The Brief – Critical whiteness

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Brief is EURACTIV's evening newsletter. [EPA-EFE | Omer Messinger]

The ongoing Black Lives Matter protests have generated a reckoning with systemic racism and police brutality in the United States and in Europe, perhaps like never before.

In addition to demanding wide-reaching reforms, many have started to take the time to learn about structures underlying our society. However, this must not only be a time for absorbing information. This moment is also a time for critical self-reflection for us as white people.

German journalist Malcolm Ohanwe recently tweeted: “White journalists who want to do something. Don’t just write about racism, please write about being white, what it means to be white…Then you would contribute something new to the discourse.”

This kickstarted the hashtag ‘#Kritischesweißsein’ (‘Critical whiteness’) that has now ricocheted around German Twitter.

So what does it mean to be white in Europe in 2020?

It means strolling unquestioningly in front of statues with complete indifference. This lack of critical thinking shows precisely how unquestioned whiteness is in our societies, even if Europe has become so much more diverse than it was a century ago. 

These statues are not about some universal understanding of history. They represent a certain vision of history – a white one. 

“Your heroes are our tormentors,” wrote Louis-Georges Tin, president of the Representative Council of France’s Black Associations, in 2017.

These statues reinforce the idea of white supremacy, an unbroken thread in our society and institutions for centuries. Tearing them down is nothing less than the first necessary step towards decolonising our space, as well as our minds.

But so much more remains to be done, including a critical reflection on our own experiences with whiteness. 

Even as foreigners in Germany, we experience immense and immediate privilege from our whiteness. No one has questioned our right to be in Germany simply based on our appearance. In fact, before we open our mouths, most assume that we are German, a privilege not afforded to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour), even those who are German.  

The authors of this Brief both became pointedly aware of this fact in the same way.

Both of us were out with friends, German BIPOC, and had strangers address us as if we were German. After we stumbled over our words, our friends stepped in, speaking native German, to the clear shock of the stranger.

These events happened 15 years apart and testify to the same, or barely changed, prejudice as to who is, and who isn’t, German. The same would probably hold true for many, if not most, European countries.

Alongside learning, critical reflection on our history and our own experiences is necessary to continue this shift in consciousness. It is our role as white journalists to keep that conversation going and counter those who want to slow down the current momentum.

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The EU executive spelled out recommendations to member states to fully reopen the bloc’s internal borders on 15 June and then allow travellers from selected countries to enter the bloc from 1 July.

It will be “very difficult” to reach an agreement on the recovery fund and the EU’s overall seven-year budget by July, as intended, given the disagreements over the size, the distribution of the stimulus and the attached conditions, EU officials and national diplomats acknowledged.

Thousands of people have taken to Europe’s streets not only to protest the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the US but to denounce police brutality and structural racism, which is an issue on this side of the Atlantic as well.

Civil unrest has doubled in the past decade as citizens protest against issues ranging from economic hardship and police brutality to political instability, according to this year’s Global Peace Index. The COVID-19 pandemic could make things worse.

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Italy’s ministry of agriculture is completing the preliminary work to release into the environment an alien species of Asiatic wasp, the natural predator of a dreaded fruit pest that has caused more than half a billion euro damage to Italian orchards in 2019 alone.

Look out for…

  • Committee on International Trade (INTA) discusses recommendations on the negotiations for a new partnership with the UK

Views are the author’s

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