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Towards the 6th Summer School on Black Europe: Interview with Kwame Nimako

24 June 2012

Participants in the 2012 School. Professor Kwame Nimake is first on the left.

For the second year, the IIRE will be hosting the Summer School on Black Europe (24th June-5th July), which reaches now it’s sixth edition. We publish an interview we had with Professor Kwame Nimako, the main organiser, at the end of last year’s session.

Now that the Seminar is approaching its end, we would like you to tell us something about this seminar and what have you been discussing these last two weeks.


The Summer School on Black Europe studies race and ethnic relations in Europe. We talk about “Black Europe” because we consider that Europe is racialised: people tend to consider only a certain group of Europeans as “true” Europeans, and look at so called non-white people as migrants. But the problem is that a vast number of black people living in Europe are European-citizens. So the point is how do you relate the issue of citizenship to race.

The concept of race is usually only used in the Anglo-Saxon context. In continental Europe, they don't want to talk about race, because they think it has to do with Nazism and Nazis. But in the daily interactions and in the attitudes and presentations, it is always about race. For example, when the British football team was visiting Ukraine and Poland, the British Foreign Ministry informed the black people in Britain that they should not go there because there would be a lot of neo-Nazi’s and skinheads, who could attack the black people. They didn't say that all British people should not go, they said black people shouldn't go. So the whole idea of Europe is racialised, which shows that Europeans have to be of a certain skin colour and a certain outlook to be granted full citizenship.


If you are in the US and you say you are an American, nobody says you can't be an American. But in Europe it is very difficult to find people who say I'm European and who are black, the person asking would say “No I didn't mean that, I mean where do your parents come from”. Because there is this notion that a European has certain features, and that is what we call racialised Europe, which also affects social mobility, school achievements, crime, prison population, racial profiling, etc. The chances that the police will stop somebody on the street depends on them looking at the person. So this is what an average European will take for granted, but which black Europeans experience every day. If you look at demography, the number of people who live in a country which can be classified as black is generally around 5%, but if you go to the prison, 50% of the prison population will be black. In France 54% of the prison population is Muslim, but Muslims are only 8% of the population. So these are the issues that we address under the issue of Black Europe.

It is a seminar at an advanced level, we bring together professors who are specialists is this field and also students and PhD candidates together to discuss these issues.

How are these topics discussed and studied today at universities, what is the situation of these kind of studies in the official academy?

I took this seminar out of the university because there is no place for this discussion within the university. In universities in Europe they want to talk about two things: immigrants and refugees. They don't want to talk about race relations, which is a confirmation that the black person is a foreigner. So they want to talk about immigration because they want to stop immigration; and they want to talk about refugees also because they want to control refugees. But they don't want to talk about racism, they don't want to talk about discrimination, police brutality against Black people. So universities teach “immigration studies”, but they don't teach race relations. They talk about refugees... It’s all about people coming into Europe, and Europe has to be a fortress to prevent these people from coming in.

So in the universities if you hear about these studies it will be called immigration, and immigration is about black and non-white people, but they won't say that it is what it is, but that it is what they mean when they talk about immigration. How do we prevent the Africans or the Asians or the Muslims from coming into the country. Immigration is about demographic figures and the rules for preventing these peoples from coming into the country.

I still teach at the university but I don't teach race relations, I teach International Relations. In the 80s we had the Centre for Race and Ethnic Studies, it was closed down in 1991. A year later they opened it and called it Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies, because they prefer to talk about black people as immigrants, where as we talk about black people as citizens of Europe. If you change immigration for citizenship then you have a different way of approaching the thing, because the marker of citizenship is that you are European, but the point is, if you are an European citizen speaking the same language, and having almost the same religion or whatever the case is, then what is the issue which people use to distinguish you as different? It is only your facial features, or your name, or such markers for identification of difference.

This difference affects social mobility, it affects recruitment for job, if you write an application, they see your name, it rings a bell, it has impact on networking, it has impact on intermarriage, and all those things.

We address it at the level of history for example, why do continental European countries refuse to use the word “race”, whereas the British, Canadians and the Americans use the word race, and when did they stop using it. Until 1945 Europe was also using race as a means of classifying people, but after the Second World War they barred the word race, and they said no we don't talk about it”.

How do you understand the relationship between these studies, which in this seminar are addressed to high level scholars and PhD students, and the actual process of emancipation and abolishment of oppression?

Fantastic question. We don't only study oppression. Because if we study domination, automatically you are studying resistance. Domination makes sense only in relation to resistance. So these are all tied together.

Take the Netherlands. If in the Dutch history they use the word emancipation, they actually mean three things:

They mean emancipation of the Catholics, because until 1806 the Catholics where the repressed group by the protestants. Secondly you may refer to the emancipation of the working class. This is the working class movement which transformed itself into social-democracy and communist parties. And thirdly, they might refer to the emancipation of women. But they never mention slavery.

However Dutch society was a slavery society from the 16th century onwards, and slavery was abolished but not included in the emancipation discourse. So that means that this history is buried in a side line. When a black person is studying black history or relationships, it is impossible for that person not to speak about slavery and not to speak about colonialism. This is what I call parallel lives or parallel history. So even the construction of history itself starts from different positions. The one ignores the other totally, and the other one brings the other in relationto domination and resistance.

For example, last Sunday, the 1st of July, there was this commemoration [of the end of slavery in Surinam. You go there, you see a majority of black people. For them it is important, bur for the white public it is not important. For the Dutch white public, the Second World War is important.

So these are the issues. Why do some people find a certain type of history important, and other people find another history important. Why are they living in the same country but have parallel lives, or parallel memories.

So you conceive your study and your research maybe as potentially being able to give an alternative point of view and narrative which is from the standpoint of the oppressed. Is that how you see it? Or is it solely about studying how these conceptions are built actually?

Both things are automatically linked. If you study Dutch history and you take colonialism and slavery out, then of course that history is incomplete, or they are lying and hiding something. So from a scientific point of view it is just partial history, you have to study it as a whole.

Take the concept of slave. I don’t use it, because slavery is relational, so I use the word enslaved, because somebody does not become slave on its own, it is always somebody who enslaves the other one.

In the literature you read about slave trade or “slaves”, but the people are “enslaved”, and once you use the word enslaved, you know that behind enslavement there is violence. So then the whole idea of the Dutch society being democratic or open falls apart, because the whole idea of the Enlightenment in the 18th and 19th centuries is false from the point of view of Black people, because at the same time they are talking about freedom, fraternity, liberté, égalité, and so on, at the same time they were practicing slavery. So it is for the whites that there is freedom, but this is incomplete history. In this way you have two types of history: one in what we call the zone of being, and the other one in the zone of non-being. So you have the human line here, and then you have the zone of being above it, that is people who are considered human, and the enslaved and colonized people who are considered subhuman.

The people in the zone of being, that is Europeans, whether they are middle class, upper class, working class, are different from the zone of non-being, because the worker can go to the zone of non-being as a soldier or as a seaman to oppress the people in the zone of non-being, so we consider European history as one-sided.

It is not a question of talking about alternatives but that in the language itself, if you read my book, you will not find the word slave, you will find the word enslaved.

The point is, that is the way history and also the contemporary situation is being constructed. Another example: in the Netherlands they call black people “allochtonen” as opposed to “autochtonen”. All black people in this country are classified as allochtonen, and all white people are classified as autochtonen. This means that citizenship disappears. If you take Surinamese people, 91% have their passport but they are still classified as allochtonen, so your name does not matter, the state classifies you, it is not you yourself who determines who you are. There is no notion of self-classification. Because in Europe, including in France, they say they are colour-blind, race does not matter, but we know that it matters. If it does not matter, why are people living in segregated quarters in cities? If you go to French prisons, you see that all white people are in one part of the prisons, Muslims and people from the Middle East in another part, and African and Caribbeans are in another section of the prison.

So we know that they know the concept of race, and that they group people along race. But officially they say they are colour-blind, that it doesn't matter.

Now for a more specific question linked to the interests of this institute. During this week I have heard the name of some Marxist authors and some Marxist concepts being used in the presentations and discussions. What is the relevance of Marxism for studying the issues of this school?

Of course, Marxism is important and Marx was a major theoretician, but nobody can do everything. We consider Marxism to be a Western philosophy, which was based on the Western expansion, in the same way as the social sciences.

Marx uses the slogan “workers of the world unite”, and “proletarian revolution”, but he assumes this revolution will be led by the industrial workers who are more advanced than peasants, etc. So there he builds a hierarchy, not only of class, but also based in the different production sectors, etc.

But from the point of view of race relations and antiracist discourse, there are no permanent allies, you cannot say the working class are the allies of the oppressed or the enslaved population or whatever the case is. Marxists tend to subsume race under class, considering race as an epiphenomenon which emerges from class conflict.

Race was a constituent part of the international division of labour, because determined who was doing what. And within that division of labour, the enslaved Africans where at the bottom of the hierarchy. So we cannot consider race as merely an epiphenomenon.

If we take again the concept of the zone of being and zone non-being. Taking the example of my friend Ramon Groesfogel, if you take a white American worker in a Boeing factory in America, who earns 1560 dollars an hour, and you take at the Mexican border maquiladoras women who are working in a factory there earning 2 dollars a day, you can look at both as working class. In the first case, the person has the right to form a trade union, on the other side the woman has no right to form a trade union, if she tries, she would be killed or kidnapped. So in the zone of being, you have regulations and emancipations, with occasional violence and perpetual peace. In the zone of non-being you have perpetual violence and occasional peace, this should be taken into account in the analysis of who is working class and who is not. And this is of course also racialised. The Mexican is racialised in relation to the white working class. If the white worker comes and says “we are all working class”, you say “no, your working class and the rules that operate there are different from the working class and the rules that operate here”. So you have to take into account that we live in different zones.

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