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Black Speaks Back discusses what it is like being black in Belgian society

“We want to show that we deserve our place and that we won’t be silent” says Emma-Lee, initiator and founder of Black Speaks Back; a Brussels-based movement that discusses what it is like being black in Belgian society. Can you understand racism if you’ve never experienced it? Black Speaks Back tries to explain what it feels like. In their short movies, they discuss various subjects regarding blackness in a white discourse. Or, alternatively: how racism is deeply rooted in our society.

The online world gives voice to a variety of socially engaged groups to tell their stories. Among these socially engaged groups, there are many postcolonial movements who claim their place in the online world. Black Speaks Back is one of these.

Text: Flore De Pauw


The movie ‘Black’

Founded nearly a year ago Black Speaks Back is an idea that had been growing a few months. The incentive was the Belgian movie Black. Black tells the story of two rival gangs based in Brussels: one of the gangs consists of people with a Maghreb background, the other gang of people with a dark skin. The picture presents the audience a black/white image of how the people in the two gangs behave and live.

Once again, the people in the ‘black’ gang are portrayed as violent, criminal and undereducated. Emma-Lee, founder of Black Speaks Back, was tired of this representation. The worst part was that it had even been internalized by other people of color (POC). She decided that she wanted to speak back. And that’s exactly what she did: with like-minded people, she started a movement that tackles different issues of being black in a white society. This is because the movie Black isn’t the only medium that portrays black people in a very biased way. The in 2017 released documentary I Am Not Your Negro (by Raoul Peck) shows us the history of profiling black people in a very clear way.

The doll experiment initiated by Kenneth and Mamie Clark shows an ugly truth as well. In this experiment, the two scientists showed children an identical black and white doll and asked which doll they preferred and wanted to play with. The majority of the children chose the white doll as the ‘best’ one. Even though this experiment was done in in the late 1930s and 1940, recreations show the same outcome. (sidenote: Robin Bernstein has a different interpretation of this experiment.)



Building bridges with video

Black Speaks Back had a message to tell, but how would they transfer their stories? One of the first ideas was organizing a debate evening. But that idea raised some questions. First of all: there are already a lot of debate evenings and it’s not easy to stand out. Furthermore, the things discussed during an evening aren’t always recorded so can’t be reproduced.

The final, and maybe most important issue, was that debate evenings attract the same audience of like-minded people: highly educated people of color and a limited group of white, middle class people. The goal was to spread the message as wide as possible. The solution for all of these problems were short online videos. Short YouTube videos are easy to watch and share so they’re perfect for Black Speaks Back’s message. The movies would look like this: four to five people debating a certain subject for ten minutes or less. These movies are uploaded to Black Speaks Back’s social media channels and this way, the movies are ready to be shared.



Safe space in a white discourse

The intention was that recording videos would be done in a safe space, which makes sure that POC are able to speak their minds without direct confrontation from a racist audience. . A place where the debaters could freely express their thoughts. Of course, YouTube is not a totally safe space after all. The comment section of a YouTube video can attract unwanted or unpleasant comments, particularly when issues of race are discussed.

The fact that Black Speaks Back identifies itself as a separate group of people that share the same experience isn’t acceptable for everyone. Some white people ask themselves why it is necessary to create a separate group if you’re talking about inclusion. Wouldn’t it be better to involve everybody, white people as well? Emma-Lee’s reaction is the following: “I feel like some of the people who ask those questions don’t understand their role when it comes to segregation. It’s not that white people literally tell me to get out but the historical structures do make me feel like I don’t have a place here.” She continues: “when you are welcome, you’re not expected to show too much of your roots, to ask political questions or to have an opinion on skin colour. Your task is to fit in, to behave like the others.”

Emma-Lee isn’t convinced that we’ve achieved a diverse society yet. “A white discourse can’t produce real diversity. The first step towards diversity would be for the majority to look history right in the eyes. Both the Netherlands and Belgium have a colonial past that is more often ignored than talked about. You have to understand why there are so many Congolese people in Belgium and you have to understand why there are so many Surinamese or Antillean people in the Netherlands. As long as this past is being ignored, we have to separate ourselves so we can fight this injustice as a collective.”


Afro futuristic musicalfilm

Black Speaks Back has its own way of online youth participation. The movement makes online videos to spread their message. One of their upcoming projects will be an afro-futuristic musical film that’s part of a BOZAR-project, called Next Generation, please! The latter is a project in which groups of youngsters re-write the European story and Black Speaks Back is one of those groups. ‘What will Europe look like in the future?’ is what they ask themselves. During the weekend of 30 September and 1 October, Afro-European artists from all over Europe tried to answer this question. In the following months, this group of people will create a film that shows what their Europe will look like and this movie will be presented during a Bozar festival in May.

This way, the next generation of Afro-descendants reclaim their place in the Europe of tomorrow and claims their right to be. “I have the feeling that we can’t fully exist. We can show our beautiful fabrics, do our dances and present our hairstyles when white people please, but we can’t completely participate in this society as equal human beings. Sois belle et tais-toi. With this Afro Futuristic Movie, we want to show that we deserve our place and that we won’t be silent. They can’t keep us quiet. “

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This article is a result of a cooperation between European Youth Press and the project “EUth - Tools and Tips for Mobile and Digital Youth Participation in and across Europe”. This project has received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 649594. This article reflects only the author's view and the Research Executive Agency or European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

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