I know him personally since he is a member of the European Network Against Racism board, like me. Is it easy to be a black person growing up in Belgium? Moreover, if you read the Rosa Emilia Clay story by Hodo, it is our way of paying hommage to Finland’s 100th-anniversary celebrations. By the way, if you want to get technical, I’m not a person “of migrant background.” Technically, I’m a person “of Finnish background” because my mother is Finnish. I didn’t make up these classifications so don’t blame me.