Protesters holding signs in Civil Rights March
Protesters holding signs in Civil Rights March

Black America and Europe

What roles do notions and images of ‘Black America’ play in the ways in which Europeans understand racism and Black European activism?

Notions and images of America, and especially of the U.S.-based Black freedom struggle, play a notable role in Dutch and Europeans’ understandings of racism. Within European mainstream culture, racism and the fight against it for instance are often perceived as ‘typically American.’ As a result, anti-racism movements led by Black Europeans are often underestimated or even entirely overlooked. For example, while Martin Luther King, Jr., and his ideas have been admired in the Netherlands since the 1960s, Anton de Kom remained almost unknown among the wider Dutch public during the same period. In order to analyze this unique interplay between the hypervisibility of Black American activism and subsequent invisibility of local Black activism, this project, with the overarching title Black American Centrality and Race in Europe, builds on insights from African American Studies and Black Europe Studies.

On the one hand, Black America’s outsized role is hardly surprising considering the longstanding historical and cultural influence of the United States on the Netherlands and Europe in general. Over time, the Black American freedom struggle, moreover, has come to function as a profound source of knowledge and inspiration. Concepts derived from the United States such as institutional racism, intersectionality, White privilege or Blackface have long been employed in Dutch national debates about discrimination in housing, education, employment and government policies (such as during the ‘childcare benefits scandal’) and regarding ‘Black Pete.’

On the other hand, many Dutch and European citizens do not consider racism and the struggle against it as applicable to their respective societies. For example, an often-heard criticism of ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests in Europe is their characterization as a mere import of divisive American identity politics that is irrelevant or even threatening to an allegedly ‘colorblind’ Europe. What is often forgotten or denied in such cases, is that locally-based, European fights against racism have been going on for decades and are often instigated and led by Black Europeans on their own terms. Debates on racism on the European mainland and particularly in the Netherlands are additionally informed by the larger context of Americanization, in which both admiration for and aversion against American culture and foreign policy in general play a complex and specific role.

By analyzing the interactions between Black America, Europe and Black European activism over a longer historical period in this way, this project not only generates new insights into the international impact of U.S.-based movements, like the 1960s Civil Rights Movement or the contemporary Movement for Black Lives, but also allows us to better understand how racism is discussed, challenged or denied within our own society and how (Black) European anti-racism activists engage with that cultural dynamic.

Results

Visser-Maessen L., Van den Berk J. ‘Oppressive Even As It Inspires: Approaching Black American Centrality in the Age of the Black European Renaissance’Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race. Published online 2024: 1-28. doi:10.1017/S1742058X2400002X