What Does It Mean To Be Black In Europe?
For a long time, the word black was seen as derogatory word; something inferior. If a man was described as “he black” (one must pronounce this with an American accent to get the full sting of the words), he was always almost visualized with dreadlocks, a stick of weed in his mouth, baggy jeans and bobbing his head to Run D.M.C. For the ladies, a life of servitude to her ‘superiors’, surprise at the decision to go to college instead of following in the footsteps of her ma to have a child at 16.
At least, this was the misconception about black people in densely populated white areas in America. But here is the thing. Europe is like that indulgent African aunt who has been away for a while and on her return to Africa, finds it difficult to operate within existing norms before she went overseas to get enlightened. There Europe is, a continent predominantly white and so diverse in cultures that what could be found in London, UK might remind Nigerians of Yaba market.
In the early 1970’s, a black man living in Russia was one who had a death wish. Students who came for further studies had one goal; staying alive enough to finish their course. This involved avoiding public buses and getting home early. In most cases, falling in love with a Russian didn’t help as bi-racial couples were heavily frowned on. In early 2000’s Germany, a few incidents of black people beaten to coma gained traction.
Europe consists of over 50 countries with varying cultures and perceptions about black people. It is almost impossible to use a yardstick behavior to gauge the reactions of black treatment in Europe. For example, being black in Moscow or the Netherlands will earn you more than a confrontation or two (alright, let’s make that four to be on the safe side) from racial bigots who will view you as fetish (all witches are black, yes?) and follow you around to make sure nothing gets missing from their stores! I mean, the sunny disposition is there for visitors but becoming a permanent resident may earn you the tag of “oh, that one’s here to steal our job and our men!”
Like most culturally inclined areas, countries in Northern Europe (Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Norway, Sweden etc.) have no huge problem with a black person who was born or naturalized in these countries. Learn the language and a black man will probably share a glass of beer with a white Danish male or a black lady go shopping without four people at the CCTV cameras. Some parts of Europe pride themselves as those who treat people with respect if you respect local customs and live an honest life.
Being black in the UK, (case study, London) on the other hand is like walking into an uninvited event but seeing your whole family has gone in before you to reserve a seat. Black communities have been in existence for centuries here! The high presence of predominantly black communities (Nigerians mostly) are not amiss and dejavu feeling of being among kindred spirits irrespective of religion is not new.
Unlike the flat out racial movement in the United States (the US is a country as regards Europe which is a conglomerate of countries), Europe is an indulgent aunt who loves you even if she doesn’t understand you. Of course, immigrants’ still face different types of bias and textbook-assumptions about blacks being freaks of nature, swinging from coconut trees or aliens sent from the future by He-whose-name-must-not-be-mentioned. It is not surprising to find a European interested in your ethnicity than your race. One helpful tip is to learn the language and try to mingle with the locals so that they see that you aren’t weird but humans like they are. In many parts of Europe, you are almost always described as a black British instead of just mere ‘black’ as though you had a tumble in a pool of black ink.
Although blacks in this part of the world are treated like humans with sensibilities, there will always be a Judas in the twelve. In Poland, it is somewhat convenient to get stares and answer unnecessary questions from the Polish airport authorities. In Southern Europe (Portugal, Southern France, Italy, Albania, Malta etc.), being black means you wear the ‘unforgivable’ tag of immigrant or refugee, making it easy to be picked on, assaulted and even killed. This from a continent with as much as eight million blacks who have lived and worked for centuries among whites. It is not amiss for some of these countries to wear faux moral cloaks of superiority when dealing with issues that bother on race and immigration. Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor in preparation for the World Cup in Germany once downplayed racism in her country “The overwhelming majority of people in our country are open to foreigners…(but if) those ‘foreigners’ are unable to live peacefully and safely in Germany as native Germans do, there is a big problem…”
Britain, the indulgent father who is tolerant of his son’s gay partner (but is not in support) sometimes owns the hands that wields the whip. Blacks have been known to work menial and low paying jobs in these cities with occasional activism showing the displeasure of the black population. Might I add that it is common knowledge that using non-Western names might not get you that interview or apartment in some European cities.
With Europe being a mixed bunch, do not be surprised that there is a belief that black people are seen as those who clawed their way out of Africa, singing Kumbaya on a large boat gliding across the Mediterranean Sea. Of course, Africa= Black! No America, British or Hispanic blacks, please! The rare sight of black presence in some parts of Europe has on occasion called for stares, curious glances and the general feeling of fascination that someone different from them appeared in the flesh! This is due to a certain lack of exposure to a lot of black people except recently with immigration. In recent times, Afro-European communities are springing up, paving the way for black solidarity and oneness.
Life is a two way street although black life has been a one way street with determined blacks constructing the other street themselves. Let’s just say the black community in Europe is not yet threatening enough to bring about the extreme racial feuds faced by blacks in America.