Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Dr. Philomena Essed
- Antioch University; The Netherlands Equal Treatment Commission


Thank you for inviting me to this hearing on people of Afro-descent in Europe. By way of introduction I will present an alphabetical list of key concepts and notions relevant to understanding social conditions and experiences of Afro-descendants in Europe. It is not my intention to pretend completeness, but to provide a hopefully practical approach to a complex theme.


Afro-European, as a possible equivalent to the notion of African-American, does not exist in any legal, social or practical sense. In Europe, European and brown/black skin color are perceived as mutually exclusive categories. Afro-descendant immigrants do not merge or integrate into any broader category or community of ‘Afro-Europeans’. Afro- refers to a variety of communities and individuals, originating from different continents and countries, speaking different mother tongues and/or different European languages according to the country in which they reside.

The (historical) relation to specific European countries forms another variant. The majority are the descendants of colonized people (Africa, South America). This group includes the descendants of enslaved Africans in the (former) European colonies (The Caribbean, South America). Many came to Europe as workers (North and sub-Sahara Africa; the Caribbean; South America) in search for a better future. There are individuals who migrated as students in the context of development cooperation (African students to former communist countries). There are political and economic refugees (including (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and other war conflicted areas) who have settled in a range of European countries.

An increasing number of people of Afro-descent are born in Europe from parents who immigrated to Europe, or from Afro-descendants and white partners. In addition, African children have been adopted into European families. Some people of Afro-descent live in communities of national/ethnic origin while others have been assimilated into white communities. A case in point are Afro-Germans, often the children of white German women and African (former) students (East Germany) or African American soldiers, many of whom grew up with their mothers. They are culturally German and racially Black. There are significant numbers of culturally assimilated middles class Afro-descendants. But Afro-descendants are also overrepresented among the European poor. Depending on the context or their lives, conditions of arrival and national backgrounds, different needs and goals may be the focus of their struggles: citizenship, illegality, language acquisition, religious rights, economics, dealing with traumas of war, homelessness, unemployment, or glass ceilings.

To label individuals and groups who are as heterogeneous and unconnected as the above with the one label of ‘Afro-descendants’ is not uncontroversial. Many share only (some) phenotypical, or if you wish, racial resemblances. Probably the only common European experience among many if not all Afro-descendants is their exposure to (a certain degree of) racism and systemic discrimination, regardless of country, socio-economic conditions, gender, age, or level of education.

Black European

Different than in the US, Black as a notion is not exclusively used to refer to people of African descent. In particular among critical scholars and community activists the indication of ‘Black’ has been applied indiscriminately to targets of discrimination on the basis of race, culture, ethnicity, religion or a combination of these factors. This inclusive interpretation has been contested by Asians who do not want to be seen as ‘Black’, or by Afro-descendants who protest against the cooptation of ‘their’ identity as ‘Black’. In the new millennium a cross-European movement has emerged claiming ‘Black European’ as their experience and identity. This diverse group of people tends to be more inclusive of others than ‘Afro-descendants, but the last word has certainly not been said about the question of ‘Who is Black?’


For many people of Afro-descent, the historical contexts of reference are colonialism and post-colonialism rather than slavery, even when they might be descendants of enslaved Africans (Caribbean, South American backgrounds). Many came to the so-called motherlands in Europe with European passports (for instance, immigrants from Surinamese and the Dutch Antilles to the Netherlands, French immigrants from Martinique to France). Colonialism, its economical, social and psychological implications and consequences are largely ignored in the European canons.

Colonial relations continue to exist, including the inequalities involved. The Dutch Antillean colonies, for instance, are a popular tourist attraction for (white) Dutch. For the local population the reality is different. Extremely high unemployment numbers in the Dutch Antilles, unrealistic ideas about ‘rich lives’ in the Netherlands, or the desire to reunite with emigrated family, have caused high numbers to migrate to the Netherlands. Insufficient care, social indifference, lack of schooling and job opportunities, racial prejudice and a sense of anonymity in the Netherlands contribute to violence and criminality among young Antillean men. In response, the state seems to entertain controversial (and probably unlawful) ethnic databases on Antilleans, on the basis of which enhanced security and preventive law enforcement interventions can take place. Among Antillean women teenage pregnancies are a problem, often the result of a combination of factors, including physical or emotional abandonment at home, racial discrimination, and ignorance.

The consequences of colonialism have not been dealt with in Europe. This holds true for the dependency mentality (passivity and sense of powerlessness among formerly colonized) as well as for the remnants of the European colonial mentality (paternalism and the creation of second class citizens).

Denial of racism

In the course of the 1990s racial discrimination has been placed on the agenda of European Union members. But in most policy and public discourse the application of the word racism has not moved beyond the 1950’s model of explicit race hierarchies (exceptions are a number of critical scholars and antiracism activists). Since many European countries reject the idea of race hierarchies on moral grounds, it is assumed that that ‘therefore’ there is no racism. In this view racism is an aberration of a few extremist groups only. The many subtle and cultural forms it takes (sense of European cultural superiority) are ignored. When it comes to accountability, each and every member state looks the other way: racism might be out there, but never here, not in their specific country. A frequently used, but misleading argument is that racism is an American thing.

Everyday racism

Racism is integrated in the routine practices of everyday European cultures and institutions resulting in informally segregated neighborhoods (UK, France, Germany), formally sanctioned segregated schools, so called Black and White schools (the Netherlands), neighborhood harassment of refugee families (for instance Spain, or the recent case of a Liberian family in the Netherlands); police violence (for instance in Austria), and so on. Among the most damaging forms of everyday racism are those involving individuals in positions of authority, whose decision-making power has the potential of making or breaking study careers or professional opportunities. Due to the public taboo on mentioning racism and emotional if not aggressive response to accusations of racism from the side of white Europeans, many Afro-descendants are neither aware of racism, nor sufficiently equipped to resist. Frequently, those exposed to racism experience a sense of powerlessness in the face of accusations that they are ‘just oversensitive’.

Systemic exposure to racial discrimination is stressful, which can take a toll on the (mental) health of victims. Whether or not directly related, there are indications in the UK and in the Netherlands that disproportionate numbers of people of Afro-descent are diagnosed with schizophrenia. It remains unclear whether this is a result of misdiagnosis, an increase in mental health problems, or an increase in the number of people of Afro-decent people visiting mental health clinics.

The impact of everyday racism on the lives of black and brown people continues to be a neglected issue among European policy makers.

Fortress Europe

Increasingly tight borders since the Schengen Treaty are not preventing economic and war refugees from risking their lives in search of a better future in Europe. Many die prematurely in the passage between North Africa and Southern Europe: young men, women, and children. In the meantime middlemen are making blood money. The construction of ‘illegality’ has different impacts on men and women. Little is known about the particular conditions of illegal immigrants who try to survive as street vendors (mostly male, mostly in southern Europe), domestics (mostly women), or in prostitution (mostly women, but also including young Moroccan men).


Race is not gender neutral. Perceptions of Afro-descendants, men and women, are shaped by many factors, including histories of colonialism (white males, native mistresses); imagined exoticism (female warmth, sensuality and active sexuality) recurrent media images of African wars and poverty (male aggression) and African-American images through the media (sports, music).

The sex trade and abuse of African women have been reported, among others in Belgium. In the Netherlands, where prostitution is legal, women of Afro-descent end up in the lowest paid and most risky sectors of sex work. Beauty norms are another gender issue. Little is known in Europe about the impact of white beauty norms on women of Afro descent. Skin bleaching has been found to be a problem among women of Ghanaian background in the Netherlands. Circumcision of girls occurs, for instance, among refugees from Somalia. Policy makers have not been successful in including the women of these communities in endeavors to put an end to this practice.

In schools Afro-descendant girls from Caribbean origin families are outperforming male counterparts in the Netherlands. The percentage of highly educated women among Afro-descendant women from the Caribbean is more or less equal to that of highly educated white Dutch women. This does not translate into equal representation at higher levels of the labor market.


The historical relation between Africa and Europe is hardly an area of interest in school curricula. The historical presence of Africa in Europe has been the object of study among a few experts, but it is certainly not part of common sense knowledge among populations in Europe, and far from being considered a constitutive part of European history proper.


Even when they can be formally categorized as a person of Afro-descent, not all individuals and groups identify with ‘color’ or ‘race’. Many identify foremost in terms of their country of origin. It should also be noted that in the cosmopolitan cities such as Paris, London, Amsterdam there is an increasing African American presence (students, immigrants, tourists).


Very little is known about Afro-Jews in Europe, including, for instance, mixed race descendants from the (former) Dutch colonies of Suriname and the Dutch Antilles. There is reason for concern about sections among (North African) Muslims whose critique of Israeli state politics often is considered to transform into anti-Semitism against Jews in Europe.


Europe does not have a KKK, but neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups are active.


The European anti-discrimination laws of the 1990s have been important in creating procedures to deal with discrimination in organizational contexts. Different European countries have organized their own government funded, independent antidiscrimination agencies. In the Netherlands there is the Dutch Equal Treatment Commission the mission of which is to promote, monitor, and advise on compliance with the Dutch equal treatment legislation. One of the services is to investigate cases, where both the petitioner (one who feels discriminated against) and the respondent (the party who allegedly has discriminated) are being heard. In spite of the so called reversal of the burden of proof, racial discrimination--because often subtle and part of an everyday process of accumulating incidents--remains difficult to ‘prove’ with legal instruments. Many Afro-descendants remain hesitant about using the services of antidiscrimination agencies such as the Equal Treatment Commission. They are skeptical about the outcome, or fear victimization, even when victimization is against the law.


A not insubstantial number of people of Afro-descent in Europe are Muslims. Therefore racial discrimination cannot be seen as disconnected from old and renewed religious antagonisms between Christians and Muslims. In the same way, everyday (verbal) aggression against Muslims probably includes a mixture of racial, cultural and religious racism. In some countries, politically sanctioned anti-Islam campaigns (for instance against Moroccan-Dutch) are taking extreme forms. Freedom of expression is too often taken as the right to offend.


In the Netherlands, the term ‘neger’ (negro) is still commonly used to refer to dark skin people of African descent. Only recently, after years of protests, has the main Dutch dictionary included a qualification that some might take offense to the word as derogatory.


In a number of countries opposition against racism is organized in cooperation with other communities of color and with (white) antiracist organizations, including those in the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, and France.

Political backlash has followed antiracism movements of the 1980s (UK, the Netherlands) and Sweden (late 1990s), often a result of changes in governments. In the new millennium there is growing Black (Afro) consciousness among young people, for instance, in the Netherlands, Germany and France. Urban Black Cultures are developing, often influenced by African American sports, arts and street cultures.


Afro- descent immigrants from the former colonies in the Caribbean are often exposed to racial paternalism: you can assimilate all you want, but you will never be seen as good enough (always as “not quite white/European”) or as genuinely Dutch, French or British. The former colonized from the Caribbean are often not seen as a cultural threat because many are culturally integrated, which is also manifest in the presence of a substantial (highly educated) middle class. At the same time racial codes and barriers keep the highest levels of the labor market white. Exceptions are representatives in political parties and parliament.


Occasionally, the quest for quotas is being suggested among activists as a remedy against social disadvantages and racial discrimination. Apart from the stigmatizing consequences, quotas do not solve the underlying problems of discrimination on the work floor, glass ceilings, racialized networking, or automatic preference for white candidates even when highly qualified Afro-descendants apply. Positive Action policies of the1980s (defined as: in case of equal competency between a White and a Black candidate, preference should be given to the Black candidate) seem to have reduced open discrimination in some cases, but did not lead to any preference for Black candidates.


Race is a legal category in European Law (antidiscrimination legislation). But race does not translate explicitly into policy making. For instance, race is not a formal policy category in Dutch political discourse. There is no formal registration on the basis of race, color or ethnicity. That does not mean that race is absent from cognitions and ideologies. In public discourse references to ethnicity, culture and religion (Islam) dominate; however, often notions of color are implicit.


It is significant to notice that, in contrast to the US, slave plantation systems were established outside of Europe in the Caribbean and South American colonies.

In the US, knowledge about slavery and resistance has been transmitted from one African-American generation to another. This is not generally the case among Afro-descendants in Europe. Only recently former European slaveholding nations are acknowledging the wrongs of slavery (France) or integrating slavery into national histories (slave monument in the Netherlands).


Various Western European nations consider tolerance their national trait (for instance, the Netherlands and France). This is often mistaken for an absence of racism. Tolerance is a positive value in democratic societies; at the same time an overstated positive image blinds some to the reality of racial discrimination.


The unification of Europe has many political and economic purposes. But the racial dimension has not often been addressed. Unification can also be seen as the process of integration of white Europe. European identity builds (implicitly) on old racist theories of cultural hierarchies: from barbarian Moor to Muslim terrorist today; from black African cannibals at the height of colonialism to current media representations dominated by famine, corruption and warlords.

Dominant perceptions of Europeans are implicitly or explicitly ‘ white’. The idea that Europeans can be Muslim, brown or black should not be shunned any longer.


In Eastern Europe neo-Nazi and white pride physical violence against people of Afro-descent and other people of color is rampant.

Urgent policy interventions and international attention are needed to provide better protection for Afro-descendants in Eastern Europe.


Unlike the one-drop-rule in the US, biological determinism in Europe has not led to formal racial segregation. White is not a formal category and in most Western European countries explicit self-identification as ‘white’ is felt as something awkward because of the racial undertones. Ideologies of racial purity seem to have been less significant in some countries, including France and the Netherlands, where the emphasis has been more on cultural superiority. More research is needed, however, to make any definitive statements in this respect. It seems that systemic racial discrimination in Europe in the public sphere can go together with a high degree of racial mixing in the private sphere. This is an interesting area for research.


Crossing racial borders through interracial relations is more common in Western Europe than in the US. The Netherlands is an interesting example, where substantial numbers (I believe 30% or more) of Caribbean immigrants of Afro-descent --in particular, the generations born in the Netherlands-- have white Dutch partners. There is a long tradition of acceptance of racial mixtures, in particular among immigrants from the Caribbean former colonies (Suriname a case in point), where many before immigration already exhibited integrated racial backgrounds (African, European, Asian, native American). As a result, it is not taken for granted that people of mixed racial descent identify as ‘Afro-‘ (only). It may well be that sections among Afro-descendants in the Netherlands follow the route of Indonesian immigrants, where next generations of racially mixed people gradually assimilate racially and culturally into the white dominant group. In this respect too there is a difference with the US.

In the UK and in other countries new generations are claiming recognition of their identity as ‘mixed race’.

Young people

In the 1970s and 1980s much has been written about second generations being ‘in between cultures’. New insights insist that ‘in between’ is not accurate in describing the experience of young people born in Europe, often of parents who were at least schooled in Europe. These are people who are living with, and easily switching between various cultural systems, across generations and across racial-ethnic borders, especially in the larger cosmopolitan cities. In the Netherlands, for instance, new languages occur among young people of all racial-ethnic backgrounds. High school Dutch --in particular, in the larger cities-- is heavily influenced by Afro-Surinamese words and accents, occasional Berber words (Moroccans), overlaid with African-American rap codes, American-English expressions, and Anglo-sized Dutch words.

A notable number of young writers of Afro-descent are contributing to local and international literature in the UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy and possibly other countries as well. The same holds true for the performing arts and music.

Zwarte Piet

Zwarte Piet is Dutch for Black Peter, the servant of Santa Claus. This Sambo looking figure, in fact a White person with blackened face, enlarged red lips, wooly wig and huge round earrings, is close to representing the Dutch national pet, or Santa Claus mascot. Dutch Santa Claus is celebrated on 6 December. In the month leading up to 6 December Zwarte Piet images can be found in schools, climbing ropes in shops, or jumping and dancing around in other public spaces. Many, but not all, people of Afro-descent experience exposure to these images as denigrating, offensive, if not racist. Some are called ‘Zware Piet’, at this time of the year by Dutch children. Attempts to ban this ‘Blackened Peter’ image have been met with fierce objections and emotional responses from white Dutch who feel this is their tradition, and nothing to do with racism.