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Portraits Of Racism: Yesterday, Today, And...?


Letter From Brussels

PORTRAITS OF RACISM: YESTERDAY, TODAY, AND...?

An intrepid dog walker, I've had occasion to visit more parks in Brussels than most, which is how I discovered the statues. A weathered one in Square de Meeus, a pocket park near the Royal Palace, extols the virtues of a Belgian general who "civilized" Tanganyika. A larger one in Cinquantenaire Park, just a block from European Community headquarters, depicts brave Belgian pioneers carrying the word of God and the benefits of European culture to the "primitive" Africans.

And then there's . . . well, you get the idea. People in Brussels don't put black jockey boys on their lawns, but not all that many people would object if they did. When it comes to racial sensitivity, Brussels isn't exactly progressive. But that may be changing.

A few weeks ago, some trailblazing Bruxellois opened an exhibit that examines how whites through the ages have created black stereotypes of savagery, intellectual inferiority, and sexual potency that have contributed to racism. With a disturbing collection of 3,500 advertising posters, books, documents, dolls, statues, and videos to draw people in, they began something new for Brussels: a racial dialogue. Schoolchildren are trooping through the former factory that houses the exhibit, listening to lectures by earnest guides and teachers. And the exhibit has sparked dozens of articles, panel shows, and call-in programs that have drawn thousands of citizens into the debate about the insidiousness of racial stereotypes. "I know it's impossible to end racism with this exhibit," says Danny Jacobs, who helps administer the show, "but we hope it will be an eye-opener about things people see every day that reinforce racism."

The visitors' book at the exhibit is filled with angry comments from people like Dominiek Lootens, a supporter of the racist Vlaams Blok party, who wrote: "We say `no' to a multiracial society!" But there were no obvious remarks from blacks, and I saw none at the exhibit, so I called an acquaintance, Jacques Collet, to see if he would be interested in a visit.

SNUBS. Collet lives in both black and white worlds in Belgium. Born of a Belgian father and a Rwandan mother, Collet, a light-skinned 44-year-old, is so Belgian in speech, mannerisms, and personal tastes that he mingles easily in white society. Casual acquaintances, apparently made comfortable by his European ways, routinely tell racist jokes in his presence. "They usually apologize in advance," he says, "but it doesn't dampen their enthusiasm." Nor ease the sting.

At the exhibit, Collet began with 18th century engravings and books about slaves. Two hours later, his interest had not flagged as he studied a fascinating collection of 20th century advertising memorabilia donated by Rufus Collins, an American black. Various images depict blacks as monkeys and gorillas, cannibals and buffoons on hundreds of boxes, tins, posters, and trinkets that promoted the dark richness of chocolate, tobacco, rum, shoe polish, and licorice. A recent Chiquita banana poster shows a young black woman wearing only a necklace and skirt, both made entirely of Chiquita's finest. And there is a billboard that can still be seen around Brussels showing a grass-skirted black witch doctor jumping in amazement over a bottle of French mineral water captioned: "It's Magic!"

"I saw many of these images when I was a child," Collet said later as we chatted. "I thought many of them were funny at the time. But seeing them now, it's quite different."

He seemed more sad than angry. "Racism here isn't as aggressive as it is in the United States," he said. "It doesn't show itself so brutally." For example, he lives in the white neighborhood of Ixelles and says he has never had any difficulties there because of the color of his skin. Still, everyday life is full of stinging racial snubs. Functionaries in Brussels' "honor system" subway check his ticket but not those of surrounding whites. Policemen tend to address him with the familiar "tu" form of the French "you," reserved for children, servants, and very close friends.

For all these indignities, Collet points out, Brussels' small community of Zairians, Burundians, Rwandans, and other Africans are not likely to be firebombed or beaten in the street. Dark-skinned Arabs are another matter. "For them, there's real hatred," he says.

In May, thousands of Arabs here rioted for four days after police hassled some kids about identity cards. "The police don't ask for identity cards if you're black," Collet says. He has a theory that blacks are tolerated more easily than Turks and Arabs because "we're not a threat to them like the Arabs, who keep coming here by the thousands to find work. They think of us as very musical children--their little brown brothers whose countries once belonged to Belgium. It's very condescending."

Collet also says that nationalism is an issue along with racism. He tells the story of trying to enter a nightclub many years ago and being turned away by a bouncer because he didn't have a member's card. Collet, then completing his military service, saw others entering without cards, so he returned half an hour later wearing his army uniform. "I got in with no problem."

NICE-SOUNDING. Because he had a Belgian father, Collet is a Belgian citizen. He has a legal right to equal access to whatever work he wants. And he attributes his general acceptance here to the fact that he is well-established as a Belgian. "Initially, my landlady was a little shocked when the nice-sounding Belgian man on the phone turned out to be me," he joked. "But that's long forgotten."

Overall, blacks and immigrants make up 9% of Belgium's 10 million people. But because the law makes it virtually impossible for them to become Belgians, they get second-class treatment when it comes to jobs, housing, training, education, and social security. Just before the Arab riots in May, Paula D'Hondt, the royal commissioner for immigrants, issued a report urging an end to such inequities to avoid violence. She also proposed that a national board be set up to deal with discrimination. "Fewer than five people in the government have read my report--even the four-page summary," she said just after the riots.

Danny Jacobs and the other organizers of the racism exhibit have been more successful than D'Hondt in drawing attention to the problem. But for all the coverage they've gotten, they still have a long way to go in raising racial sensitivity among local media. Just before the May riots, a leading city paper ran a photo of a Nigerian soccer player involved in a fog-plagued match. The caption read: "Gorilla in the Mist."PATRICK OSTER Oster reports for BUSINESS WEEK from Brussels.


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