Racism in Europe is entrenched

One study has found anti-black attitudes are inherent across Europe. How can we tackle such engrained attitudes?


In this era of fraught politics with Brexit and Trump, there’s the idea of the good guys vs the bad populist guys. But what does the word ‘good’ really mean to you? Have you conjured up the image of a decent and honourable person in your mind? According to new data, the chances are the person you’re visualising is white.

Project Implicit is a survey that Harvard University has been running since 2002 where people have signed up to a website to have their subconscious biases put to the test. Racism isn’t just explicit hate. The study goes much deeper and looks at whether we associate white as being positive or black as being negative. Project Implicit overwhelming found that Europeans associate blackness with negative terms. Not one European country earned a neutral score. While America gets attention for its racism due to Trump and the rise of ‘the alt right’, particularly in the wake of the violence at Charlottesville, Europe still has ingrained anti-black attitudes. Prejudices are still inherent and the anti-black attitudes in Europe deserves attention right now. However, even this study might be seriously underestimating the problem of inherent anti-black associations that Europeans are making. The problem could be even worse than feared.

“Even this study might be seriously underestimating the problem”

Dr Tom Stafford, an expert in the field of psychology, worries that the study was more likely to have young people involved, which could skew the true picture of the range of anti-black attitudes.

“The people who do this test are likely to be younger,” Dr Stafford says, “more internet savvy and probably more cosmopolitan so those kinds of people who read about Project Implicit on The New York Times or the BBCand then go to the project website and fill out the survey. They’re reading international media so probably what this does is probably understate the strength of negative associations.”

Dr Stafford argues that there’s been clear evolution of ideas between the generations with young people more likely to be liberal and accepting of different identities. Yet, if this study was largely engaged with by young people then millennials are still not free from anti-black attitudes. A study by GenForward found that 35% of African Americans and 27% of Latinx people believe millennials are “divided along racial and ethnic lines” in their concerns regarding racism, yet this compared to only 14% of white Americans who felt the same. In Europe, white millennials are more likely to be liberal, but there’s a strong split between millennials who are more accepting, and those who are swinging to the far right.

In the first round of the presidential elections in France, Marine Le Pen’s largest voting block was millennials at 33%. In 2016 Gert Wilders’ far right party, the Party for Freedom saw its support from 18–25 year olds soar to 27%. Yet, Generation What? found that German millennials held the most positive attitudes towards immigration and towards cultural diversity.

It’s difficult to understand how a generation can be so divided, but what’s more is that even the most positive elements of our generation aren’t free from anti-black ideas.

“The interesting thing with the pattern across groups – the thing everyone always finds – is the average person has those negative associations and that’s worrying that there’s something about our experience or our exposure to the media that has put this into our minds,” says Dr Stafford.

“People use phrases like ‘bogus asylum seeker’ or ‘benefit cheat’ so when you think about asylum seekers it’s almost got a silent ‘bogus’ in front of them. The media has done that. They’ve put associations in. Just as when you think about a professor of philosophy you probably think of a man with a white beard. You know women can be professors of philosophy as well but those associations, those automatic thoughts, they can become triggers, assumptions…It’s kind of powerful stuff. It’s not like it dominates how we act but it’s a component of how we act why we act the way we do. Every citizen needs to think about what assumptions they make and what media diet they give themselves to create those assumptions.”

“It’s not like it dominates how we act but it’s a component of how we act why we act the way we do”

It’s not just journalism. Philip Nel explored the extent of anti black attitudes in children’s literature, in his book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books. Nel looked at racism, erasure and inherent negative connotations associated with race. Children are told fairy tales where it is black magic that is to be feared, and of evil queens draped in black like Maleficent. Even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (an apparent favourite of Nel’s) has been criticised for its depiction of oompa loompas and the racist connotations they have. When such negativity is commonplace in the very first stories we read then it’s no surprise that anti-black attitudes are thriving. Negative associations with blackness are prevalent, but can they really make a difference to how we think?

“Psychologists are divided,” Dr Stafford acknowledges. “Some say it doesn’t have any real impact and that you can just choose to overcome these biases. Other people say it has a profound impact. It’s controversial.

“I think it’s going to have an impact on those things we don’t think hard about, like whether you decide to stop to give someone a lift. You can be influenced by the colour of their skin. or whether you decide to look five minutes longer at the CV of an applicant. It’s going to be things that happen outside of our focus but as a psychologist, I know that is a lot of our day to day decisions because you can’t be thinking about everything.

“I’d call this an implicit association. It’s not deliberate. You also get these ideas of implicit biases which are your actions that reflect prejudice associations. Do you interrupt certain people more? Do you smile less? Do you lean a bit further back with your body language? There are a whole host of these things which we may do deliberately or we may not be aware that we’re doing.”

Research by Project Information, Understanding the logics of racism in contemporary Europe found in the press that experiences of racism were ignored or silenced, and that language often perpetuated subtle ideas around migrants and non-white people as being a threat and stated:

“The silencing of racism or discrimination against immigrants and minorities is often accompanied by softer language, such as ‘lacking equality’ and ‘insufficient integration’… Current representations of Muslims tend to foster moral fears. This is seen in the wider social and political discourses surrounding Muslims, who are represented as fundamentally problematic in Western democratic societies.”

“The silencing of racism or discrimination against immigrants and minorities is often accompanied by softer language”

Dr Stafford states that media coverage on the refugee crisis has helped create an “us/them” attitude, sowing divides.

The study by Project Implicit however, does not explore the impact anti-black beliefs have on our actions and nor does it explore tensions between different communities of colour, such as the potential for anti-black racism by Asian people. It is not overreaching research but it shows that Europe is a home for negative attitudes around black skin.

Dr Stafford does believe that these attitudes can be changed and challenged and speaks in favour of social media to be able to bring about progress.

“There’s a lot of technology hating,” Dr Stafford says, “but there’s research showing that people are more likely to talk to someone that’s not like them on social media than they are in their day to day lives. Brexit is really divisive and there’s obviously Brexit and Remain echo chambers on social media but those social media echo chambers mimic real life echo chambers where people are surrounded by family members and friends who are just like them.

“Social media has got power. You can connect to people who are far away, you don’t know very well and you can have dialogue with them. There’s cause for optimism.”

We might not be able to talk around neo-Nazis but there are those who may have inherent prejudices or negative associations who can be engaged. If we keep talking to each other and keep raising awareness about prejudices in society, then they might finally be eradicated.

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