Racism Abroad: Less? Or Just…Different?

Over on racialicious.com, guest contributor Sonita Moss wrote an interesting article about what she perceives to be the scapegoating of America on the international stage where racism is concerned.

 He smoothly side-stepped my question and turned the focus to America’s racism. Because America is a popular topic in the media, the nightly French news frequently reported breaking American news. Thus, the world beyond our borders is informed of how race issues are part and parcel to American culture.

Although I agree with a lot of what she has to say – and also applaud her nuanced take on her experiences abroad – there were some issues I believe she assessed from a distinctly American perspective. A perspective that she seems to forget is not shared by the people she is referencing. For example, she notes:

I noticed, with a certain amount of chagrin, that many Europeans of color refer to their privileged compatriots as the standard of that country, while they are specifically marked by their race. “English” are white, but English blacks are, well, black.

By drawing the national line in the sand in black and white, so to speak,  (or rather: in white and “other”), the author is reverting back to a decidedly American dichotomy.

  • Both Europeans and Africans/Afro-Caribbeans, for example, when referring to themselves are more prone to see their nationality or other more specific ethnic allegiances as being their most significant identifier – not their skin color. This doesn’t mean that anyone denies being black (or white, for that matter), it just means that being Jamaican or Nigerian  or English or French( which are also ethnicities, and not just nationalities!) carries more immediate weight.
  • In contrast to the USA, which was officially established as a nation of immigrants from the very beginning, European countries only began their modern discourse on immigration in the latter half of the last century. Until then, there was no significant influx of non-European immigrants. (I am purposely not addressing the question of Judaism/The Pogroms in this context)
  • Unlike blacks in America, many immigrants still have a direct sense of allegiance to their (parents’) countries of origin. Where American blacks understandably only have a vague notion of where we come from in Africa, and therefore no specific point of reference outside of the US, immigrants often still have very real ties to another country and culture.

Take all three of these facts into account, and you see that grappling with the question of “Who is or is not (insert name of relevant European country here)” is a much newer challenge in Europe than it is in America.

Amazed at the utter whiteness of the venue, one night I asked my friend, “Do you ever notice that there are essentially no black people here – why is that?”

In a country like the U.S. where African-Americans make up about 13 % of the population, there are obviously areas in the country where the presence of black people is quite strong, though it’s certainly not true everywhere in the country. Anyone living in the States knows about the rich heritage of places like Harlem or that Washington D.C. is often referred to as “Chocolate City” or the dynamic atmosphere of the Southern mecca “Hotlanta”.  In comparison, the black population in European countries* is often in the (very low!) single digits. For example, approximately:

  • 2,9% in England
  • 2,8% in the Netherlands

Although these number are not only supplemented by black students and refugees (and tourists!), as well as other people of color (including those that identify as mixed race/bi-racial), it’s easy to see why it would be unrealistic to expect to find many cities across Europe with thriving black communities similar to those in Chicago, Philadelphia or Atlanta!

Obviously, it’s this “critical mass” of descendants of slaves united by the common link of oppressive racism in the United States that has propelled black Americans through the Civil Rights Era to where we are today. It’s why we have

  • a certain degree of political representation,
  • legal recourse against discrimination, and
  • increased visibility in the media,

and – indeed – a black president!

BUT: It’s taken us more than 150 years since the end of the Civil War to get here. By comparison, it’s hardly been 60 years that Europe threw off the yoke of Nazism.

As before, I strongly encourage all people of color to travel or live abroad, if it is feasible. Just know that the racial ‘baggage’ you take with you will be greeted with a brand-new, dare I say it, exotic version: racism exists abroad, you know, just not as bad as it is in America.

I wouldn’t say racism in Europe is not as bad, I’d say it’s simply different. How you ask?

That’s a post for another day!


(Due to data protections laws, however, it’s impossible to get an accurate statistic for the number of Afro-France or Afro-Germans, as in those countries it is illegal to specify the race of German citizens on government documents and statistics.)


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