Belgian festival faces pressure over blackface 'Savage' character

Belgian festival faces pressure over blackface 'Savage' character
By Gregoire LoryJack Parrock
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Pressure is mounting for UNESCO to remove a Belgian festival from its cultural heritage list. The a blackface character known as 'the savage' in a parade in the town of Ath has drawn strong criticism from anti-racist campaigners.


The days could be numbered for the blackface character called the 'Savage' at the annual festival in the Belgian city of Ath. The collective Brussels Panthères accuses the figure of being racist. In 2008 UNESCO assigned this event - called Ducasse - as a piece of intangible cultural heritage. This weekend, Unesco called for respect between communities.

"It is a fact that it is a racist character, this racist character participates in maintaining the dehumanization of black people. I have a friend in Ath who is of African descent, who is black, and she happened to come across cross a child in the street, a small child, and he started to cry because in her, he recognizes the 'savage'. So children ask her for a 'savage kiss' because as she is black, he identifies her with the savage and the savage kisses everyone," explains Mouhad Reghif, spokesperson of Bruxelles Panthères.

Ducasse officials argue there's nothing racist about this character. They emphasize that the procession and its figures have evolved through the centuries to adapt to society. They say these adjustments require time.

"This festival is an old lady, it is a old lady of six centuries. It has been evolving at its own pace for 600 years and of course it adapts to society, the savage has evolved since its creation. And he will evolve again. But a 600-year-old lady must accept her rhythm, you have to accept this long history and these changes are made with nuance and not with a rifle in the back," explains Laurent Dubuisson, director of the House of Giants of Ath.

Many inhabitants insist there's nothing racist about the 'Savage' character and consider it important folklore. But the accusations of racism are unlikely to abate.

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