Creolizing Europe

Fatima El-Tayeb

Being European without being white and/or Christian does not only put one in a strange place, but also in a strange temporality: Europeans who are both tend to read one as having just arrived or even as still being elsewhere—if not physically, then at least culturally. When working on racism and Europe, on the other hand, one is often faced with the assumption that the former is nonexistent within the continent—many white Europeans go as far as to claim that they “do not understand race,” usually when referencing a supposed American obsession with it. Europeans tend to see the relevance of race as one of, if not the central difference between Europe and the United States (religiosity being the other) and attempts at pointing to the important role of race (and racism) in European identity formations are frequently framed as enforcing an Americanized “political correctness,” a discourse that is meant to silence necessary critiques of migrant communities (a term covering all groups not perceived as European, including racialized Europeans) and their supposed innate sexism, anti-Semitism and homophobia. This move allows Europe to be presented as being more tolerant than both the U.S. (plagued by racism) and the Global South (plagued by intolerance of every kind). That is, despite that the origin of the very concept of “race” in Europe and the explicitly race-based policies of both its fascist regimes and its colonial empires, the dominant assumption is still that this history has had no impact on the continent itself and its internal structures.

Indeed, at first glance it might seem as if Europe exists outside of the U.S. American (post-)racial temporality. While the latter is built on a narrative of having successfully overcome intolerance and discrimination, the myth of European colorblindness claims that Europe never was “racial” (anti-Semitism is still often analyzed as being both an exception and clearly separable from racism). This makes it hard to challenge the narrative from within a continental European theoretical framework that constantly externalizes race, i.e. places it outside of the domain of what needs to be theorized. Accordingly, the continental European Left has produced no theory of racialization. Instead, class remains central—which is ironic since class is deeply racialized in Europe.

As a result, Europe, in its national and postnational variations, is maintaining a normalized, Christian(ized, secular) whiteness through an ideology of colorblindness that claims not to “see” racialized difference. It thus both stabilizes and silences race as a framework inherent to the continent, all the while using race (currently expressed via religion and culture) to constantly produce non-white populations as necessarily non-European (instead, terms like “third generation migrant” affirm that racialized populations permanently remain “aliens from elsewhere”, to use Rey Chow’s term).1 This ongoing racial amnesia, which is made possible through the erasure of the history of European racism and the history of Europeans of color, makes unspeakable the processes of internal racialization and the ways in which they are inseparable from the aftereffects of European colonialism. In this way, neocolonial economic structures increasingly posit racialized communities as disposable populations.

This narrative of “colorblind Europe” is closely tied to the success story of the European Union as representing many of the virtues and few of the vices of the nation states it is meant to replace. The rise of the American empire and neoliberal multiculturalism in the second half of the twentieth century coincided with the reordering of Europe after WWII into West and East, the loss of colonial empires, and after 1990, another reordering, largely collapsing “Europe” into the European Union. The latter came to symbolize Europe’s successful reformation after the twentieth century crises of totalitarianism, confirming the continent’s place as the center and gatekeeper of universal human rights. This narrative was affirmed by the self-congratulatory designation of the EU as the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, while it already seems to be falling apart at the edges.

The current economic collapse of parts of the European Union enhances an existing structural violence, with housing segregation, unemployment, incarceration, and the collapse of the public school system all disproportionally affecting racialized groups, in particular Muslim, black and Roma communities. The particular histories of colonialism, racism and migration in Europe have created intersections and overlaps between these three communities, who share spaces (housing projects, prisons, detention centers), cultures (see their key role in hip-hop music all across Europe), histories, and positionalities (as not being properly European). These connections are suppressed in dominant (policy-producing) discourses that identify each group as deviant in particular ways:

Muslims appear as the internal threat posed by migration, the other that is already there but remains eternally foreign; whereas “Africans” (including black Europeans) represent the masses who are not yet here, pushing at the borders, the demographic (and racial) Goliath threatening to overrun the European David (the prevalence of metaphors along these lines helps to normalize the extremely high death toll the EU migration regime produces on its external borders—about 5000 per year, complimented by a rapidly growing, and increasingly privatized, regime of mass incarceration of undocumented migrants). Roma peoples, finally, the quintessential European minority of color, with a 500 year-long continental history that includes slavery and genocide, continue to face extreme violence, poverty and exclusion, while being completely absent as a recognized presence in contemporary Europe. Instead, they are framed as not only coming from another, non-European, space, but another time, an idealized European past, as reflected in the centrality of “gypsies” to continental folklore.

The discursive separation of these groups is symptomatic of the ways in which de facto intersections of communities of color—with each other and with white Europe—are negated within the ideology of colorblindness, which cannot allow for porous boundaries and instead has to continuously produce distinct and homogenous groups. This is reflected in the absence of intersectional analyses that would allow us to trace connections and the coalitions they produced, in addition to exploring their potential impact on comparative studies of racialization. Such a comparative perspective could help to face the methodological challenges posed by the unique position that Europe claims and is often granted, as a supposedly neutral “ground zero” against which everything else is measured, both unique and universal. Europe, after all, is the only place that white people are native to; where they are not settler colonialists. This allows the continued claim that racist and colonialist oppression, while admittedly committed by (descendants of) Europeans has no impact on Europe itself.

A critical theorization of European racializations can challenge this supposed European exceptionalism. It can and should use methodologies that were developed in response to settler colonialism to produce desperately needed theorizations of the extremely violent anti-Roma racism that barely receives academic, let alone public attention. The temporal dislocation of Roma people has clear parallels to the spatio-temporal placement of indigenous populations elsewhere, as do (ongoing) histories of “special schools”, stolen children and forced sterilizations. The different but related situation of Roma can further discussions on comparative racializations. Moreover, it can be used to futher explorations of the intersections of Muslim and African diasporas in Europe or of our understanding of blackness in relation to Africanness, especially with regard to Europe’s population of North African descent or to the (self-)definition of Eastern European Roma as black.

Structures of domination do cross spaces separated by theory, after all, and working on race outside the U.S. context, a comparative approach to spatio-temporality is central: studying one location makes it possible to identify the dominant model of racialization and how it came out of and incorporates earlier models. This model is currently, but arguably, the U.S. model. Such an approach might create too linear a temporality, however. A comparative perspective complicates this linearity by assessing the spatial distribution of coexisting different racial temporalities and the ways in which they continue to inform each other.

In my work, I have been interested in art and activism that aims at creating the conditions of “speakability” for minoritarian identities, art that works not against but with the spatio-temporal dislocation of racialized communities, using strategies of resistance that originate (in) an identity that some refer to as “diasporic queer of color”. That is, their “queerness” in time and space, which is imposed rather than chosen, precisely because it is more pronounced for the current generation of Europeans of color, produces new strategies of resistance. I summarize these as the queering of ethnicity; a non-essentialist, and non-linear political strategy, which is not based on racial identification but on the shared experience of being racialized. The result is a situational, potentially inclusive identity, which creates bonds between various ethnicized and marginalized groups, whilst offering some preliminary tools for theorizing positionality, legibility, and identity beyond Eurocentric universalism and nationalist essentialism.

A queering, or “creolizing” of theory, if you will, that works on the intersections of concepts and disciplines, opens the potential of expressing exactly the positionality deemed impossible in dominant European discourses, namely that of Europeans of color. It foregrounds the latter’s transgressive strategies of resistance, which are often downplayed in culturalist debates around Europe’s “migration problem”.

Edouard Glissant’s notion of creolization seems one of the most interesting and successful attempts at moving beyond the binary model of thinking that is so ingrained in the ways we are taught to perceive the world. Such a creolized theory would question Europe as the “sacred territory” as it appears in dominant, internalist narratives: according to Glissant, the Caribbean became a center of relational identities and situational communities exactly because their inability to claim the “sacred roots” of these territories excluded its inhabitants from a world order in which both dominance and resistance were built on notions of sacred land.2 This positionality is shared by racialized minorities in Europe. An origin that does not imply sacredness or authenticity is thus the point from which minoritarian resistance can be articulated; a position as subject of speech achieved. In order to arrive at this stage however, a different archive needs to be accessed, one that is based on the experiences of marginalized, silenced communities, those who are not present within dominant manifestations of Europeanness.

Kanak Attak, KanakHistoryRevue “Opel Pitbull Autoput”, 2001.

The poster utilizes an image of the cheap, sturdy and large plastic bag that was a staple in the luggage of migrant families who returned to work in Germany after the summer and thus is immediately recognizable to many of those interpellated as “Kanaken”.
Kanak Attak, Konkret Konkrass, 2002

I shall only give one example here: the nationwide German activist group Kanak Attak, which was most active from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, was built around not racial identity but the common experience of being racialized. They refused the normalized “culture of dialogue” in which racialized subjects were granted a voice only when not speaking as Germans. They staged interventions into public space (and time) that refused the logic of progressive secular time. This was reflected in their name, “Kanake”—a German derogatory term for “foreigners” (i.e. those perceived as not belonging, whether they are German or not) that has its roots in the nation’s colonial empire (a fact that those who use the term as an insult are usually unaware of). Germany’s colonial past has only recently been “rediscovered” by academia and the mainstream, and its historicization remains firmly situated in the past—a discourse that allows people to continue to perceive “race” as something only brought to the nation recently via non-white migrants. The colloquial use of “Kanake”, reflects a less-standardized temporality, one in which colonialism and the spatio-temporal order it has produced refuse to stay either outside of Europe or in the past. Kanak Attak brings this reality to the fore.

The activists used video, performance, posters, billboards, flyers and other vernacular forms in order to escape the institutionalized mechanisms of racelessness that are designed to silence positionalities beyond the white / Christian European vs. migrant dichotomy. As “Kanak TV,” they produced a series of videos that upturned normalized hierarchies, “anticipat(ing) discursively the desired change in power relations”3 by shifting the focus from the racialized subjects to those engaged in racializing them.4 Kanak Attak first gained national attention through their 2001 multimedia project KanakHistoryRevue. The event brought together minority and migrant artists / activists from a variety of fields, who staged readings, film screenings, and performances. Kanak Attak activists offered re-enactments of forty years of labor migrant presence in Germany, with its fractured, non-linear presentation that radically differed from mainstream commemorations.

In opposition to the dominant attempt at creating a common, cohesive narrative, the activists work towards what Susan Suleiman calls a “crisis of memory”, a conflict over “the interpretation and public understanding of an event firmly situated in the past, but whose aftereffects are still deeply felt.”5 These aftereffects originate from Glissant’s “point(s) of entanglement” at which differences and discrepancies were suppressed and externalized. Most obviously so with regard to racialized and religious minorities, but as feminists of color since the 1970s (and earlier) have argued, these constructs depend on heteronormative conceptualizations of gender and sexuality that are no less restrictive in their negation of what is not acceptable as is the discourse of colorblindness with which they are interwoven. The queering of ethnicity, diversion, situational communities and diasporic intersubjectivities employed by racialized minorities all work against the attempt to cohere them out of existence, resisting not only their erasure from the contemporary European landscape but also from its past. The queering of ethnicity has the dual function of inserting European minorities into the ongoing debate around the continent’s identity and of reclaiming their place in its history, with the creation of alternative archives working as a bridge between the two.

Since the dogma of racelessness is centrally built on silencing; on making certain identities, processes, and structures unspeakable, I have explored a number of alternative languages, all circumventing the mandate to silence by making specifically European taboos around race speakable [see Kanak Attak, starting with the group’s name, which redefines what is speakable by whom in German]. These sonic, performative, and visual languages use the haunting presence of repressed histories to map an alternative spatio-temporal European landscape, building Glissant’s poetics of relation, or in Cathy Cohen’s terms, “a politics where one’s relation to power, and not some homogenized identity, is privileged in determining one’s political comrades”.6 In the process they destabilize naturalized understandings of time and space that work in the interest of particular groups, thereby recovering “impossible alternatives”. In short, to riff on Audre Lorde, they are “the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”7

  • 1. Rey Chow, The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 34.
  • 2. Edouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1989).
  • 3. Sun-Ju Choi, and Oulis Miltiadid, “Kanak TV—der o!ensive Blick,” WiderstandsBewegungen: WiderstandsBewegungen: Antirassismus zwischen Alltag & Aktion (Berlin: Interface, 2005).
  • 4. Kanak TV’s videos, some with English subtitles, can be viewed here: http://www.kanak-attak.de/ka/media_video.shtml, accessed 10 January 2014.
  • 5. Susan Rubin Suleiman, Crises of Memory and the Second World War (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2006), 1.
  • 6. Cathy Cohen. 1997. “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics?” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 3(4), 438.
  • 7. Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider (Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1984), 37.