Europe Still Struggles to Talk About Racism and its Colonial Past

Is it any wonder things are finally reaching breaking point?

Roxanna Azimy
Jun 23, 2020 · 10 min read
Illustration by Eleni Kalorkoti via NYT

As we have seen, the U.S.-born Black Lives Matter movement has crossed the Atlantic and had a ripple effect across Europe. The thing is, we often regard Europe — the EU Member States especially — as a head and shoulder above the rest of the world (oh, the irony) when it comes to racism, and our apparent lack of it.

But from the not-so-diverse EU institutions setting an unfortunate example to the wider public, to the ongoing relics of colonialism and exoticism that permeate society, to the taboo of even bringing up these issues — it’s time Europe learned how to talk about ethnicity in a direct yet mindful way to eradicate even the most subtle forms of racism once and for all.

Let’s walk through a few of the key obstacles today when it comes to Europe’s struggle to have an open, grown-up conversation about ethnic diversity and racial injustices.

“I don’t see colour.”

This is a common claim among progressive, self-professed anti-racist Europeans. Variations include “I’m colour blind” or “talking about racial differences only worsens the divide.” Okay, it’s great if you don’t see ethnicity as important, and genuinely don’t want society to needlessly segregate itself or single certain individuals out for no good reason. However, claiming not to see differences at all will not solve the issues we still have surrounding them — even if these issues are based on nonsensical ideologies and our differences are only superficial — we cannot deny that they exist.

And if you are a white person reading this now feeling uncomfortable that I am even using the term “white” or alluding to the idea of “race” at all — then you are part of the problem. Of course, the idea of race is fabricated. No doubt about that. We are all simply part of the human race and for many mixed-race people especially — including myself — it can make the whole idea look even more absurd because neither you nor anyone else even knows which “race” you are or what box to put you in.

But the fact is — much of the world doesn’t see it that way — and both history and current affairs reflect this. If you’re one of those people who claim, with the best intentions no doubt, that they don’t “see” or “acknowledge” others’ ethnicities, then this undermines the very real struggle that’s still ongoing. It may be more palatable to claim it doesn’t exist and condemn those that bring it up — but this is only making it easier for yourself, not those affected.

Granted, the U.S. talks about “race” too much, perhaps, making it seem more important than it is. However, Europe’s tendency to essentially ignore the fact that different ethnicities exist, and pretend that not acknowledging that makes them somehow enlightened and progressive — I’m sorry to tell you, is doing more harm than good.

Ticking Boxes

I often talk about this dichotomy of approaches to ethnicity in Europe when it comes to discussing ethnicity in terms of those “diversity” or “inclusivity” forms that are still commonplace in some European countries, and yet greatly condemned in others. In the UK, for example, you have to tick a box to state your “ethnic background” every time you start an educational programme, course, or when applying to some jobs.

When telling my French and Belgian friends about this, they quite understandably deem it absurd. But why is this still common practice in the UK and the U.S.?


Well, perhaps because they are able to produce data like this to reflect any ongoing ethnic inequalities — such as university admissions, employment, health problems, crime rates, and homelessness. If, for example, more ethnic minority citizens do better at school but then go on to get lower-ranking jobs — then this is a problem. If most people applying for jobs in a certain sector are from an ethnic minority group and yet those employed in that sector are mostly white, this is a problem.

The idea of race may be silly but this idea is still harming people. So we need to take notice of it — silly or not.

This is why monitoring gender is also still crucial. Does that mean I am against non-gender-conforming individuals? Of course not. But gender and the associated biases still exist. Even if it shouldn’t be used as a judge of character as it so often is, we can’t just hide away from it and declare that problem over. We can’t tell ourselves that if we completely deny our differences and pretend that we are all exactly the same, that the inequalities cease to exist. As uncomfortable and counter-productive as it may seem, until the day we achieve perfect equality, we need to collect data in order to protect everyone.

In France, for instance, such ethnic group categorization and data collection methods are illegal. I found this to be refreshing when I spent time living there. They don’t see your ethnicity as relevant — you are either a citizen or you aren’t. No further detail required. But it turns out that countries like France that run in horror from such forms or even topics definitely still have problems with racism — even if actually mentioning the concepts of “race” or “ethnicity” has become taboo, so there is no data to back this up. Employers, landlords, and universities may continue to reject certain ethnic groups based on their names or appearance, and yet since ethnicity apparently doesn’t exist over there, there is no evidence to call them out…

The Ghost of Colonialism

As I discussed at length in my last article, since various European cultures were enforced around the globe through centuries of colonialism, this collection of (mostly Western-European) cultures is now regarded as some sort of default dominating culture. As a result, we are so used to the resulting Anglo-American culture child today, that it is not even viewed as a culture,” but rather “the culture,” — with any others simply being novelty add-ons.

Yes, colonialism is hard to talk about — and, as we have seen in statue-topplings “canceling” colonial figures across Europe in recent weeks, even harder to call out. Granted, this is more a part of some European countries’ past than others — but whether you’re from Brussels, Dublin, Athens, or Krakow — we all need to accept, as mindful European citizens who take pride in our collective identity and shared history, the dark past of our wider community — the privilege of which, we all benefit from to some extent.

No finger-pointing or pretenses along the lines of my country didn’t do that so it’s not my burden to bear. None of us alive today are responsible and I’m not suggesting we take the blame. But Europeans today must all take ownership of the wrongs of Europe overall if we are ever to make real progress as the united and progressive community that we claim to be. And part of this is openly talking about the hardships of former colonies and the diasporas now living in EU member states. The difficulties they still face to this day — whether in terms of lack of representation, social immobility, or hate crimes.

We are quick to celebrate Europe today for leading the way in terms of freedom of speech and tolerance — and rightfully so! But we simply cannot do this without acknowledging the exploitation and deeply harmful views that this curious pocket of the world was built upon. The ghost of colonialism haunts the entire continent — and the only way we can handle that is to stop running; to instead face it head-on.

Exoticism and “White Saviours”

Another element of this issue is the lingering exoticism that lives on in Europe. Exoticism is defined as the fascination with other cultures and ethnicities. It came about during Europe’s colonial past — when other cultures became a topic of interest and even fetishization.

“Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartment,” by 18th century French artist, Eugène Delacroix while Middle Eastern women were all the rage in Europe…

Exoticism today may not be exactly how it was back then — with copious paintings depicting foreign people — mostly women — in all of their “exotic” glory that was to tantalizingly unfamiliar to the European men who then commanded the narrative. This can then even evolve into the notion of the “noble savage” that needs protecting or even to be civilized by the generous white Europeans. The “white saviour” trope of today is simply the descendant of this idea that the generous Europeans must go out to rescue the seemingly uncivilized rest of the world…

Exoticism also lives on in European society, for example, by attaching certain stereotypes — positive or negative — to people in this group, by touching or making ignorant comments about black people’s hair or Muslim women’s hijabs, or appropriating certain garments or customs such as bindis, kaftans, yoga, tai chi, Holi, or rap music (note, appreciation and learning are very different from appropriating!).

Misplaced Entitlement

Don’t get me wrong — I can certainly see why a regular, well-meaning “white” European citizen who has grown up in an overwhelmingly white environment — watching mainly white people on the TV, having mainly white friends, white teachers, and white employers, and reading books mainly by white people and about white people — may get a little excited or even uncomfortable when presented with a culture so unfamiliar, exciting, or exotic for the first time up close. It is a lot better to be curious or appreciative than condemning or insulting, after all.

However, the implicated belief that “white” people and European-derived cultures are the default — with all other individuals, communities, and customs as the novelty add-ons to be fantasized about, objectified, or used as fancy-dress — even when done in a well-intentioned matter — perpetuates the belief that Europe is for “white” people. That all others who don’t comply with this norm should be grateful to even be allowed to be present some of the time — and certainly shouldn’t complain when we regard their culture as ours for the taking: as a theme, a fashion statement, or as a punchline.

It remains in the back of the minds, I would argue — even of the most tolerant Europeans who may not dare admit it out loud — that ethnic minority citizens “chose” to come here in the first place; that insidious and yet rampant belief that ‘they don’t get to be picky or assert power over us when we are doing them a favour by allowing them to stay.’

From the Syria to Belgium refugee experience, Africa to Europe migration patterns, to the increasing number of climate refugees, I have already discussed in various specific contexts the countless reasons why someone who doesn’t fit the ethnocultural stereotype of their European country may now reside there. And quite frankly, the ethnic background or migration story of any random person you come across is none of your business unless someone chooses to share that with you.

“All Lives Matter”

Last but not least is the common retort to the “Black Lives Matter” movement that “all lives matter” — as though that these statements are somehow contradictory. In case you have missed the many clear explanations that just as “feminism” is about the equality of all and yet has historically focused on women’s rights since they have historically been the oppressed gender, the racial equality movement must focus on the ethnic groups that are currently being oppressed.

Of course, the goal is equality. No one is saying only black lives matter. But yes, the light is indeed shining on the group that needs lifting in order to reach this bar of equality. And if your first response, when confronted with the hardship of a group to which you don’t belong, is to make it all about you — then you have a victim complex.

The Bottom Line

Europe, stop dancing around the subject of ethnicity — including those tricky topics of colonialism, racism, and your own unconscious biases and mindsets. Listen to what the ethnic minority groups themselves have to say. You may not be racist. You may not even “see” racism so you believe it doesn’t exist in your community anymore. But have you ever considered that others without your level of privilege could still regularly be experiencing it? That you may be unwittingly contributing to counter-productive narratives?

It is definitely dangerous to become too preoccupied with the concept of ethnicity. It really shouldn’t matter. But just because it shouldn’t doesn’t mean it doesn’t. The more we talk openly about these issues — from the classroom, to the parliament, to your kitchen table — the more we can come to terms with the truth and strive to make progress.

We need to stop this misleading idea that talking about racism and other cultures is awkward or embarrassing. That our society is not racist because it is generous enough to allow ethnic minorities to live there at all, because it promotes certain relics of other cultures when the occasion calls for it, because it ignores that different ethnicities even exist, or because on paper, equality is upheld.

You may feel offended in my bringing it up, but rest assured that if that is the case, you are not the victim here.

Roxanna is a half English-half Iranian content writer specialized in human rights, identities, health, and welfare. With a French and Spanish degree from King’s College London, a Master’s degree in European Studies from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a background in political PR, she strives to increase visibility and encourage debate around ethical, psychological, and sociocultural issues around the world.

Website: Twitter: @roxannayasmin


We curate outstanding articles from diverse domains and…

Roxanna Azimy

Written by

Interested in all things ethics, culture, gender, health & psychology. Asking the hard questions but not claiming to have all the answers.


We curate and disseminate outstanding articles from diverse domains and disciplines to create fusion and synergy.

Roxanna Azimy

Written by

Interested in all things ethics, culture, gender, health & psychology. Asking the hard questions but not claiming to have all the answers.


We curate and disseminate outstanding articles from diverse domains and disciplines to create fusion and synergy.

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