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The Rough Guide to Travel in Europe While Black

By Anita Franklin

In London, England a young black man called Stephen Lawrence is walking home with his friend when they are set upon by a gang of white youths in a racist attack which leaves Stephen dead.

His mother works tirelessly for 20 years pushing the police to pursue the killers and make sure the guilty parties are held to account. The police seem to resist doing their jobs when the victim is black. Indeed there was an official investigation known as the MacPherson Inquiry which exposed how racism permeated the culture of British police, ranging from unconscious bias to intentional acts of white power-mongers.

Back then Stephen’s mother and his family and other allies committed to seeing justice done had to watch while some of the guilty parties were allowed to get away.

Now the nation watches while another committee of inquiry is being formed to investigate how the police conspired to discredit the Lawrence family, and the anti-racism campaign.

Through it all, Mrs. Doreen Lawrence has shown herself to be a remarkable woman. She reminds me of one of those stoic, dignified ladies who held the Civil Rights movement together by doing the bulk of the unheralded day to day work. She has the sort of aura that comes when tremendous pain has been transformed into purpose.

In winning a measure of justice for her son, she hopes to win some justice for others. As Mrs. Lawrence knows all too well, young black men and women are preyed upon in the UK and in Europe.

Mrs. Lawrence has now become a Labour peer in the House of Lords because of her tireless campaigning and her charity work. A seat in the Lords today is a reward for exceptional service to the nation (though on the left the institution is regarded as an anachronism). One day the over-full House of Lords may be abolished but at present it is a second chamber to the House of Commons and plays a significant role in shaping legislation, often forcing through changes to government bills. Mrs. Lawrence has pledged to carry on her anti-racist campaigning in her new role. Within hours of her being recognized in the Honours list she was insulted by a section of the political right who called for her deportation. Unlike, say, 20 years ago when mainstream politicians would be shamed if they aired racist opinions, now the response to such views is more blasé. Race (and class) bias may even be a means of gaining political capital in the UK.

Now let’s go to France. Like many countries in Europe, France is having an identity crisis. Reactionary views have gained traction, but the leader of the main rightwing party, Marine Le Pen, is in all kinds of criminal trouble for her public expressions of racism. (In July the European Parliament stripped Le Pen of her immunity to prosecution and we wait to see what else she may lose as a result of her provocative speeches.) In France, you're probably good as long as you know where you are going—like My Uncle Mark knew we could stop in some places in South Carolina but not others back in the day. You can condemn racism and you can band together in alliances to do something about it too, as a "taken for granted" but "hard fought for" part of the political process to protect universal rights.

Do you remember Black Like Me? Richard Whitmore and that terribly earnest if cringe-making attempt to show what black people faced in 1950’s America? A few years ago the German journalist Gunter Wallraff made a documentary film called Black on White which tells a dreadful story of everyday racism in his home country. Made up to look African, the journalist lived life as a black man for a short time in order to expose the behaviour of white Germans who tend to remain in denial about the persistence of bias in their society despite the forceful testimony of black Germans and other people of colour such as Turks.

The experiences endured by Wallraff’s black alter ego in the course of everyday life included being spat at, being denied an apartment, being denied the right to handle objects in shops, and being set upon by white German youths with knives. Of course Wallraff has himself been criticized for cultivating a sort blank whiteness because of how his alter ego behaves. No real black man would make the same kind of assumptions about life that Wallraff does or present himself so naively. Interesting. Isn’t there something here that hints at a wilful racist inability to accept what’s said by black people (and others who are “raced”) about their experience?

Italy is a special case. Cecile Kyenga, an opthamologist, was appointed as Italy’s first black cabinet minister in April and since then has received rape threats, death threats, racial slurs and had bananas hurled at her at a public rally. One politician said he could see where she would make a good housekeeper, but not a government minister. Another political opponent, Roberto Calderoli said she resembled an orangutan. A poll over the incident suggests (to their credit) 80% of Italians believe Calderoli should resign. But, despite her calm exterior I recognise pools of unshed tears behind her eyes. Let’s move on.

In Switzerland I will not go in the boutiques. Others have already been there, done that. What I’m more interested in is the ban on Asian and African refugees entering public spaces in the town of Bremgarten. The mayor of the town says the ban is for security reasons. Whew that’s a relief! I thought it was for…racist reasons. The mayor says “we decided to make these areas inaccessible in order to prevent potential conflict and primarily to prevent the consumption of drugs. We are not inhuman.”

There is of course much more to see in Europe, loads more countries and cultures, but it is not a uniformly easy continent to visit if you have dark skin or other markers of difference. But one place will stay with me forever. The Memorial Alsace Moselle.

It's in a region that's been defined by conflicts between France and Germany, the much fought over territory of Alsace. The Memorial is a permanent exhibition utilizing a range of media which captures the history, trauma and reconciliation of opposing national forces in Europe. Like nothing else I have ever seen, the project walks you into the relentless march toward fascism with its everyday violence and terror. There is a corridor you go down with offices on either side full of Nazi paraphernalia, Hitler on the radio. It was just an exhibit but the atmosphere left me and my Jewish friend with more than just memories. We had a skin crawling presentiment of the future. We came away clear that Europe (and the world) is not finished with fascism. The exhibition is a lesson and a warning on how fragile the peace is between peoples and nations, and everywhere there are scapegoats.

From August, 2013

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