Tired of racism charge, Belgian 'Blackies' change colours

Brussels (AFP) –


The "Noirauds" or "Blackies" -- a group that marks Belgium's annual carnival season by charitable fund-raising in black face paint -- have changed their colours.

From now on, they announced Wednesday, they will collect funds for underprivileged kids in Brussels' bars and bistros adorned with the colours of the Belgian flag.

The group hopes that, with red and yellow stripes alongside the traditional black, their costume will no longer attract comparison to racist "blackface" caricatures.

Not that they accept that the dark face, tall hat and white ruff outfit -- traditionally supposed to represent the garb of an African gentleman -- was ever offensive. They just want to avoid criticism.

"We've been thinking of evolving for a few years," former Noiraud president Albert Vermeiren told AFP.

The group wants to "avoid arguments" or "hurting the feelings of those who feel the black make-up isn't up-to-date".

In recent years the group, whose honorary chairwoman is Paola, the former queen of the Belgians, has come under increasing scrutiny and international criticism.

The tradition recalls America's now notorious minstrel shows and echoes the "Black Pete" character who helps St Nicholas celebrate Christmas in Belgium and the Netherlands.

But it has been criticised in Belgium -- the former colonial power in Congo, Rwanda and Burundi and home to a growing population of African descent.

And four years ago, when Belgian foreign minister Didier Reynders took part in the Noiraud collection in the costume, he was criticised by foreign activists and celebrities.

The volunteers themselves say the face paint affords them anonymity as they pursue their charitable goals, but that the red-black-yellow compromise would be more "festive".

The group's new leader, Luc Rentmeesters, said he pushed through the change despite reluctance from traditionalists, and his predecessor admits there are grumbles.

"Frankly, they are those who say 'Why back down?' but it's a minority. It's a shame, but on the other hand its important that we be welcome when we go to restaurants," Vermeiren said.

The first public outing in its new patriotic colours will come on Saturday, when Brussels revellers will give their verdict.

And an important supporter will join in.

Brussels' symbolic champion, the urinating Mannekin Pis child statue, will no longer be blacked up for the occasion, but sport a miniature version of the new look face paint.