In Belgian society, as in all of Western Europe, debates about racism sometimes erupt from totally unexpected directions. That’s what happened a few months ago when a local beauty queen referred to a black bus passenger on Facebook using the "pile of poop" emoji.
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The 19-year old Flemish woman from Bruges, who won the beauty crown in 2017, explained that in Flanders, the same emoji symbolizes ice cream. The explanation wasn't well received.
Omer is a family ice cream company that has been operating in the French-speaking Belgian city of Nivelles, south of Brussels, for 60 years. Their ice cream is sold by a fleet of ice cream trucks that drive around the streets of Nivelles and its surroundings. A few years ago the company was involved in a legal battle with residents who claimed that the music blasting from the trucks was breaking the noise restrictions – but that’s nothing compared to the recent uproar it has encountered.
It turns out that for years the company’s menu has included a specialty called Bamboula. Omer's ice cream comes in many flavors, and what makes it unique it is that the salesperson covers it with hot chocolate before serving it. This week the director of the company, Vincent Patte, told the newspaper La Derniere Heure how the whole thing began:
“Less than a month ago a man approached one of the ice cream trucks, for the first time, he said, examined the menu and told me that the name of this ice cream is racist in nature and is reminiscent of the colonial period. He said his 8-year-old son was very insulted when he heard that.”
Patte explained to him that this ice cream has been sold for years, and nobody complained, and waved the man away. But that’s not the end of the story. “The complainant started to bombard me with posts on his Facebook page, claimed that ‘Bamboula’ is a racist slur used against blacks and sent me copies of reports from French media outlets about people who were convicted for similar statements.” But even then the ice cream man didn’t do anything about it, apparently hoping that the harassment would end.
It didn’t. The man filed an official complaint with the Movement against Racism, Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia, which serves as a semi-official bureau for handling these issues – and its members took the matter of the ice cream called Bamboula seriously.
One of the lawyers who is active in the movement, Nisha Mbuli, contacted Patte and tried to convince him to change the ice cream’s name. Patte absolutely refused. Mbuli told RTBF, a Belgian public broadcasting channel, about the conversation: “He claimed that this ice cream has existed for 50 years and there were never any problems. ‘Don’t you have more important things to deal with?’ he told me. ‘Why are all these Africans here and why do we have to get used to their customs?’ he said defiantly, and refused any compromise.”
MRAX announced that it would turn to the courts and ask the judges to take action. An official letter from the organization was sent to the ice cream company which said, “It is inconceivable that in public places and in front of everyone any ice cream that bears a racist epithet as a name will be sold. During the present vacation period the ice cream trucks drive around in parks with many children and they’re exposed to this slur, spread it, turn it into part of their daily language, and that could hurt the feelings of a certain community. Therefore there is an urgent need for the ice cream company to find a different name for the product.”
A language expert, Marie Trapp, handed down an opinion to the RTBF news website, stating, “The source of the word really is an African musical instrument – a tambour – but during the colonial period it became an epithet that represents ‘a wild man, cannibalism and unbridled sexuality.’”
Meanwhile, the debate became public and spilled over to the social networks. “It’s an insulting epithet. Remove it immediately from your list of ice creams before the anger builds up – because today we the Africans and the children of immigrants no longer remain silent about such things,” one commenter wrote.
“What do they want, a little culture ‘Bamboula’ is an African dance, it’s a name for a wild party. If there are people who use this name with a negative meaning – that’s not his fault,” said another.
“Why not? Tomorrow ‘Shintouk’ [an insulting name for Chinese people] ice cream , ‘Bosch’ [an insulting name for Germans] ice cream, ‘Youpin’ [an anti-Semitic epithet] ice cream. Welcome to ice creams in Nivelles,” another chimed in.
So it went on the social networks.
A few days later Omer realized it was fighting a losing battle, and took action. The company sent out a press release saying that the name Bamboula was being replaced by a new name, Croquant, which means crunchy. “We don’t want to deal with the courts,” said Patte, the director, “but it’s infuriating. Now we have to change all the menus and the ads on all our vehicles. For no good reason.”
Incidentally, this entire story happened once before in Belgium, in the era before social networks. Television channel researchers found that in the 1980s a baked goods company sold cookies called Bamboula. Even then, the company was forced, under pressure from customers, to change the name of the product.