The African Diaspora in Europe Today

*This post is part of our new blog series on Black Europe. This series, edited by Kira Thurman and Anne-Marie Angeloexplores what it means to bring the category of Black Europe to the foreground of scholarship on Europe and the Black Atlantic. 

The 2008 Marche des libertés demonstration in Paris celebrated the 160th anniversary of the 1848 abolition of slavery in France. The March also served to protest the continuing discrimination against Black people in France (Photo: looking4poetry, Flickr).

In Europe today, non-Black people often ask—why are there so many Black people in Europe? But a far better question is ‘why are there so few Black people in Europe?’ The African diaspora in Europe began when Europeans first invaded and colonized Africa. Racist/sexist stereotypes and caricatures were first developed and disseminated across Europe before the United States and other nations across the Americas were even created. And racist ideologies and nomenclatures were substantially elaborated in Europe, by elite white men from Swedish botanist and zoologist, Carl Linneaus, French naturalist George Buffon and German physiologist and anthropologist, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach; and from English philosopher and biologist Herbert Spencer, English statistician and eugenicist Francis Galton to Italian criminologist and physician Cesare Lombroso. European nations kidnapped and transported millions of Africans into vicious enslavement across the Americas. Tiny numbers of Africans were brought to Europe to sing, dance and perform or to study Christianity. Some were put as spectacles in zoos. Many women became concubines and prostitutes. And master-enslavers brought their favorite human property to serve them. With the exception of a short period in Spain and Portugal in the 1400s, and England in the 1700s, the numbers of Black people allowed into Europe was deliberately kept small until the 20th century.  Then thousands of black people (overwhelmingly men) were recruited to fight in European wars. Later on, we were actively recruited and encouraged by governments and businesses to relocate to England, France, Netherlands and Portugal, to work in jobs that white men and women no longer wanted.

Most studies of race, ethnicity and migration in Europe today ignore Black people unless we are refugees, criminals, prostitutes or the forlorn victims of famine and war. The studies that exist are overwhelmingly nation-specific, highlighting unique historical trajectories and contemporary idiosyncrasies. They do not examine what is common to the experiences of the African Diaspora in Europe as a whole, or what is common to racism across all of Europe.  I argue for a focus on what is common.

Europe has at least forty-six nations, and a total population of 770 million people. Based on the census data on race collected by the UK and the Republic of Ireland, and data on country of origins of immigrants and their children in other nations, I estimate that there are over 7 million Black people in Europe today (by which I mean people of African descent—typically described as sub-Saharan Africans—and our descendants from across the Americas). I also estimate that more than 90% of Black people live in just twelve nations. These are the UK, France, Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal; Spain, Germany and Italy; Denmark, Norway, Sweden and the Republic of Ireland.

There are many distinct differences across these nations. For example, in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Italy, the majority of Black people arrived only since the 1990s, they did not speak the national language, they arrived as refugees, and are primarily Muslims. In the UK, France, Netherlands, as well as in Belgium and Portugal, large numbers of Black people arrived in the 1950s-1970s, speaking the national language, as citizens and mainly Christians.

These differences are important and consequential. But they may distract us from three striking similarities. In my research, I employ two terms to demonstrate what is most common to the Black European experience across different national terrains and cultures: ambiguous hypervisibility and entrenched vulnerability. First, ambiguous hypervisibility, which means that the majority of images of Black people in media across Europe present us on the bottom of the economic, political and social hierarchy. We appear on television and the press (when we appear at all) as maids, cooks, cleaners, waitresses and nannies; street vendors, beggars, agricultural workers, refugees or criminals. But this hypervisibility is ambiguous because we also appear in what non-Black people call ‘positive images,’ that is, as singers, dancers, and sports stars. This includes images of Black people outside Europe, like Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj and Usain Bolt.  I call this a social cocoon of stereotypes because no one is surprised when a Black person sings, dances or reigns supreme in soccer; but they are astonished if a Black woman becomes chief executive of a transnational pharmaceutical company.

Second, entrenched vulnerability, which means that there is not a single important economic or social arena in which Black people are better off as a group than non-Black people. Not in business, law or medicine, not in education, science or media, and not in transnational companies. A striking example is politics. In the twelve nations that I researched, there are around 4200 nationally-elected politicians. Of these, only twenty-three are Black. And of those twenty-three, eighteen are in England. Why so low a number overall and why so many in England? A variety of reasons, including timing of arrival, citizenship and most of all the history of Black social mobilization and collective action in Great Britain.

The 2008 Marche des libertés demonstration in Paris (Photo: looking4poetry, Flickr).

Why do Black people face such terrible conditions? National politicians and academics insist that it is because we are immigrants, going through a process of assimilation, learning languages, the intricacies of political systems. And that we will succeed over time. Or they say we have the wrong priorities, study and work too little, complain too much.  This is patently false. Significant Black communities have been present in Europe, especially in England and France, for more than 70 years. We speak these languages fluently, we earned our qualifications and work experience in these nations, often to higher levels than non-Blacks.

But we are not represented across the higher strata of the economic, political and social landscape.

A better explanation for racial inequality is institutional racism. No, no, no say the politicians, racism does not exist in Europe. It exists in the United States, and it used to exist in South Africa. It may have existed in Europe but it was buried at Auschwitz. In other words, Europe in public discourse is raceless. Yet anyone even remotely familiar with the state-based racism of colonial and imperial nations knows that it requires unfathomable ignorance or stupidity, an act of monumental self-delusion, or outright contempt for Black people’s intelligence, to believe that Europe ever was or remains raceless.

Moreover, the denial of racism in Europe today simply does not match the evidence. Study after study, in nation after nation, reveals monumental and widespread institutional and individual racism. See, for example, MP David Lammy’s recent review of the British Criminal Justice System; the United Nations Working Group reports on Black people in Portugal and Spain, Switzerland and Sweden; European Network for People of African Descent (ENPAD) and Open Society reports on Norway, Italy and Portugal; reports on employment or policing in Belgium and France. A wide range of studies of policing, media and curriculum across the continent directly challenge this myth of a racism-free Europe.

In spite of this evidence, why the insistence on racelessness? One reason is the definition of racism, which in Europe means explicit legal and intentional racism. However, Europe has always discriminated differently than in the US and South Africa—through administrative fiat and customary practice, indirect statements, prevarication and euphemisms. Another problem is that European leaders are, as Philomena Essed and Isabel Hoving have highlighted in their book on the Netherlands—too smug, protest their innocence too much, and cannot conceal their resentment at being accused. They know there is racism, but don’t want to confront it.

What provides us with hope, and what unifies Black Europeans across the continent, is the third striking similarity that I identify—Black Europeans’ irrepressible resistance and resilience. Black men and women have never accepted racism passively.  We challenged it individually and collectively, working tirelessly in the streets, communities and mainstream organizations, and establishing Black organizations and Black women’s organizations. We challenged racist stereotypes in school books and curriculum, in media and museums. We developed ideas, institutions, and ceremonies of remembrance and commemoration. We celebrated Black survival and success.  We wrote literature and poetry, sang songs and performed theater, produced films, photography and videos. And today, we use social media to form even bigger communities and reach even broader audiences than before. We borrowed from across the African diaspora, especially the United States, and from the African continent itself.  We did all of this to insist on the need to confront slavery and its legacies; to challenge racist institutions, racist practice and racist representations.  We did all this because Europe has failed its Black citizens and residents.  We still do all of this today. And we will continue to do so, relentlessly.

One of the biggest challenges for us today is how to get our priorities on the political agenda, when politicians and the powerful are preoccupied with economic recession, political disintegration of the EU, the perceived threat of Islam and terrorism, and refugees. How do we get racism against Black people and the status of our rightful citizenship treated seriously? How should we confront the intersections of racism and sexism as they operate jointly rather than treat them as if they are mutually exclusive, or even irrelevant?

The answer is the same as it has always been. Black people must continue to mobilize. We must mobilize in all the arenas in which we have always mobilized. There is no other way.  Can we really win? Aren’t the scales tipped too heavily against us? Yes, we can win, said Kwame Nimako at the 10th Black Europe Summer School in Amsterdam in July 2017. The issues are out there, the agenda is set and we have achieved so much already. Besides, he added, for every Black European, there are 2-5 non-Black allies who will work with us. And we will win, he insisted, because this is an emancipation project.

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Stephen Small

Stephen Small is Professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He teaches courses in the comparative historical sociology of Africans throughout the diaspora, with particular focus on the United States, the Caribbean and England. He is the author of several books and edited volumes, including Black Europe and the African Diaspora (with Darlene Clark Hine and Trica Danielle Keaton) and Living History: The Legacy of Slavery in the Netherlands. His most recent book, 20 Questions and Answers on Black Europe, was published by Amrit publishers in January 2018.

Comments on “The African Diaspora in Europe Today

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    Insightful, I never really think about my European African sister and brother. Perhaps it is because I am a Mississippian and a citizen of the United States, thus, I am consumed with the refuge of institutional racisms that still saturates our political, social, judicial, and financial systems…. yet, I suspect that the fundamental problems associated with our dark skin and our broad noses are similar to the problems that African Americans encounter in the United States.

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    I found the article “The African Diaspora in Europe Today” by Stephen Small to be excellent given the notion that it presents highly credible perspectives. I was surprised to know the real reasons for the presence of a growing number of black people in Europe. I now understand that the Europeans’ colonization of Africa paved the way for the infiltration of blacks in the European countries. I agree with the author that European nations needed to expand its military power to sustain their colonial powers. Hence, they recruited the black people to engage in military activities (Small, 2018). It is also from the article that I gained the knowledge that the active recruitment of the blacks by the European governments and the encouragement of the African investors to relocate to England also contributed substantially towards the growing presence of black people in Europe. Even though other people have attempted to provide the rationale for the building up of the black community in Europe as well, they are not as comprehensive as Small (2018), which makes the article seminal.

    I was appealed by the article given the reasons for the continued susceptibility of the black people to problematic conditions in Europe. Small agrees with the currents thoughts promoted by academicians and politicians that having to go through the process of assimilation, intricacies of political systems, and learning languages places an enormous burden on the black people. While this is the case, unlike the prevailing thought, Small (2018) claims that the black people are not represented across the higher strata of the political, economic, and social landscape. Small accounts for this issue and this lead him to give additional reasons for the precarious space occupied by the black people in Europe. Small’s (2018) willingness to ponder and explain issues surrounding the black people, which the politicians and academicians have primarily overlooked, makes the knowledge created in the article more reliable, valid, and authentic.

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