Wouter Van Bellingen has the name, the lingo, the clothes and the upbringing of your typical Flemish alderman.
One thing sets him apart: Van Bellingen is black in a mostly white city, and for that reason, three local couples refused to let him conduct their City Hall weddings.
“It was the most primitive form of racism. Nothing but the color of my skin,” Van Bellingen said of the snub. The 34-year-old alderman was adopted by a Flemish family at birth and never knew his Rwandan parents.
But instead of lodging a discrimination complaint, he decided to organize a celebration of diversity. On Wednesday night, he is overseeing a ceremony of hundreds of couples vowing eternal love — and sending a message against racism.
Over 600 couples have agreed to participate, either renewing wedding vows or pledging to marry. The ceremony in Belgium’s biggest market square was to include a group hug, a huge photo, a “multicultural dessert buffet” and a dance.
“We have to take away the fear of the unknown. If you are unknown, you are unloved,” Van Bellingen said of his decision to hold the ceremony on international anti-racism day.
The initiative came straight from a lifetime of developing defenses against racist abuse.
“I do not feel scarred. It has been an enrichment in a sense,” he told The Associated Press. “You create a mechanism to put things in perspective. I do it with humor.”
Van Bellingen’s call for the ceremony quickly generated a groundswell of support, even though it was not legally binding.
Sabine Van Camp was at work when an e-mail flashed across her screen from her husband Guy: “You want to do it again?” he asked.
It was not the most romantic way to propose a renewal of vows, but the three couples’ refusal to allow Van Bellingen to preside over their weddings in January had touched a nerve in this city of 69,000 people some 30 miles north of Brussels.
“It was such a scandal. The gall of it all,” Van Camp said.
She accepted her husband’s proposal — also by e-mail. Then the 42-year-old city clerk retrieved her wedding gown from the closet, three years after their summer wedding.
“It will be cold on the market square, though,” she said of her gown.
Van Bellingen became the first black alderman elected in Belgium’s northern Flanders region, representing a moderate nationalist party. He says his election is symbolic of growing opposition to racism in a city where an anti-immigration party won 26 percent of the vote in elections last year.
A year ago, a teenager with links to extreme-right militants went on a rampage with a rifle in nearby Antwerp, searching for anyone who looked foreign. He killed an African woman and the white child in her care and seriously wounded a Turkish woman.
For him, and others, an everyday thing
Van Bellingen takes care not to stigmatize his city and region. He calls himself a victim of racism still found all over Europe.
“Like all colored people, I live this on an almost daily basis,” he said, recalling catcalls at school, doors being slammed in his face and the amazement expressed by some countrymen that he speaks fluent Dutch.
Amnesty International said racism is a part of everyday life.
“There are citizens who cannot lead a normal life — find a job, rent a house or simply walk down the street without being stopped and searched — just because they have the “wrong” color or ethnicity,” said the group’s European Union office director, Dick Oosting.
Van Bellingen said he has been asked why he didn’t lash out in anger at the three couples.
“It is the story of everyone who is discriminated against. If you act impetuously, you stop functioning,” he said. “Now, I have achieved a lot more.”