The killing of George Floyd is probably the only time several friends and acquaintances have written to me about a racist killing. Some are sharing how they feel, and others wrote to say they are there for me. One message especially stuck out.
“Are you actually happy not to live in the USA at the moment?” a German friend wrote on WhatsApp. “The recent events are unfortunately very sad,” he added. It took me about a whole day to respond.
There’s no relief for me that I live in Germany. I’m upset, and I’m frustrated. For years, black men and women have been murdered and killed, in the US and Europe, even by the police, just because they are black. For us, George Floyd’s killing is a reminder that racist violence sometimes results in death.
The protests across US cities, and now even in some European capitals, are really about the frustration and desperation that blacks feel in the face of institutional and structural racism.
We shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking this is solely a US problem. Anti-black racism is pervasive in the Western world.
In 2011 protests took place in London after Mark Duggan, a black man, was shot and killed by the police. Across the channel in France, major protests and riots ensued following the 2005 deaths of Bouna Traore and Zyed Benna, two teenagers who
were electrocuted in an electrical substation while trying to evade the police. The same year, Oury Jalloh, a Sierra Leonean asylum-seeker, died in a fire in a police cell in Dessau, Germany. It may be easy for some Europeans to look at the incidents in the US and say that doesn’t happen here, but black Europeans do not have that luxury. For them, racism is very much alive in Europe, despite the fact that violence at the hands of police may not appear as rampant in the news. That’s one reason George Floyd’s killing has triggered widespread protests beyond the US; events there open old wounds here.
Western societies’ perceptions of what it means to be black do not differ significantly. There ideas are largely dominated by a few historical events: slavery and colonialism.
In Afropean: Notes from Black Europe, British writer Johny Pitts says the trans-Atlantic slave trade has played a major role in shaping how race is seen in the West. “[It] still informs and underpins, even if on a subconscious level, the hierarchies in Western civilization and throughout the world,” he writes.
Unfortunately, the narratives in the media and school curriculums have done very little to transform how people see race.
For me, my friend’s message asking about whether I was happy to be in Germany was clearly dismissive of the everyday racism in this country. In 2017 black people
were identified in Germany’s National Action Plan Against Racism (“Nationaler Aktionsplan gegen Rassismus”) as one of the five groups of people more at risk of experiencing racism.
But that only came after years of pressure from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which repeatedly said that Berlin wasn’t doing enough to fight discrimination.
Germany isn’t alone in Europe. The lack of awareness and public consciousness about racism on the continent is striking. And it is difficult to get a clear sense of just how racial discrimination affects people of colour on the continent because such data isn’t collected, with the exception of in the UK. DW