Facebook banning pictures of people in blackface has unleashed accusations of censure from the Belgian far right.
The Vlaams Belang party said Wednesday that Facebook’s decision was an “attack on our traditions.” The party said it will prepare a resolution with other lawmakers in the European Parliament to condemn “arbitrary censure on social media” and demand that the European Commission step in.
The social media giant’s decision to ban racist depictions of Black people and Jews put it in the middle of a cultural rift over the Dutch and Belgian winter tradition of Sinterklaas, dragging Facebook into a debate that traditionally resurfaces every holiday season.
The festival features a character called “Black Pete,” a blacked up helper of the elderly Saint Nicholas. Activist groups say the custom is racist.
Recent attempts to modify the character to be streaked with soot instead have faced pushback and Facebook’s move was met with calls to flood social media with Black Pete images.
Philippe De Backer, Belgium’s caretaker minister of digital affairs, warned in the aftermath of the 2018 Cambridge Analytica data breach scandal that Big Tech shouldn’t become “arbiters of what we’re thinking.” Vlaams Belang said the same principle now applies to Black Pete.
Some rights groups welcomed the move. “It’s never censure to address injustice,” said Jerry Afriyie of the Dutch anti-racism collective Nederland Wordt Beter. “Racism isn’t an opinion.”
Afriyie said Facebook did what politicians have not. “If society can’t solve racism, then you get commercial companies that have to step in.”
Anti-racism demonstrations in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in the U.S. have compelled some to change tack. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said in June his position on Black Pete had undergone “major changes.”
In a reaction on Twitter Tuesday, Egbert Lachaert, the leader of the Flemish Liberals, said the Black Pete custom isn’t racist.
However, Sihame El Kaouakibi, a member of the same party, said she’s happy that companies are “taking responsibility” on their platforms: “Blackface is a problem. For many children.”