There is usually a trigger event.
George’s Floyd murder.
The most vitriolic displays of racism on the football pitch.
Open arms to Ukrainian refugees, closed doors to Syrians and Afghans.
A speech by Orbán addressing “the mixing of races”, which according to him means the demise of nations.
While the conversation lasts, it is very limited in its frames and questions. And then it fades.
Europe doesn’t talk much about race. Although some have a lot to say about racism in Europe and there are well-established anti-racist organizations across the continent, others easily conclude the conversation with something along the lines of “this is not an issue in this continent,” “it’s not about race, it’s about modern migration,” or, often, “but we are not the US.”
Over the years, and more so since 2020, I have heard different iterations of the following: “American understanding of race and racism are inadequate to understand what happens in Europe.” “Europe is the creator of race and racism and is fundamentally racist.” “Woke frameworks for tackling racism are going to make things worse in Europe.” “American ideas reaching Europe are at least forcing us to have conversations on race than we would otherwise not have.” “Racism is a problem in European countries, but we need to make sure we eschew approaches that center race and therefore essentialize people and reduce them to their racial identities.” “It’s a matter of integration of migrants.” “Western Europe is not so racist, it’s Eastern Europe that is the problem.” “My daily experience is one of racism.” And so on.
And yet it seems we constantly get stuck in the same set of binary questions: whether X country or Europe is racist or not (whatever that means as a blanket statement). Whether, compared to the United States, we are better or worse. And because of the visibility and lethality of police brutality in the US, this often concludes the conversation.
This argument is made despite the fact that in Europe it is actually not possible to quantitatively measure the extent of racial inequities as most European countries do not allow for data collection disaggregated by ethnicity and race. Or that any comparison based on state-sanctioned physical violence is muddled by the overall levels of brutality and arms possession in the US – the conversation in Europe is often limited to police brutality, leaving all other aspects of daily reality out of inquiry.
Roadblocks to progress on racialized othering in Europe are multiple, but resistance to engage with this topic substantially and thoughtfully, including interrogating the ideas that underpin existing narratives, and building new ones that bring everyone along, seem to be a big part of the equation.
Resistance to speak of race and racism
Resistance to speak about race in Europe is rooted in a variety of arguments, but it tends to be informed by either one or all the following three ideas.
A recurrent argument is that while racism and race-based discrimination exist, there are other dimensions of identity that are more important bases of discrimination. This argument can take different forms. It can be along class, which is very stark in places like the UK, along other kinds of minority identities (such as Catalan), or in places where there is severe discomfort with mentions of “race” (for example in Germany, given its recent historical past) other words are used that supplant race, be it ethnicity or “migration background”. Following this line of argument, instead of addressing all of the inequalities, it leads to a place of prioritization. If the other forms of othering are more important, they are those that need our attention. Race, which in addition is uncomfortable, can be displaced.
Another cause for the resistance is a real fear of dividing people into racial categories. Racial categories were a dominant feature of the Nazi regime, which many deem the biggest stain on Europe’s history. They were also a central trait of colonial oppression, as explained in this paper by scholar Elena Ball and colleagues, “dividing people into races was historically used in Europe in ‘racial science’ to create a hierarchy between races conceived as natural entities. This classification was strategically employed to justify colonial oppression and to build a hierarchically segmented labor market including enslaved workers.”
A desire to escape this past and avoid its repetition has led many to call into question the need to use the category of race, even if only as an analytical tool, as race is a social construct. But this refusal means that we are not able to accurately measure the reality of racialized othering on the ground and, as race very much operates into people’s lived experiences and informs public policy (e.g. counterterrorism, housing, immigration policy), it becomes impossible to effectively address this form of othering.
Finally, and this is perhaps the most common and explicit argument within policy circles and certain social movements, there is the comparison with the US, always the eldest, more brutish brother who is trying to force his views on you. According to Fatima El-Tayeb in her 2011 book European Others, which preceded the George Floyd murder by almost a decade, discourse on race and racism in Europe is often identified with the United States, as both the “center of both explicit race discourse and resistance to it.”
This constant emphasis on the idea that “Europe is not the US” often narrows the conversation to racialized police brutality and gun deaths. With the constant exposure through media and social media to acts of brutality by the American police, this is a situation that appalls most Europeans and monopolizes the collective imaginary of what racialized othering looks like, dislocating from this mental picture images of other forms of racialized othering that operate on European soil and right outside of its borders.
This comparison with America often involves thought-leaders, policy-makers, and non-profit workers who feel resistant to and fear American frames, seemingly creating the false idea that engaging with race equals using “woke” American approaches, which need not be the case. No doubt each place has its own specificities and should tackle phenomena in their own terms. At the same time, what most do not know is that this line of argument is decades old and was not tied to modern “woke” approaches. The highly impactful 1999 essay “On the Cunning of Imperialist Reason” encapsulated this argument. In this piece, the authors stated:
“The terms, themes and tropes of this new planetary doxa - ‘multiculturalism’, ‘globalization’, ‘liberals versus communitarians', ‘underclass’, racial ‘minority’ and identity, etc. - tend to project and impose on all societies American concerns and viewpoints, thereby transfigured into tools of analysis and yardsticks of policy fit to naturalize the peculiar historical experience of one peculiar society, tacitly instituted as a model for humanity.”
According to the authors, discourse on race and racism in Europe is said to be a product of Americanization, of American imperialism, and political correctness; an import external to the reality of Europe and European history that should thus be repelled as alien. In this worldview, racial hierarchies implemented by European powers outside of continental Europes have been forgotten through a well-established colonial amnesia. The racialized systems of the fascist regimes are rendered as aberrations. Thus, in this comparison, Europe seems to pale vis-a-vis the United States, where racist practices had an overt institutional anchoring and were enshrined in legal institutions such as the Jim Crow laws, which have a potent staying power in the understanding of race in “the old continent” (probably aided my numerous movies that depict this part of American history).
Why the US needs to be the yardstick against which we measure Europe baffles me. Knowledge and culture are porous, and the US has an almost monopoly on the production of movies and TV shows consumed in Europe, so it makes sense to interrogate our interaction with their terms, their frameworks. This is perhaps useful as an observation on the path to a correct diagnosis, but does this really need to be the central question?
It reminds me of famed Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène’s answers when asked about Europe: Europe is not my centre!
I would also like to scream: the US is not our center!
If Europe pivoted from this understanding of race with the US at the center, perhaps European efforts to interrogate race and racism in European terms could cast their eyes precisely on those places where Europe exported its racializing ways. What can we learn from the ideas and knowledge generated in the former colonies? How can understanding the policies developed there by Europeans help us illuminate how they came to inform the systems developed in continental Europe itself? After all, as Aimé Cesaire already pointed out in the 50s, colonialism had a “terrible boomerang effect” on Europe itself. One that lasts to this day.
Narratives on Race and Racism
Reluctance to speak of race does not mean that narratives on race are non-existent.
Whenever the conversation on race surfaces in Europe, we can see different narratives and ideas that underpin most of the public conversation and media coverage, which often fit into one of the following strands.
On one side, we encounter progressive narratives that point to power differentials, systemic and structural racism, and the centrality of identity-based discrimination.
Mostly in response to these progressive narratives, we also see emerging movements that (1) acknowledge racism but turn against identity politics, (2) recognize systemic, institutional, and interpersonal racism but focus on individualism, hard work, effort, and success, and (3) reject cancel culture and “racial essentialism,” as they fear that identity politics flattens people’s identities, can affect the self-esteem of people racialized as other, and is a challenge to the values of universalism.
[As an aside, I find it deeply saddening how much energy is spent amongst proponents of the first two narrative strands noted above, engaging in a battle of ideas against one another, rather than in productive conversations geared towards tackling the root causes of racism and perhaps addressing the advocates of the following two].
At the far-right of the spectrum, we encounter theories, often perpetuated by authoritarian populist leaders, such as the Great Replacement or the older Kalergi Plan (also called the Coudenhove-Kalergi Conspiracy) which posit that there are plans to replace whites in Europe and who promote racial hierarchies (sometimes under the guise of cultural differences, superiority, or “being ordered”).
These three strands correspond to actors that are more deliberately engaged with anti-racism and racism. More mainstream, however, are narratives that point to “true racists” and elevate culture over race as a reason for considering that some groups or “cultures” are a better fit than others.
A Few, Isolated, “True Racists”
Current institutional discourse and frameworks give the impression that racism is perpetuated by lunatics, individuals or extremists that constitute exceptions to most Europeans and institutions, who do not see race. Racism is perceived as an externality, a deviation. Understandings of racism are incident-based and lead to a focus on hate crime and anti-discrimination legislations, which are important, but leave aside interrogating systems and the ideas that underpin policies.
According to scholar Silvia Rodríguez Maeso, widespread racism and xenophobia are dismissed and rewritten with the usual tropes of universal fear of the other and a natural challenge in any trajectory of acculturation of immigrants and newcomers. In this vein, racism is reduced to migratory experiences, erasing from Europe the realities of non-white people who are not migrants themselves and are not part of recent arrivals. Racism is transformed into an effect of a crisis of assimilation and racist acts as exceptional incidents that stray from the norm.
In this understanding, racists actions in a “raceless” Europe are the product of a few “True Racists”. Anti-discrimination legislation and protocols thus make sense, without needing to inquire into systems cand structures and how the way we perceive race may perpetuate inequities. Anti-discrimination legislation remains confined to its own particular silo and does not permeate other policy domains which are extremely dissonant with an ethos of belonging, such as the EU’s migration policies or counterterrorism approaches across the continent, both of which target communities racialized as other and have racialized outcomes, but do not match this individualistic and incident-based approach. In the words of Maeso, “racism is seen as an exteriority and a deviation and therefore, policy and legal provisions remain largely unscrutinised in their complicity with the reproduction of racism.”
This is not to say there shouldn’t be efforts dedicated to preventing hate speech or tackling “true racist” incidents, but it shouldn’t be either or. And after all, our prejudice is not inborn, but a product of a collective worldmaking that shapes our biases.
A common idea that is often evoked in Europe is that challenges to belonging and societal tensions are not about race, but about culture. Since the fall of national socialism in Europe, open expression of biological racism has fallen outside the realm of what is socially acceptable. While belief in biological racism may have decreased (surveys, however, still situate it at 17% of the European population, with significant variance across countries) some scholars say that biological racism is currently expressed as cultural racism.
Academics differentiate between “traditional racism”(belief in the superiority of some races), culturalism, and cultural racism. Culturalism is the belief in the superiority of certain cultures, based on "values". Cultural racism is a theory that states that a belief in cultural superiority reflects or is in itself racist. This theory argues that egalitarianism in European countries has increased the tendency to express beliefs in cultural superiority in order to delegitimize ethnic discrimination and that beliefs in cultural superiority often indicate a racist orientation. Critics of this theory argue that racism and culturalism, however, are distinct.
Scholar Christopher Bratt attempted to unpack this question empirically by analyzing results from the European social survey. He found that belief in cultural superiority tended to be an indicator of traditional racism and if it wasn’t, then cultural concerns when faced with immigration correlated strongly with racism. But, at the same time, the author also found that belief in cultural superiority appeared to not have the same meanings or connotations across countries. In that sense, in a few countries, the implied meaning of beliefs in cultural superiority diverged, serving as a good reminder of the need to be nuanced and cognizant of context, while acknowledging that sometimes a shift in language is code for no longer acceptable expressions of prejudice.
Ideas that underpin the “True Racist” and Cultural Notions of Race and Racism
The “True Racist” and cultural understandings of racism in Europe, as well as the brushing aside of concerns around race as American imports, necessitate underlying assumptions that are tied to Europe’s own sense of self.
On the one hand, we encounter ideas around “racelessness”, of a continent that does not see race. On the other, Europe’s image is constructed as one of enlightenment, democracy, and human rights. Europe as the embodiment of these characteristics thus cannot be racist, as democracy and racism are presented as incompatible ideas. And adding to both, we find a retelling of European history that elevates the good and solidifies colonial amnesia, thus forgetting that much of what we see today stems from those policies of the past, even if explicitly enacted mostly in the colonies.
Racelessness is conceived as an ideology, a process by which racial thinking and its effects are made invisible. One of Europe’s most prominent scholars of race and racism, David Theo Goldberg, defined the concept of Political Racelessness. According to Goldberg:
“Europe represents what the contemporary project of racelessness implies politically: First, the removal of stigma from interracial sociality […] This, to be sure, has considerable appeal, not least for those in societies long bruised by these very restrictions and their attendant exacerbations, exclusions, excisions, evasions, and erosions of the social fabric. Second, a shift in the burden of legal proof in the face of charges of institutional racism from those making the charges to those being charged. A significant shift, to be sure, signaling at least a seriousness about facing up to the challenge. But both also lead to the shift to personalize and individualize racism, to reduce racist violence to a few rotten folks, to restrict apartness especially in residential, educational and employment arrangements and access to the untouchable segregating schemas of personal preference and the lure of the familial and familiar. [emphasis added].”
At the same time, democracy is rendered as ontologically opposed to racism. A false dichotomy is created, one which equates fascism with racism and renders democracy’s essence as incompatible with this form of othering. From this premise, what follows is that if European states are democracies, then Europe cannot be labeled as racist. This judgment is considered in absolute terms—there is no room for nuanced considerations that we are in front of imperfect and flawed democracies that have perpetuated inequities. They are yes or no questions: democratic or not, racist or not, locating us yet again in dualistic understandings that obfuscate the complexity of the topic through questions that are possibly impossible to answer but also, don’t really make sense.
Tied to Europe’s depiction as fundamentally democratic is the story of its origins. The Holocaust is presented as an aberration, disconnected from Euro-American colonialism. In current narratives, 1945 and the creation of what became the European Union are almost presented as the origins of Europe, in the process turning a blind eye to the wars against decolonization and national liberation movements taking place up until the 1970s (e.g. against France, Portugal, the UK) and “the state policies for regulation and governance of (post-)colonial immigration and racialized ethnic minorities such as the Roma.” (Sayyid 2005, in Maeso 2018).
In this telling of Europe’s history, wealth and democracy seem to emerge only from Europe itself, in isolation, without influence (intellectual or material) from outside its physical borders. Coloniality and enslavement are erased in the history of the making of Europe. The foundational narrative about Europe is defined by democracy and humanism, totalitarianism being an outlier. Europe and Europeanness are constructed as an exceptional historical formation for the development of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law (Rodríguez Maeso, 2018).
Black British scholar Stuart Hall coined the notion of “Europe’s ‘internalist’ story”. As political theorist Noémi Michel summarizes in the post “The Relationship between Blackness and Europeanness”:
“he critically engages with public discourses that view the upcoming enlargement of the European Union as a process of broadening Europe’s ‘enlightened’ rampart against the fundamentalism of the ‘others.’ Such discourses, he argues, renew a ‘dominant narrative of modernity,’ an ‘internalist’ story about Europe’s development and identity “with capitalism growing from the womb of feudalism and Europe’s self-generating capacity to produce, like a silk-worm, the circumstances of her own evolution from within her own body.” The internalist narrative, Hall pursues, operates through colonial amnesia, as it erases “the actual relations of unequal exchange and uneven development through which a common European identity was forged” … “I view the ‘internalist narrative’ as a key framework for grasping the complex and manifold historical, socio-political and affective logics that continuously disconnect Blackness from local, national and supranational definitions of Europeanness.”
Shaping Public Discourse
This May, conversation on racism in Europe (and specially in Spain) raised in salience again, albeit shortly, when football fans chanted the word “mono” (monkey) at Vinícius Júnior, a famous Brazilian footballer before and during a recent football match. This incident gained international prominence when Brazilian president Lula de Silva entered the conversation, expressed solidarity with the footballer, and called for action.
A Twitter feud ensued between the footballer and the president of the Spanish League, who complained the footballer was staining LaLiga’s public image by stating that acts of racism are common and measures implemented not enough. The surrounding public conversation focused on existing anti-discrimination and, mostly, on whether “Spain is racist” and how it fares compared to others (oh but the Italians! And the British hooligans! Eastern Europe! And this is also common in Latin America!).
This incident illuminates what I’ve tried to unpack above. We see how the conversation emerges out of an event of prominence and is narrow in scope. It gets stuck on whether a country is racist or not and on an individualist approach which in most cases replicates many of the ideas presented in this essay. In this case, some prominent analysts in mainstream media elaborated on how overall Spain is not racist, how racism is tied to recent migratory flows and is a modern phenomenon which, they say, in Spain originated in the 90s (here I couldn’t help but chuckle while at the same time felt terror at this being uttered by a leading sociologist), and so on.
Much as it happens in this telling of the inception of racism (and conversations on race) in Europe, the systems built against Roma communities are forgotten, a reality that makes the whole raceless and individualist charade crumble.
Last week I went to a free tasting with a Black friend. We were surrounded by lovely people who welcomed us and helped me translate (as my friend does not speak Spanish). Suddenly, a conversation on visiting Texas turned to race, and the woman we were chatting to pointed to how fortunate it is that Spain, Europe, is not like the USA. My friend and I looked at each other, should we let it go and enjoy the wine or engage in the conversation? Ultimately, we opted for the latter. The lady, clearly, wanted to learn.
My friend pointed to her lived experience; I mentioned this research. The lady argued with me on whether she is white and pointed to mine and her skin color (I am very pale, she’s not). This confusion between race and skin color is common. She then reminisced about having just watched the movie “The Hate We Give” and how she was shocked at what she learned through the movies, particularly white Americans’ reactions to Black Americans (fear, assuming one will get robbed, etc.). But the movie led her to reflect that while she does not do that, perhaps she does do that with Muslims, and asked herself if she’s racist. She insisted on her desire to improve, to understand, to be and do better.
As a researcher, I understand that we cannot expect that everyone becomes an expert on postcolonial theories, European history, or critical race theory. People are situated where they are, live their lives, have daily preoccupations and their areas of expertise.
But to address othering, we need to be able to talk about it, also at the nexus with race. Refusal to engage with the topic in a supposedly raceless Europe pretense doesn’t make racism go away, as it is a problem that will surge in importance as European societies become increasingly more diverse. What Europe has going on for itself is diversity across many axes: race, ethnicity, citizenship, nationality, language, etc. Perhaps there is fortitude in that when interrogating how to build multi-identity, multi-racial societies and narratives on democracy, social cohesion, and justice that contribute to this vision.
There is another aspect as well – narratives on race and racism will exist regardless of whether we choose to engage with them or not. Not doing so cedes the space to those who do not hesitate to fill the void with far-right extremist discourse.
I will admit there is much I do not know, and I have far more questions than answers. But if I dare, I will say that getting stuck on how Europe compares to the US, on binary questions of whether a country is or is not racist (which ultimately touch on people’s sense of self and thus trigger a range of emotions), or perpetuating an idea of raceless Europe leads us nowhere.
There are many people doing incredible work in Europe, for further reading, check:
- Systemic Justice
- Julie Nelson’s reflections on advancing Just, Multiracial, Inclusive Democracies
- Resources by the European Roma Rights Centre
In Other News…
After years of stalemate, the EU has reached a new agreement on some elements of migration and asylum policy… I unpacked some of the narratives that influence the EU’s approach on this previous essay. Human rights activists are concerned, and far-right leaning European leaders such as Poland’s and Italy’s are not happy either. Here’s a point by point analysis by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles.
Upheaval continues in Senegal after clashes between police and supporters of the opposition leader in what remains a concerning human rights situation.
And for the Soul…
Arthur Brooks on how contemplating one’s mortality can contribute to happiness.
Notions of racelessness and Europe as different from the US predominate across Europe, but while it is true that Europe is indeed distinct from America, it is also true that there are significant differences amongst European countries as well.
The way in which racism is discussed takes different form across European countries. For example, according to Ball et al, in Germany, “racism is mainly discussed in the context of foreigners and the migration of ‘guest workers’ from other European countries or former colonies” whereas in France “immigration from its former colonies is discussed from the perspective of socio-economic integration and inclusion in French universalisms,” whereas in the United Kingdom, the “debate centers around race relations alluding to a postcolonial situation.”
Racialization processes and views of whiteness are not uniform across Europe or even among “white Europeans” either. For example, Eastern and Southern Europe’s claim to whiteness has been more ambiguous than that of those from Northwest Europe. According to scholars Klimt or Eder, some Southern Europeans who migrated North still suffer the effects of racialization. One can also think of the experiences of Eastern Europeans in the United Kingdom in recent years.
A note of gratitude:
I want to thank EJ Toppin and Samia Hathroubi for reviewing this essay, as well as my colleagues Sara Grossman and Evan Yoshimoto who always edit my work and make for a much sharper analysis.
Connecting the Dots: Musings on Bridging and Belonging is a monthly column by Míriam Juan-Torres. In it, Míriam reflects on current events, connecting the trends and considering the specificities across countries, applying a bridging and belonging lens and translating concepts from academia for a wider audience. In Connecting the Dots, Míriam carefully curates readings and resources to further expand our understanding and shed light on the complexities of our time. Join our mailing list to stay up to date on the latest of the Democracy & Belonging Forum's curated analysis from Miriam and more.
Editor's note: The ideas expressed in this blog are not necessarily those of the Othering & Belonging Institute or UC Berkeley, but belong to the author.