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].”