UKREN blog

Thursday 9 July 2015

How the legacy of racism continues to make ‘others’ out of migrant people


The ongoing crisis on the Mediterranean has shed light on an old unsolved - and clearly so often poorly addressed problem at the heart of Europe: namely its relation with its Other.

Europe’s favoured perspective seems to concentrate on a diplomatic, political or geopolitical crisis – as suggested by the very notion of a ‘Mediterranean’ crisis – which leaves aside the tragedy of human losses, drowned hopes, the expectation of finding shelter, and the dream of a safe place to live and the chance to survive.

The European and International media have played a big role in how this tragedy has been appropriated and narrated especially to EU citizens. Even if some headlines have clearly condemned European powers for neglecting their responsibility and remaining indifferent to more than 28.000 death in the last 15 years, many media accounts rode on the old rhetoric (echoing Thatcherite themes) of fearing an ‘invasion’ of migrants.  The implication that ‘we can’t take them all’ contains the inevitable suggestion that we should let some, at least, die in the sea.

The callousness of this mind-set runs through numerous examples of media reporting: the notorious statement by the self-promoting wannabe Katie Hopkins, associating migrants trying to come to Europe via sea with the lifestyle of cockroaches;the recent headlines presenting migrants at Calais as criminals threatening violence against British lorry drivers with violence. These are just two examples of a phenomenon that has being going on for a long time in the very heart of European politics and of the rhetoric it generates about a racialised and delinquent sub-set of human beings.

Racialised others

Migrants emerge as racialised figures in this discourse, carrying the ethnic markers of violent, unpredictable, frequently lazy, unproductive and poorly educated people whose essential nature can be read from their appearance alone, rather than any more intimate knowledge of their lives and experiences. That they are ‘Them’ and we are ‘Us’ becomes a profound dichotomy that will not be overcome by normal social interactions in communities of shared space.

These are processes which build division and erode the hope that normal, mundane association will break down barriers and allow us all to appear to each other as human beings.  It builds on the older legacies of colonialism which also saw any sign of rebellion against subject status as the mark of the quintessential criminal and the potential terrorist. Even if it has proved that an increase of immigration has not resulted in a directly proportional increase of criminal offences, the politics of securitisation and the climate of fear towards the Other have resulted in an increase of arrests, even if fewer crimes were committed.

Most European countries have chosen across the years to represent the migrant outsider as a prospective criminal, and in doing so they have criminalised social problems themselves rather than seeking to solve them.

It has come to the stage where it seems that only the actual sight of migrant bodies floating on the sea can rally public consciousness to the point where they are finally rescued from criminality and take their place once again as real, though now eternally lost to us human beings.  A parallel situation exists in the United States, where only the proclamation that ‘Black Lives Matter’, and that at the point where a dead body lies to the heart of the deal, can shift people into moving beyond the psychological myopias that have learnt to inhabit.

Because of its particular history, Europe has been dealing with racism and the marginalisation and exclusion of its designated outsiders in different ways. Some countries have morally and legally banned the term racism on the grounds that memories of the Holocaust had discredited them and almost made its use the subject of taboo. Others have congratulated themselves on the vigour of their assimilationist policies, applauding the way that becoming like ‘Us’, though a taxing process, is something that all can aspire to.  Multicultural policies are promoted, although in the end they also seem to have failed to effectively protect people from racist abuses. Many of Europe’s policies have been moving from a colour blindness theoretical approach to a blindness to racism practical outcome.

Tackling ‘otherness’

So, even if on one side there is the need for a strong political response, taking responsibility of its acts, moving away from securitisation towards a policy of cooperation to create a welcoming environment for anyone, the root of the problem lies in ‘othering’ and ‘inferiorising’ practices. These, even if perpetrated on a everyday basis actions and reinforced by mainstream media, are eventually connected to Europe’s colonial past and the legacy of racist ideology on contemporary attitudes.

The biggest change needs to come from within Europe’s civil society, which needs to talk about and address racism openly.

Those willing  to do this will welcome a project the UK Race and Europe Network (UKREN)  is now developing which aims to a plurality of voices in a conversation about racism and discrimination in contemporary Europe, bringing artists and blogger together to light up this so-far-silenced conversation.

It is only through a deep reflection on European powers’ history and through an honest discussion with minority voices that we can try to overcome this hierarchical and stiff us and them divide and transform it instead into a challenging dynamic continuous renegotiation of our (and theirs) European identities.

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Anna De Mutiis 

UKREN Project Intern

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