Conceptualizing Racism in Europe

Photo: Terra Nova Fondation. Racism is a term imbued with ambiguity. Sometimes racism is a manifestation of misplaced anger or irritation, at other times it is deep-seated and systematic. Part of recognising the shapes racism takes is crucial in the battle against it. Racism is a product of its context, which makes the European and Swedish perspectives an interesting duality for investigation.

So, what is racism? Historically, the debate amongst social thinkers was one of biology—where “empiricism” and genetics clearly demarcated racial groups for which social consequences followed—versus sociology, which argued that race is a social construct. The racial biology notion is apparent in the more obvious forms of racism such as eugenics or even state-sanctioned segregation. Nathan Hamelberg, an anti-racist thinker and member of the organization Mellanförskapet (The Betweenship) based in Stockholm, calls this the “minimalist view.” The critique of this view asserts that racism is about power relations based on racial hierarchies. Hamelberg believes that this idea of race underpins the modern ongoing debate: “Is racism built on structures in society or just a case of what individual choices result in?”

This conceptualisation sees racism as both systematic and informal, operating on racial hierarchies in employment, housing, criminal justice, and other social sectors. Juliana Wahlgren, Networking Officer at the European Network Against Racism (ENAR) in Brussels, says that a lot of the work she does is based on a strategy of fighting structures with structures – a dual approach, one that lobbies at the European policy level, with direct access to decision-makers, and another that utilizes a network of information to aid member organizations at the national level toward anti-discrimination goals. One of the important parts of this is monitoring recurring racism in certain sectors, giving credence to the view that racism is practiced via structured hierarchies.

“The notion that people would just randomly all act in racist ways, and in the same way, to create these hierarchies is implausible,” Hamelberg says. “It has to be a structured racism that predates that because otherwise people wouldn’t fall into racist behaviour if it wasn’t already outlined in our culture and society.”

Also common within this modern debate is the narrative of racism as a personal experience, deeply felt and perceived. But these visceral experiences may be dictated by the way in which we consume culture. Hamelberg sees this internalisation of racism as a result of the market for cultural consumption, where people of colour have an inverse relationship with popular cultural imagery. “In terms of the risk of internalizing negative imagery,” he says, “people of colour are much more prone to that because their visual economy is totally asymmetric; so if there is a specific weight given a to cliché or caricature or racial stereotype – it’s a lot heavier. Whiteness has a multitude of representations in popular cultureIt may very well be that conscious cultural consumption and promotion may help break down these structured hierarchies and help prevent the internalisation of racist symbols. But from Hamelberg’s perspective, there are particular barriers to overcome before the market for cultural imagery can be free of racist stereotypes: “There has been from the majority of Swedish society a tendency to scorn people who have taken offense because they confuse the triviality of the material in question, whether a candy bar or a cake. This is the blindness that allows for the majority of Swedish society to be that ignorant about racism.”

Photo: Unumunkh on flickr.

What may be particular to Sweden may not apply to other contexts, but Wahlgren, who has been working with ENAR since 2006, believes that there is something distinctly European about the types of discrimination people face in member states: “Discrimination is still very mainstream in all European countries. Here in Europe structural discrimination is escalating, something you wouldn’t see in the U.S. or Latin American countries.”  One main reason she cites is that Europe is in the heart of the economic crisis and there has been a coupling between migration and the economic crisis in the minds of some.

The rise of outwardly and openly racist parties in Europe has been news for years, indicating a rise in racist motivations in many European nations. Both Wahlgren and Hamelberg agree that these political parties play a large role in the inception of intolerance via public discourse. Wahlgren says, “The problem is that the narrative used by the right-wing parties was constructed not only now but twenty years ago.” Hamelberg says that in nations like Denmark and Netherlands, which 10 to 15 years ago used to be very progressive on immigration debates, has seen the “hijacking of public discussion by the extreme right.”

Those very discourses, though, may be auxiliary in combating racism. “[At ENAR] we try to reconstruct the same narratives but in a positive way,” Wahlgren says. “So we try to bring a positive discourse regarding migration and the positive consequences of migration and ethnic minorities.” If Hamelberg and Wahlgren are right, combating racist behaviour in European societies means to erode the racial hierarchies that pervade them. This is no small feat, but reshaping the public discussion may help spur honest interaction of policies and perceptions to better reflect that ongoing process of progress.


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