I just attended an amazing conference in Berlin called Decolonize the City. The conference centered mainly around issues of race, which is quite significant when you consider the context (Germany) as well as the fact that it is rare for race to be discussed openly in any European context, let alone academia. Yet at the same time, discussions of race are more necessary than ever. A court in Germany earlier this year ruled that racial profiling is now legal and acceptable in Germany. Last year 9 immigrants were killed in separate incidents across the country by a neo-Nazi group, who had slipped under the radar of the police. Moreover, structural and institutional racism in Germany continues to persist, and in some cases, worsen.
Many of the discussions and comments centered around the struggle young people of colour go through in battling to come to terms with their colonized history, as well as their racialised identity. In the European context this seems even more difficult, because race is simply not talked about. When people of colour bring race into a conversation, they are accused of “bringing division into society,” as though the continuing basis of European racism that structures institutions and everyday life has not already done that. A common response to discussions of racism in Europe is that “racism is something that exists in America,” as pointed out by Ella Shohat. Race has become a very frightening category after World War 2, particularly in Germany.
An important question is whether race actually exists, and if so, how to define and deal with it. Personally I don’t believe that race exists in the sense of meaningful differences between human beings. While there are of course visible differences between people across the globe, these do not translate into differences in behaviour, IQ, rationality, etc. that can then be (and have been) organized into hierarchies of power. Seeing race as a construct, however, does not mean that it is not a reality for people. Structurally speaking, race exists and affects the lives of everyone. The fact that something is socially constructed does not mean that they do not have real repercussions. It is legitimate to mobilize the concept of race as long as it is not seen as an essential category.
Ella Shohat, the first speaker, focused specifically on the links between anti-semitism and Islamophobia. She argues that it is important NOT to delink the two, as they are connected historically. The inquisition that began in Europe was against both Muslims and Jews (although many historical narratives attempt to ignore the cooperation and solidarity that existed between Jews and Muslims in Andalusia, for example). Anti-semitism and Islamophobia were at once racial and religious.
Discussing the German holocaust, Shohat points out that it is not possible to speak of the Jewish holocaust in Germany without linking it to the previous African holocausts carried out by Germans in Namibia (against the Herero peoples). In fact, the first concentration camp built by Germans was in South-West Africa, and many of the medical experiments were tested there first before being used by the Third Reich against Jews and other minorities in Germany. Germany has rejected ALL demands for reparations except to the Jewish population. This is especially important considering the fact that not only were Germans responsible for other holocausts (in Africa), they were also part of the European colonial machinery that dominated most of the world at some point. Reparations are extremely symbolic, and the refusal on Germany’s part to pay any is equally symbolic. In fact, most European countries have rejected claims for reparations.
Another point is that it is important not to de-link Nazism from the rest of Europe. The dominant narrative is that other European countries played no role in what happened in Germany to the Jews and other minorities. This is simply not true. The anti-semitic discourses that allowed the holocaust to occur were present in many European countries, including the Netherlands, where over 70% of Jews were deported and exterminated. Moreover, as Shohat pointed out, Nazism was simply a continuation of European scientific racism, to which many European countries contributed.
Ramon Grosfoguel pointed out that when Europeans said “never again,” they meant never again for Jews. If Europeans had meant “never again” for ALL humans, they would not be able to support the state of Israel today, that is in fact a colonial state that perpetrates mass violations of human rights against the Palestinians.
Finally, Shohat spoke a bit about race politics within Israel. As an Iraqi-Jew that grew up in Israel, her positionality is particularly important. She speaks of the Zionist project to create the “new Jew” in Israel, which basically referred to the white Jew. This was built, of course, on Eurocentric discourses that the Ashkenazi Jews brought with them from Europe. At the beginning, many within Israel did not want non-white Jews to immigrate to the country. It was only when they needed cheap labour and when they felt they needed to outnumber Palestinians, that Israel began encouraging Arab/African Jews to migrate. These migrants had to be whitened and assimilated, however. Shohat spoke about her struggle. She said many Arab Jews tried to forget where they were from, and to constitute themselves as only Jewish, although this was difficult. Others could not, and chose to fight the battle between the two identities.
These discussions show how central the concept of race has been over the past 500 years. Starting with the inquisition in Spain, followed by the colonization of the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and culminating finally in the German (actually, European) holocaust, it becomes clear how central race has been in the process of dividing people. Looking at Europe today, we see that these discourses did not end, but continue in a myriad of different ways, modern-day Islamophobia being the most prominent example. Until these discourses are eliminated, and Europeans deal with the underlying racist structure of their societies, there will always be an Other. There will always be oppression, discrimination and racism, because societies will always be structurally organized to produce these.