In June 2020, after yet another senseless killing of an African American man at the hands of the state, many streets in the world were filled with people protesting the structural and institutional discrimination and racism against Black people and People of Colour around the world. Some of those streets were in Belgium.
In June 2020, many governments, companies, institutions and organizations expressed their support for the Black Lives Matter movement, insisting they will make an active effort to curb the still existent structural and institutional form of racism waged against Black people and People of Colour. Some of those statements were issued by faculties and student associations within our university, KU Leuven.
Were these Black Lives Matter statements mere performative activism? Or were they substantial promises foreshadowing institutional and structural change?
The beginning of December, with the annual appearance of Black Pete, is a time that has been a regular reminder and a physical manifestation of the structural and institutional racism directed towards Black people in Belgium. Black Pete is Sinterklaas’ helper who dons a blackface, large and thick red lips and a black Afro wig with golden hoop earrings.
If Black lives matter to the KU Leuven faculties, policy offices and student associations that issued statements that expressed this sentiment, we also hope that they are taking a clear stance against the continuation of this racist practice in their environment. If not, those statements in June are tangible examples of organisations and institutions engaging in only performative activism.
If the lives of Black students and Black staff members within KU Leuven matter, they should matter all year round.
Black Pete in his current form originates from the colonial period. As UNDIVIDED, we have been demanding the decolonization of our curricula and university at large ever since our inception (two years ago). We thus demand that the university and its (student) associations no longer allow the use of blackface in the form of Black Pete on its premises and during activities within the university.
What are decolonized alternatives, you may ask?
Queen Nikkolah, a female Sinterklaas of Rwandan descent is an alternative established in 2017.
Some have already been using the alternative of Soot Pete. This alternative is truly inclusive if it is indeed stripped off of all of the racist caricatures that made Black Pete a problem in the first place. This means that the Soot Pete should not have the big red lips and the Afro wig.