On the Topic of Race: America is Doing the Thinking for Europe When Europe Should Really Start to Think for Itself

Howardena Pindell Free, White and 21 1980 Credit: moma

Last summer, I was in Berlin participating in a month-long German-speaking programme. Every week, the class centered its discussions around one topic. Among the numerous topics covered were immigration and race. As I was ready to delve into a textbook-based lecture on the current German immigration policies or a statistical presentation on immigration in Germany, the term “POC” hit me straight in the face. I was surprised, for the least, if not completely dumbfounded. My reaction did not come from my unfamiliarity with the abbreviation. Rather, it is the unexpectedness to hear such a term, which embodies so much of the racial struggle that is unique to the U.S. in a foreign land that could hardly relate itself to the underlying historical context. My German teacher was a white woman who was born in Germany and lived in the country for her entire life. Sitting there silently, I asked myself: Does she even know what she’s talking about? Does she know where this term comes from? My doubt seems to have been proven right by her monotonous voice and mechanical expression, indicating not only a lack of interest but also inadequate knowledge of the subject matter. However, what I found even more startling was the reaction of the audience. It was a program full of students from other European countries such as Poland, Norway, Spain, the U.K., and Slovenia. None of them were surprised to hear the term as if they were already so familiar with it. A student even raised her hand to offer a full explanation of the term. When did “person of color” or “POC” become the standard usage in discussing topics on race relations in Germany and Europe at large? How did this happen? Why could this be potentially dangerous?

After WWII, Europe has been much Americanised. There is little doubt about that. The arrival of the Marshall Plan in 1948 not only brought an inflow of financial aid into Europe but also imports of American cultural ideals which have gradually saturated the continent over the past decades. People are purchasing American goods, watching Hollywood movies, and studying English in school. When in Berlin, we often joked about how it is ironically not the ideal place to learn German since practically everyone on the street is fluent – if not close to native speakers – in English. Nevertheless, when it comes to topics such as race relations, which demand to be taught critically under a broader, historically relevant background, Europe has to do its own thinking. Europe is currently facing issues with immigration and racial diversity. Although these struggles bear similarities with those in America, there are still significant differences that require them to be approached, taking into consideration their own cultural settings. By adopting the terminologies that describe the idiosyncratic struggles of the American minorities, Europe is avoiding discourses about race, which in turn will exacerbate its own struggles: it is actively disengaging itself from the critical study of culture and race.

I was born in China but moved to rural England for school at the age of twelve, where I ended up spending the entirety of my teenage years. I remember for a long time in the beginning that I wished to be white, to be part of this overarching “whiteness” in a school that was almost completely white, and I remember for a longer period of time that I believed I was white. From the way I speak, the way I write, the way I look, but most of all, how those around me look at me. And after that, for an even longer period of time, I remember feeling proud for finally becoming “white”. Reflecting back on that period of my life, I attribute the reasons for such “whitewashing” to both the reluctance, if not resistance, around the topic of race in and outside of classrooms and an insufficient understanding of how to effectively conduct such discourses.

I remember an incident back in high school that highlighted such unpreparedness in talking about race. I was chatting with a middle-aged, white, female teacher about a new student who has just joined the boarding house, which is predominantly Asian. Apparently, I had met the person before but could not match the name with the face. She tried to tell me about the new student, but I still didn’t have a clue. After five minutes, perhaps losing patience, with much hesitance and reluctance, she said, “he is the new white boy.” If Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” denotes a defensive reaction when white people in America are asked about racism or to consider their own race, what I described above illustrates a complete ignorance and unawareness of how to even start a conversation related to race.

I was in the Museum of Modern Art for a day at the start of this winter break. Strolling through the second floor, I came across Howardena Pindell’s Free, White and 21, a 12:15 minute videotaped in 1980. The video recounts a litany of the racist encounters and daily discrimination that she had to face growing up in Philadelphia in the 1960s-70s. It was formatted as a conversation between her and a narrator she mimicked, who is free, white, and 21. Standing there, I finished watching the whole video alone as people passed through from behind, mostly tourists seeking directions to see one of Picasso’s paintings or Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” Some were also intrigued so they decided to stop by my side, but none stayed long enough to fully grasp the content. What Pindell is saying here is something that belongs solely to minorities, especially Black people, in America. The experience of raising one’s hand to ask to go to the bathroom in kindergarten and, in return, being tied to the bed for hours before getting shouted by white teachers “I can’t stand these people!” The experience of being rejected by every job that she applied to alongside all the other women who are nonwhite waiting in that same room on the basis of their gender and race. And the white neoliberals who continue to ask what do you people still want when we have already given you so much? Why so ungrateful? Why so paranoid? As the video finished and restarted itself on a loop, I asked myself: How could anyone who has never shared this experience, and therefore does not have even an inkling of what it stands for, still use the terms attached to this very experience somewhere else regardless?

I used to write book commentaries for my high school’s library, and in my last year, I found “The Lonely Londoners” by Samuel Selvon. I finished reading it and took some time to write a brief review. The story was based on the period of Caribbean immigration to the U.K. from the 1950s-70s, otherwise known as the “Windrush Generation.” The book followed the life of a few characters who just migrated from Trinidad to Britain or what was then “the center of the world” and, to some, the “mother country.” Instead of a better life that they imagined before leaving home, they found themselves racially segregated in the poorest neighborhoods in London as the white bourgeoisie gradually moved away while working the most toilsome labors. This period of history continues to have a scarring presence, but it is one of many stories that contribute to the racial struggle unique to the country. A cultural and racial study of Britain should draw its terminologies and understandings from these particular experiences instead.

Europe should start to think more for itself on the topic of race, because if not, a European study of its cultural minority and racial struggle will soon be a study of someone else’s.

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