Grappling with Europe’s racist colonial past must go beyond history books

Following George Floyd's death, protestors in Belgium turned to criticise former king Leopold for his reign of terror in Congo. [Shutterstock/Alexandros Michailidis]

This article is part of our special report (Anti)-discrimination in Europe: Where next?.

Teaching colonialism is a first step to tackle structural racism in Europe, but inequality will not be eradicated unless addressed in education as a whole, according to experts.

“Colonialism, slavery and the Holocaust are embedded in our history and have profound consequences for society today,” reads the EU anti-racism action plan.

According to some, this is the first acknowledgement at EU level that structural racism exists in the continent and has its roots in Europe’s colonial past.

“The anti-racism action plan is in fact the first European policy document in which we go to the causes, where we are not only talking about that short period in history of Nazism,” said Ilke Adam, political science professor at Vrije Universiteit Brussel.

The plan, which sets out a number of measures to tackle racism on an individual and societal level, was adopted in September 2020, after the killing of George Floyd in the United States by a Minneapolis police officer. 

Floyd’s death sparked a wave of protests that spread to several European capitals, denouncing racism in the continent.

Many also criticised the under-acknowledged colonial past of their own countries.

In Belgium, for example, protestors defaced statues of King Leopold II, who was culpable for violence, mass killings and other atrocities committed in Congo, then a Belgian colony, in the 19th century.

“History teaches us what should be reproduced, but also what should not be duplicated.” Juliana Wahlgren, acting director at the European Network against Racism (ENAR), told EURACTIV.

“And I think education is the best platform to address that,” she added.

School curricula in Europe often omit crucial pages in the continent’s history. For example, a 2019 UN working group report showed that primary and secondary school programmes in Belgium did not “adequately reflect the history of colonization as well as history and contributions of people of African descent.”

The report found that one in four high-school graduates was unaware that Congo was a former Belgian colony and that it was often up to the teachers’ initiative to address colonialism in class.

Following last year’s protests, the European Parliament passed a resolution that called on member states to incorporate a “comprehensive perspective” on colonialism and slavery in school syllabus.

However, changing curricula should not be “only about bringing back the colonial past to history books, but also bringing more examples of authors, experts in all the areas of the curricula – being biology, being in math,” Wahlgren said.

Bringing in people who do not have a “eurocentric approach” is also critical, she added.

Research showed that diversity among schools’ staff is low in Europe. A European Commission report found that teachers with a migrant background account for only 2-4% in some member states, while around 8% of EU inhabitants are born outside the bloc and 10% of young people have at least one foreign born parent.

However, increasing diversity in classes is no guarantee that structural racism is effectively tackled.

“For example in Belgium, where you can still have a commitment to review some classes and bring more diversity to our curricula, and try to address that, but still celebrate Black Peter at the end of the year,” Wahlgren said.

She was referring to the controversial character accompanying Saint Nicolas and played by a white actor in blackface makeup and exaggerated red lips.

Moreover, schools themselves can reinforce existing stereotypes and discrimination. For example, children of African descent are more often directed towards vocational and technical training than university education.

“So we can do as much education as we want. If the structure also doesn’t change, it won’t help,” Adam told EURACTIV.

Although the EU anti-racism action plan shows political commitment against structural racism, denial within European society hinders progress.

“What is difficult in the European context is you can have the best of the law and policies, but the level of resistance is very strong, not only from institutions, but also from people in the society,” Wahlgren said.

Resistance to face colonialism and slavery in the continent is also due to Europeans’ reluctance to accept having “not such a beautiful history,” according to Adam.

Yet, change is happening and it was already underway before last year’s events.

“The minorities themselves are now citizens, second generation, highly educated, and start also to want to co-author the story of Europe,” she said.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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