Congratulations to Yvan Sagnet, Vice President of the CETRI-TIRES for making it to the NEW YORK TIMES!
ROME — While the recent spate of deadly police confrontations with black men in America has sparked a renewed debate about racism, the conversation in Europe about violence, social exclusion and immigration has studiously avoided the issue of race.
But for some Europeans of African descent, the message is clear.
“Honestly, it’s quite tiring watching black people dying all the time,” Tamara Gausi, a journalist who was born in London to parents of Malawian origin, told me. “Whether it’s in Baltimore or in the Mediterranean Sea, in the media it’s almost as if it’s completely normal for black people to die, and that is a terrible message.”
My talks with Ms. Gausi revolve around the deep disappointment we feel about the lack of outrage over the brutal experiences of black migrants. Worse, most Europeans of African roots ignore what is happening on the other side of the Mediterranean.
In Southern Europe, being black is often synonymous with being an African immigrant or a refugee, and therefore an easy target. In 2013 and 2014, in Spain, Greece, Italy, Poland and Ukraine, hundreds of people of African origin were physically assaulted, and many of them killed, the European Network Against Racism reports.
I am of Eritrean descent, though I am light-skinned, and the issue of Afro-European identity is new to me. I was raised in an all-Italian environment, where my African heritage was largely ignored. Even my father, a black man born in Asmara during Italy’s colonial period, rarely acknowledges our ties with Africa. For a long time, I didn’t really question color and seldom realized how frustrating the constant negative portrayal of black people can be. Yet witnessing the oppression and the suffering of those who are fleeing Africa shook my Eurocentric indifference.
There has not been a serious effort to build a narrative about the black experience in Europe that takes into account class and power relations. Though there are eight million blacks living in Europe, there is little debate about the underrepresentation of people of color, who have lived and worked here for generations yet rarely attain positions of power.
Even in Britain, which many see as the most tolerant European country for multiculturalism, most blacks receive inferior educations and have access to low-quality health care. They generally work low-paying jobs, and their unemployment rate is high. In France’s suburbs, the third and fourth generations of immigrants from North Africa face the same fate. This situation has provoked violent riots in both France and Britain in recent years and has created fertile ground for extremism. The neglect reveals ineradicable ties with Europe’s colonial history that clash with Europe’s human rights values.
Creating a black narrative requires questioning old colonial symbols first. This is happening, with a more aware and networked generation of activists. One example is the campaign against Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, the dull, Afro-looking servant of Santa Claus, dear to Dutch and Belgian traditions. In 2011, artists and human rights groups organized protests until Zwarte Piet’s look was changed. He now appears without the frizzy dark hair and big red lips, though his face is still painted black.
One reason such offensive symbols weren’t questioned until recently is because of the fragmentation among black activists across Europe. In the United States, there has been a comprehensive cultural construction of African-American identity, and a movement that responds when there is injustice or violence. We Euro-Africans still lack our own positive, inspiring symbols and leaders, our Martin Luther Kings, our Rosa Parkses, our Barack Obamas.
“We should be more active in telling our stories and not be afraid of celebrating our culture,” Johny Pitts, a photographer born in England to an African-American father and a British mother, told me. Touring the Continent, he has portrayed hundreds of black Europeans for a street photography project called “An Afropean Odyssey.”
“It is all about opening dialogue, and not just about race or for the sole defense of blackness,” Mr. Pitts said. He is not interested in antiracism militancy. He wants to reframe the image of black men and women in Europe to highlight the dignity and the strengths of African descendants.
Entrenched attitudes are hard to overcome. On a train to Rome recently, I saw ticket collectors blocking access to first-class seats to a young black man, Ivan Sagnet, an engineer from Cameroon. After Mr. Sagnet showed his ticket, they let him in. He noticed my indignation and smiled. “This is not the first time it happens, but I have learned not to react,” he said.
He told me he went to Italy’s Puglia region for the melon season four years ago to earn money for his university fees. There, he helped organize farm workers against exploitative labor practices. He now works for the trade unions, assisting immigrants and raising awareness about worker rights.
“I was happy to see some antiracism groups supporting our actions, but we warned them that the exploited were not just black Africans, since many were Eastern Europeans and Middle Eastern,” Mr. Sagnet said. “Our fight was not about race, but injustice.”
Vittorio Longhi, an Italian journalist, is the author, most recently, of “The Immigrant War: A Global Movement Against Discrimination and Exploitation.”
By VITTORIO LONGHI , Source The New York Times