Everyone has seen it: The picture of five-year-old Liam Mango, professionally looking into the camera to advertise for a green hoodie that reads ‘Coolest Monkey in the Jungle’. That H&M would deliberately choose not a white but a black Swedish boy for this particular sweater instantly sparked a much-needed discussion about racism in Europe. Because even when one chooses to close their eyes, it does not change the fact that racism still exists on this continent. And so, in order to instil and strengthen a sense of a European identity as the EST currently does via its IdentifyEUrope campaign, we need to first open our eyes and ears to the experiences of all Europeans; especially the ones who are targeted by racism.

Stephen Small
Photo: Jeroen Oerlemans

I took a step into this direction when I interviewed Stephen Small, who has been a professor in the department of African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley since 1994. That Stephen feels European regardless of his Caribbean ancestry and current location is clear from the very beginning of my talk with him: “I was born and raised in Liverpool. My father is black, my mother was white and I grew up in Liverpool as a European, as an English person, as a black person who negotiated and navigated racial stereotypes about the Caribbean, about Africa, about Europe. And so, figuring out what is going on in Europe with regards to black people and immigrants and people of colour was always important to me and I studied that.” It was this mind-set that eventually lead him to publish ’20 Questions and Answers on Black Europe’, a book that delves into facts about black people in Europe which are commonly ignored and/or mispresented: “I wanted to provide a systematic description, explanation of black people in Europe; of our experiences and also of the ways in which Europe’s involvement in Africa and the Americas had created racial and racist ideas.”

And I believe that most of the attention in Europe to black people looks at us only when they think about us as a problem: either we are criminals or delinquents, or women are prostitutes or women are victims of sex trafficking or were illegal.

As this quote vividly illustrates, there is a pressing need to put the spotlight on the racial component of a European identity, which is what this article subsequently does. In the following, this article starts with the historical background of a European identity. Thereafter, it continues with the definition of being European and its ramifications for the European identity today. From there, we finally move to the different ways in which each and every one of us can contribute to an improvement of the situation. As it is not my story to tell, I mostly use direct quotes from the interview instead of paraphrasing what Stephen said.

Past: The historical background of a European identity

In psychology, the term ‘identity’ is connected to one’s self-image, which in turn is defined by comparison to those around you.  As such, it is not surprising that “when you look at European values, the way they define themselves as civilised is by defining Africans and Muslims as uncivilised. The way they define themselves as beautiful and whiteness as beautiful is by defining black people as ugly. The history of Europeans, the way they define themselves as superior is by insisting that Africans, Asians were inferior. So, in order to understand European identity, we absolutely must look at colonialism and the creation of European identity.” What Stephen alludes to here is that the problems of this historical background are the vast ramifications for the perception of black people in Europe: “Right now, Europeans who are white tell us that black people are here because they are generous and they are helping us. But it’s an actual lie, black people are in Europe because Europeans were in Africa.”

Present: Defining ‘European’ and the ramifications for a European identity

Especially this last quote highlights the connection between the past and the present of feeling European. The main issue here is that “the majority of people in Europe think that to be European means to be white and its completely incorrect. They think to be European means to be Christian and it’s completely incorrect. Approaches to the experience of Europe in Africa and to black people are unsatisfactory, are incomplete and frequently wrong so what we know about black people in Europe is frequently wrong, is based on false assumptions”. As a result, “people in Europe who are not black, who are not people of colour, they tend to think that racism is something that happens in the US or in South Africa and they don’t believe it exists.” That is not to say, however, that everyone who is a white European is by definition either acting in a racist manner or is oblivious of what is going on. On the contrary, Stephen emphasises that “a lot of people, particularly non-black, white people, they say ‘We didn’t learn these things in school, we don’t hear about these things. This is a shock but we need to know.’”

As with any in-group feeling, talking about a European identity necessitates that we first examine who is included in the sphere of the ‘European in-group’ in the first place. When I asked Stephen what he believes makes someone ‘European’, he mentioned four main components that together answer this question.

  1. Europe is inherently diverse: “The main issue, the main problem is that the majority of people in Europe think that to be European means to be white and its completely incorrect. They think to be European means to be Christian and it’s completely incorrect. The fact of the matter is there are more than 7 million, at least 7 million, of black people in Europe and the vast majority of those are European. We were born in Europe, we were raised in Europe, we live in Europe, we speak the indigenous languages of Europe. Many are Christian but there are also many, many people who are Muslims who are also European. So, I think the first question and the first issue is to challenge the notion that Europe is white and Christian.”
  2. European identity is created by many facets: “The second issue I think is that what makes someone European is a combination of where you’re born, where you’re raised, a shared set of values. But Europe believes that their values are unique and they’re absolutely not unique.”
  3. Being European is not a matter of geography: “Also, there are 700,000 people who live in the Caribbean who are European citizens. These are people who live in Martinique, who live in Guadeloupe who have French passports and they are European citizens. So, rather than give an answer that’s complete, I’d rather open up a debate about what does it mean to be European.”
  4. Definitions are a matter of power: “Finally, who has the power and the authority to define who is European? Because I am European. I was born there, I was born in England, I grew up in England, I sound English; when I say hello, people know I’m from Liverpool. So, I think the important thing for young people is to understand that we have a problematic definition of who’s European based on incorrect historical facts and we really need to revisit the history of Europe to look at diversity in Europe because we know that black people, Muslims, other groups have been in Europe not just for decades but for centuries.

But why should we care about definitions? After all, they are just theoretical concepts, right? The importance of theoretical underpinnings is not just confined to the philosophical principals behind them but, more importantly, extends to practical, real-life ramifications. It is not as though structural racism is a theory armchair-philosophers talk about; in fact, “we face racism every day. When I was in school, the teachers used to call me [n-word]. When I wasn’t there, my school friends used to call me [n-word]. When I was riding on the bus, white kids used to jump up and down and pretended that they were monkeys and accused me of being a monkey. I was beaten up by white skinheads as a youngster in England.” And this is just one example of what consequences racism can have on an individual. Especially considering that “the majority of black people are women and black women face more obstacles than men”, it is simply impossible to talk about these struggles as though they do not exist. And they are not a thing of the past either. If anyone still thinks the advertisement of H&M has no racist components, I would like to ask you to think about the picture again in relation to Stephen’s personal experience (which, to avoid confusion, he told me weeks before the scandal). Is it just a coincidence that a black boy was connected to a monkey? I think not. Unfortunately, the case of the green hoodie is not an isolated instance: “White people discriminate against black people and expect those to be quiet and do nothing and say nothing. And when we challenge them, they accuse us and they blame the victims. I mean, the case of Black Pete in the Netherlands reveals the Netherlands to be one of the most hypocritical and racist societies in Europe. We don’t accept that we are going to continue to face racism and we don’t accept that they will continue to assume that if you’re black you’re an immigrant and if you’re white you are not – because this is absolutely untrue.”

The point here is that we need to be aware of the problems and their origins European minorities face before we can talk about a cohesive identity. “In the realm of education, the most important issue is to really question the colonial education that exists. Because right now in Europe, the majority of Europeans believe colonialism was a good thing. It doesn’t make any sense; if you look at the academic literature the majority of people in England survey say the British Empire was a good thing. European academics in the Netherlands, in France, in Italy, in Sweden refuse to confront some of the harsh, violent, and brutal legacies of colonialism and to write about them. And I don’t think we can really develop a full, inclusive, comprehensive European identity until we really re-examine the colonial education that exists.”

Future: How YOU can improve the situation

I admit that once I realised the magnitude and pervasiveness of racism, I felt completely powerless. After all, I am just a student, so how can I even start to change the ‘system’? But while it is virtually impossible to change structural factors such as the educational system in all European member states, Stephen also offers an optimistic outlook into what we can do to shape the future.

First, realistically speaking the fact of the matter is that change will hardly occur on the level of high politics. “If we see people in political power it’s clear to me that the majority of top politicians in Europe do not talk about racism, do not talk about black people. They are reinforcing Islamophobia and hatred so I don’t think we can leave it to them.” In contrast, there are already success stories of bottom-up movements in the battle against racism: “Right now, in 12 countries in Europe I estimate there are 4,200 nationally-elected politicians in 12 nations, in the book I mention them. Of those 4,200 only 22 are black. And of those 22 politicians, 18 are in England alone. Several of them are problematic, for example, some say racism doesn’t exist. But the majority of them are ready to confront racism, to talk about discrimination and I think that’s good. Is it perfect? Absolutely not; but I think the situation in England in terms of political success is far better than anywhere else in Europe and the reason there are more black people in politics in England is because of bottom-up, grassroots mobilisation.” So, it is not as though change can only come from a very high level in politics, but it is actually because of individuals like you and me that changes have already occurred. To be more specific, Stephen also gives some useful tips how students like us can still make a positive impact:

  1. “The first thing I think you should do is don’t accept the academic education that you’re receiving. Don’t accept it as the truth, a lot of it is inadequate.”
  2. “Number two, concretely you should develop a list of readings that have a more critical evaluation of Europe, of Europe’s role with Islam, of Europe’s role with black people, of Europe’s role with the rest of the world. There are lots and lots of books that have been written for actually hundreds of years, certainly a couple of hundred years.”  You can find such a list at the end of this article.
  3. “Thirdly, you should be involved in conversations with one another and with people who are working in this area to figure out how to develop a better literature.”

If you ask me, a great place to start such a critical evaluation of Europe would be to read Stephen’s ‘20 Questions and Answers on Black Europe’; especially if you are tired of academic papers that hide behind flowery phrases instead of dealing with reality. But, as this article shows, being aware is just one of many ways in which you can contribute. Have you heard of a racist incident like the ‘Coolest Monkey in the Jungle’-hoodie that has not yet received any media attention? Then share it with as many people as possibly by posting a picture on social media or writing an article about your observation. Do you speak Danish, Spanish, Czech, Hungarian, or French? Translate critical articles into your native tongue to help develop the body of critical literature. The bottom line is that you have to realise one thing: “It doesn’t have to be a big plan, it can be a concrete plan. Don’t try to achieve everything at one time; do one project at a time.”

Having a European identity means acknowledging that we are all connected to one another, that we have a common denominator. As a white European, I will never know what it feels like to experience racism. I am privileged enough to never have gone through any of the horrifying stories Stephen shared with us. But with that privilege also comes the responsibility to act because it is simply not acceptable to turn a blind eye to the obvious. As a European, as a human being I have to actively open my eyes and hearts to the problems around me. And so do you.

By Cindy Langer, Editor in Chief of the European Student Think Tank – EST Board of 2017-18.

Critical Reading lists

  • Césaire, A. (2000). Discourse on colonialism. NYU Press.
  • Mirza, H. S. (2015). “Harvesting our collective intelligence”: Black British feminism in post-race times. In Women’s Studies International Forum, Pergamon, Vol. 51, pp. 1-9.
  • Small, S. (2017). 20 Questions and Answers on Black Europe, Amrit Consultancy, purchasable from https://www.bol.com/nl/p/20-questions-and-answers-on-black-europe/9200000084292430/

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