UNESCO believes that four-day carnival in Ath, Belgium is a racist event due to blackface of one of its traditionally negative character, The Local Europe reported. The human rights activists said the annual festival is an ‘act of symbolic violence towards black communities’, and the UN’s cultural agency intends to remove the controversial festival from the list of the world cultural heritage.
The four-day carnival in Ath gets underway on Friday, the event feature “the savage”, a white man in blackface, who wears a chain around his neck and a ring through his nose. The organizers explain on the official festival website, “the ‘savage’, chained and agitated, testifies to the taste for the exotic of the 19th century”.
The “savage” character appears on one of 22 floats that process through the small town of Ath on the last Sunday of August. The carnival also usually includes a blackface devil character, dressed in black cloak with red horns.
Anti-racism campaigners from the Brussels Panthers have urged UNESCO to remove a Belgian festival from its cultural heritage list unless organizers stop parading characters in blackface, said Mouhad Reghif, spokesman for the activists.
The Brussels Panthers claim in its letter to UNESCO that the character was “adorned with all the humiliating signs that our racist societies have projected on to black people throughout history”.
Ath event was listed as part of the “intangible cultural heritage of humanity” by UNESCO in 2005.
Blackface at Ath has serious consequences across Europe
The activists draw attention to the folklore festival because of its controversy. The letter to UNESCO describes blackface at Ath and other similar fests as “acts of symbolic violence towards the black communities of Belgium”.
“There remains the attitudes of the 1950s and 60s that Belgium brought civilisation to the Congo [its former colony] and colonialism was something good. With this we maintain negrophobia and white supremacy that was born in colonial times,” Reghif said.
The centuries-old festival traces its roots to a late medieval parade to consecrate a church, but the savage character did not appear until 1873.
Laurent Dubuisson, a historian who runs Ath’s House of Giants museum, which houses models and costumes, rejected the charge of racism.
“The whole town, they have been a little surprised by the polemic, because this personage, the savage, is the most popular. This character is a real star of the Ath festival,” Dubuisson added.