The long shadows of the past. Racisms, Nationalisms, Ethnicisms and Gender in a "New Europe"
Dr. Helma Lutz
Just a normal week ?!
Time is going fast and the news of today is the ashes of tomorrow. At the threshold of the Age of Information Capitalism we all tend to suffer from nowism, we so easily forget about the news that hit us yesterday. The world is turning in exaggerated speed - images follow images - we follow their flow.
I want to invite you to go back with me a couple of months, to the second week of June 2000. Just a normal week in Europe. The week when the football championship drew all the media attention of football-crazy Europeans. It was the night of June,11th when three male German youngsters, aged between 16 and 25, hung around a park in Dessau, drinking beer and listening to right wing rock-music. 39 year old Alberto Adriano, a Mozambican citizen, walks by; the young men beat him into coma; he dies the next morning; it is needless to say that the young men were white while their victim was black. This was not the only violent racist incident that week. The statistics indicate 2643 registered violent racist incidents in 1998 in Germany - making up for more than 7 incidents every day. Except for those incidents in which people died from attacks, few newspapers take notice of these events. Racist violence has become a "normal" part of "normal" life in the New Germany.
Seven days later, on June 19th, in Dover, another place in Europe, British customs officers open the doors of a Dutch truck and find the dead bodies of 58 people next to two survivors. 54 men and four women from China, on paper declared as a load of tomatoes, had died from suffocation. The European leaders, at that very moment debating about Europe's future in Portugal, reacted to the event by blaming each other to fail to carry out proper cheques at their countries' ports, thereby providing loopholes. They promised the European population to intensify border controls, to invest in X-ray-scanners and other equipment and track down the illegal border-crossers more effectively: this event was a nuisance and not to happen again.
Numerous parties were
immediately declared responsible and guilty for this incident:
Just a normal week? Just a normal week! Other subjects have captured the media since then, Europe has other problems to worry about.
What are the links between these two incidents? How can we understand them? What do they tell us about migration, about nationalism, racism, ethnicism and gender? Which theoretical framework could help to analyse them? Those are the questions I want to discuss with you in this cluster. I will start by explaining the socio-political landscapes of the "New Europe", its changing geographies, its changing composition of populations connected to new ways of belonging, its new identities and, in particular, its new forms of social exclusion.
The fall of the Soviet Block, the breakdown of the German Wall, the unification of Germany, the End of the Cold War and the War in former Yugoslavia, these events and their political and social consequences, have contributed to the notion that Europe has changed significantly after 1989. Another event that has contributed to changes in the European landscapes is the abolition of internal borders between the member states of the European Community since January 1st, 1993 and the decision to enlarge this community towards the East and the South East. We are now speaking of a "New Europe" (1).
Meanwhile, the socio-political transformations have brought into sharper focus questions surrounding the definition of Europe and its boundaries (2). [...] De facto, since the de-colonisation process started after World Wars I and II, the redefinition of "what Europe is" has been an ongoing project. The "old Europe" referred to a discourse about its superiority and domination over the South and was constructed through the process of colonisation, the settlement of Europeans in other parts of the globe, the formation of empires and the struggles against indigenous populations (3). In contrast, the "New Europe" seems to be a rather defensive discourse of striving to construct a "pure Europe" as a symbolic continent, cleansed of foreign and "uncivilised" elements: In the search for intrinsic features of "Europe", discourses of culture, politics and space have become closely intermeshed with discourses on nationalism, racism and "home" versus "foreigners" and "otherness" (4). I will come back to that later.
Migration movements have been and still are at the heart of these cultural and political developments. Since 1989 an estimated four million migrants have come to Europe; another estimated five million refugees have fled and been expelled from the territory of the former Yugoslavia (5). Yet migration is also a complex issue in Europe, because it is treated under two different political and economical perspectives: from the viewpoint of each nation state and from the standpoint of the European Union.
But it is not just Europe that has changed significantly over the last decade; the rest of the world is marked by profound changes as well. Next to the Soviet Union, other countries and continents like South and Central Africa, South and Central America, China and other Asian countries have seen political upheavals, wars and genocide. Not only have states disappeared, some have lost large parts of their population and new ones have emerged; all this is contributing to the world's new cartography and its new (mental) maps. The New Europe effects these changes as much as it is effected by them.
The fact that Alberto Adriano was killed has nothing to do with his reasons to leave Mozambique and come to Germany. It has to do with the racist world view of those who killed him. [...] Racism is a gendered phenomenon, there are specific male and female forms of expression. Thus, racism has to be defined as a major and structural problem of society which would require a public debate and all kinds of measures.
A look at two centuries of European nation states' histories reveals the close connection of Europe's history to literally every part of the world. Be it as explorers, invaders, colonisers, as missionaries, teachers, doctors or travellers or civil servants in duty of the motherlands, as revolutionaries or intellectuals, Europeans have marked the non-European territories as much as these territories have inscribed themselves into Europe. It is the legacies of this past that become visible if one tries to understand the current socio-political phenomena. As there is hardly any European country that has not a share in the conquest and exploitation of "others", be it within its own territory, within Europe or outside, Europe as a whole has to deal with its long shadows of the past.
In the case of Germany, the reluctance to deal with its colonial past does not stand for itself, but is part of the difficulty to deal with any of its pasts: Jürgen Habermas (6) has termed the word "Deckerinnerungen" (cover memories) which characterises the German way of coming to terms with its past ("Vergangenheitsbewältigung"). Habermas points to the fact that the collective memories of fascism have been covered up by those of expulsion and flight of millions of Germans after World War II and by the socialist state oppression of the East Germans thereafter. I would add that tracing back a century's memories, we can detect layer after layer of cover memories in which perpetration, co-perpetration or at least ignorance to atrocities are turned into sufferance and victimisation. It is this particular social construct which lies at the heart of racist and nationalist legitimisation: producing an image of oneself as victim of oppression by others, having suffered for so long a time, asking for revenge and claiming a territory of one's own - this is the rhetoric used by nationalists of Serbia, Croatia, Albania, Ireland etc. as well as by racists in France, Britain, Belgium, Germany, etc. The idea of an ethnically cleansed community, therefore, is nothing new - it is an intrinsic feature of a particular form of 19th century nationalism (Volk-Nation). In this way the death of Alberto Adriano is legitimised as an act of purification of safeguarding the Volk and its territory.
The second incident can be analysed along similar lines. The question who belongs to Europe and whether the New Europe will take the form of a (federal) nation state or will develop as an economic but not political unit, is subject of many current debates. Notwithstanding all disagreements, a common policy on behalf of border controls has been implemented with intensity since 1992. As a compensation to the cessation of the borders between the union's states, the aggravation of the outer borders control was decided. Thousands of extra officers functioning as gatekeepers were taken on, millions of Euros were invested in the amelioration of equipment, like infrared cameras and x-ray scanners. [...] In a cynical note one could remind the European leaders that the x-ray scanners had originally been used at the German - German border to detect refugees hidden away in car trunks who fled the socialist countries of Eastern Europe. In those times, smugglers were not considered to be criminals, but facilitators of freedom. This is equally true for smugglers who helped Jews to leave Nazi Germany. However, the smugglers of today are portrayed as bloodsuckers and criminals although many refugees would not have reached a safe area of the world without their help. Like their predecessors during the Cold War and the Nazi period, these smugglers are making big money from this business, but it is important to note the changes in their portrayal over time and in different periods of history.
These policies which are also connected to continuously changed and aggravated rules for asylum seekers, are legitimated by the idea that Europe is flooded by gold-diggers if it does not take measures. By contrast, the German historian Klaus Bade recently (7) said that part of the European economy would completely collapse without these undocumented and cheap so called illegal.
I will start this section with a definition of racism. It is now generally agreed that the concept of race is a social construction which makes use of a historically variable nexus of social meanings.
"Any number of markers - colour, physiognomy, race, culture, gene pools - may be summoned as signifiers of `race'. Certain forms of racism will highlight biological characteristics as indicators of supposed `racial' difference. Other forms may single out cultural difference as the basis of presumed impervious racial boundaries between groups. Cultural racism may even deny any notion of biological superiority or inferiority, but what characterises it specifically as racism is the subtext of innate difference that implicitly or explicitly serves to denote a group as a `race'. In other words, racism constructs `racial' difference." (8)
Although in many Western European societies the term racism is not used as it is in the British and North American context, the phenomena described are comparable and are existent in both, mainland European and the British context. In some European countries the social construction of minority groupings takes the form of racialisation, in others it is rather ethnicisation or culturalisation. In principle, the same processes are at stake here. "If a phenomenon is to be identified as racism, the collective signified within it must be represented as being inherently different," writes Avtar Brah (9).
It is now widely agreed that any essential idea about identities based on fixed notions of race or ethnicity are to be rejected. [...]
By evoking the notion of difference, Hall (10) not only problematizes the use of this term as if it could be detached from power relations but he also mimics the desire of postmodernists to create equality through evoking multiple differences: all different, all equal, all equally different. Ann Phoenix (11) has been taking this a little bit further by asking ironically: Are we all marginal now? (title of her inaugural) and she answers: "our identities can all be said to be marginal now, in at least some ways, but we are not equally marginalized. Recognition of the complexity of positioning is crucial if Otherness is not to be reinscribed in work which seeks to disrupt Othering" (12). This seems to me a very important statement and I would like to stay for a minute with the passionate debate about difference as a scientific concept. Within feminism it has been immensely helpful to recognise differences between women in order to understand social positionings, representations and articulations. I want to argue that as analytical tool "difference" can be a very useful concept. However, Ann Phoenix in her quote reminds us that by conceptualizing identities as fragmented and marginalized, we must not forget that people are not equally victimized and that old racist and sexist notions of difference and otherness are still invoked and in operation, in short, that power relations have not vanished by the pure act of rhetorical ignorance. Phoenix sees the task of critical feminist researchers in the recognition of everyday articulations of difference and power relations, while reconstructing gendered, racialized and ethnicized identities.
I agree totally with Avtar Brah (13) when she suggests that racialised differentiation is not only the result of a bi-polar matrix of negativity versus positivity, superiority versus inferiority, exclusion versus inclusion, but that it is equally about deep ambivalence of envy and desire, admiration and repulsion. The desire for the racialised Other is as much codified in Orientalism as it is in Philosemitism, in erotic exotism and so forth.
It is my conviction that only by resisting the desire for creating harmony through ignoring difference and power relations, and instead discuss the many ways to combat racism, ethncism, nationalism, sexism, ageism and so on we can contribute to a more human and respectful way of life, be it in Europe or elsewhere in this world.
Anthias, Floya & Gabriella
Lazaridis (eds) (2000) Gender and Migration in Southern Europe. Women on
the Move. Oxford & New York: Berg