Black Realities: Confronting Racism in Europe

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Black people and people of African descent experience pervasive racism, entrenched discrimination, prevalent harassment and violence across Europe which impact various facets of their lives such as employment, education, health, law enforcement, and the criminal justice system. This is the unequivocal conclusion of the 2023 report of the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) which draws on a large-scale survey of the experiences of 6,800 people of African descent in 13 EU Member States. In addition, the FRA noted an alarming absence of progress regarding racist harassment in Europe, despite the adoption of several EU anti-discrimination policies since 2000.

Anti-Black racism in Europe is established. Quantified. Testimonies abound. And then what? What is left from the moral “awakening” that drew crowds of protestors chanting “Black Lives Matter” in locked-down European cities in 2020? Will future historians refer to it as an anecdotical side event that had little effect on countering the normalisation of far-right politics, racist and xenophobic discourses, persecution of Muslim people and inhuman treatment of racialized migrants? Or worse, is antiracism losing the fight as it is being appropriated, watered down, emptied of its radicality, and turned into diversity awareness training?

Race is a social construct, that is common knowledge. So common that it sounds like a platitude. There is no biological rationale that can justify racial distinctions and hierarchies. But race, be it a construct, fiction, historical fallacy, remains after all a very tangible and brutal reality for people of African descent living in Europe today. Black people are far from the only ones facing racism, but different racial and ethnic minorities do not share the same experience of discrimination and oppression. Racial dynamics are intricate, contradictory by nature and intersecting with other social categories including gender, class, religion, sexual orientation, and disability. But antiracism is not about identities. Antiracism is not a culture war but a fight for equality. Reflecting on the specificities of anti-Black racism is fundamental for understanding the long history of the dehumanization and systemic oppression of people of African descent across time. It is a necessary gateway to apprehend the paradigm of Whiteness in European contemporary societies. Because talking about racism is talking about Whiteness.

“Black Realities: Confronting Racism in Europe” is an exhibition that sheds light on the stark realities of the lived experience of Afro-descendants in Europe. It combines statistical information with key concepts and testimonies, mostly from Black European scholars. These quotations are first-person narratives that give meaning to disembodied data and figures. “To account for racism is to offer a different account of the world”, wrote Sara Ahmed (2012). This exhibition lays the basis for reflection and for breaking the silence safeguarding the status quo.

The humanity of Europe’s “Other”

The dehumanization of racialized people finds its roots in European colonialism and White supremacy: a history that Western countries never came to terms with and a system that has never been fully stamped out. Cameroonian scholar Achille Mbembe refers to racism as the driver of “necropolitics”, a form of sovereignty that assigns different value to different human lives, a tool of power that decides whose humanity is worth more than another, who should live and who should die. In 2006, he wrote that “the most accomplished form of necropower is the contemporary colonial occupation of Palestine.” (Mbembe, 2006). There was nothing visionary about this claim. The atrocities unfolding these days, a sight for the world to see, revealed not only the most sickening aspect of colonial rationale but also the sheer hypocrisy of Europe’s political class. Is the Palestinian nameless – unspeakable – plight a challenge to European core values of human rights and justice? Or rather, Europe’s showing its true colour(s).

EU immigration strategies are another example of European necropolitics, resulting in the Mediterranean Sea becoming the so-called “largest cemetery of migrants.” The metaphor is potent, yet deceptive. A cemetery is a place of remembrance, a site precisely intended to pay respect to the dead and recall the value of their lives. The Mediterranean Sea, on the contrary, engulfs bodies, drowns memories, and erases the humanity of those who apparently do not deserve to live, and, especially not, on European soil. The systemic discrimination of people of African descent in Europe, the hazardous and traumatic experience of migration across the Mediterranean, and the slaughter in Gaza are distinct cases with unique realities. But they all raise the question: will the humanity of Europe’s “Other” ever be acknowledged?

“Nobody is free until everybody is free.” This famous motto, attributed to civil rights feminist activist Fannie Lou Hamer, is compelling. But it should not be taken as a mere plea for international solidarity or a universal kind of moral principle. It is a normative claim. A wake-up call to confront the intersectional facets of discrimination and to dismantle the structures of social and material oppressions. Raising awareness is not an end. Allyship requires more than humility and solidarity statements. Allyship is about being ready to give up privileges and striving for changes.

Antiracism is not inconvenient, racism is.

 

Daphné Budasz is a PhD researcher in history. Her thesis investigates cross-cultural intimacy, intra-imperial migration, and race in British East Africa. She is the founder of BHM at the EUI and co-founder of the Decolonising Initiative. Besides academic publications, she works on history and antiracist projects such as Postcolonial Italy: Mapping Colonial Heritage.