Europeans’ moral grandstanding must be backed up with actions, not pretty words
Europeans’ moral grandstanding must be backed up with actions, not pretty words
Kim Leonard Smouter, Volt Belgium’s lead candidate in the European 2019 elections, writes a response to the killings of people of African descent, offering a plan of action for people to break the chains of systemic racism.
Europe – The story of my parents is a triumph of love and perseverance against the odds. My mother is of African descent, my father white. They crossed these racial lines, stood up to disapproving parents and forged a bond that thankfully still holds to this day. I like to believe I am a post-racial child who, through his mixed-race roots, can see beyond it simply because of my physical existence. As a child, I never realized that I may have experienced racism first-hand. My mother has stories of me coming home sometimes in tears when I was in primary school, but I have no real memory of them.
Through hard work , my father provided for us and made sure that we grew up in so-called “good” neighbourhoods. His career allowed us to grow up not just in France but also in Silicon Valley. My siblings and I grew up in that white world, in some of the wealthiest communities of the world. Those who had the same skin tone as us in school were either there because of a scholarship or because they were the children of those providing the cleaning or catering at school. They tended to live in a ghetto in East Palo Alto, literally on the other side of the railway tracks, where being poor usually correlated with being Latino or African-American.
Growing up in the US, I never really took notice of that fact nor the times my mother would get pulled over to make sure she was truly the owner of the car we drove. Nor those times she would get ID-checked just to make sure the credit card she was using in the department store was truly hers. Nor the times my father would get asked if we were truly his children or being applauded for his selfless effort adopting children from another race. As a child, one sees the world with a certain blissful innocence, eyes that do not truly open until much later.
It took a while for the spark ignited in Minneapolis to awaken in me those memories and review that post-racial identity, but finally I realised that George Floyd’s story could easily have happened to my siblings, my mother, or indeed any member of my extended family.
What happened still makes me angry. Angry that once again an innocent black man who did nothing wrong had his life taken from him in the most ignominious manner. Angry that this is just one more drop in an already overflowing ocean of injustice. Angry to think that this intolerance and extremism is on a rise across the world, encouraged by political leaders. But also angry at people, brands and institutions who only reacted because it had become the fashionable thing to do. Where were they when it comes to combating these injustices before?
A father was killed, a mother turned widow, and a daughter who will never see her father again. That is the story, not a political agenda or an opportunity to score social awareness points. It’s easy to let the story get away from us, becoming so focussed on our own posturing making us feel good about ourselves for having said something. But in the process, we unwittingly hijack the story from those who experience the injustice themselves. It prevents us acknowledging that we all have played a part in this story through negligence.
We, members of the black and ethnic minority communities, are not victims. We do not need to be spoken for. It’s a message I conveyed to my friends in Volt, the political movement I am part of, as they sought to join the protest and be on the frontlines. We sought to define how they could contribute to the conversation in a way that was true to our vision of an inclusive society but perhaps more importantly true to the voice of those like me who were in pain. It’s proven challenging even for people seeking to be inclusive to find an appropriate tone and positioning. But when one is sincere, and willing to learn and grow as Volt did, it can only be a step towards lasting change. Indeed, systemic racism won’t be resolved by the blacks and ethnic minorities like me alone. We need allies to relay our experience, to hear us, to listen and to be humble enough to learn from our experiences. And it’s important for those seeking to become allies to realise that that experience can be markedly different from one community to the next. Indeed, there isn’t one homogeneous black or ethnic minority community and therefore the first step to becoming an ally is not to broad brush the kaleidoscope of experiences.
It is not the first time that the sacrifice of people of African descent is being overtaken by political posturing, no matter how well-meaning it might be. Posturing won’t return that daughter’s father, nor will it lead to the change needed to break the chains of the systemic racism that allowed this murder to take place in front of our digital eyes. It will be up to the US justice system to prove itself worthy of the task of rendering it, but we must convert our solidarity into something more than just a prayer and a passing thought. We cannot allow this to remain a social media trending fad.
Changing one’s social media profile is not enough to erase centuries of neglect and brushing away of the reality of systemic racism. It doesn’t repair the times when people witness a person being asked for extra ID because of the colour of their skin. It doesn’t excuse our use of facial recognition software designed in such a way that it can’t even recognise darker skin tones. It doesn’t justify us buying products off of marketing campaigns which don’t feature a single black person. It doesn’t fix the scarcity of black business managers and leaders or other role models for black youth to follow. It doesn’t address why Europe’s parliaments and parties count so few black and minority politicians in elected office and in leadership positions, or why a Belgian weather journalist whose only flaw, having a darker skin, led to her being viciously harassed. It doesn’t excuse telling Europeans, who happen to have parents or grandparents or great-grandparents born from elsewhere, that they should go home to where they came from, when the only home they’ve ever known is Europe. We as Europeans have simply not done enough to seriously question this mundane reality.
So what can be done, concretely? An African proverb says that a friend is someone you with whom you share the path. So, if we are serious about wanting to heed these warning signs, then I think firstly it’s about individually living up to the solidarity promised and taking that next step. Why not delve deeper into the black experience by picking up a book on the topic or watching a movie and why not strike a conversation with your peers about it? Do you know any black friends? Why not reach out to them to see how they are experiencing and listening to how they feel and how you can help them? Why not attend a meeting of your local black and ethnic minority community and take that first step to build a real and lasting bridge with our community? Why not take to task our employers if there isn’t a single black person on the payroll and challenge them about it or a single black person in a management or leadership role? There are so many things that can be done beyond just changing your social media profile pic and each tiny shift can help weaken the chain of systemic racism, discrimination, and disadvantage.
The same applies to organisations and institutions Simply issuing statements of support is not enough, especially when these organisations themselves have so much work to do. Instead of impersonal statements… why not use this opportunity to enrich or institute diversity training programmes that sensitises staff to these issues in the workplace and brings to light our inner biases in the way we work and communicate? Why not review one’s recruiting processes to make sure that they not only encourage but support applicants from diversity backgrounds to have a fair shot at employment? Why not offer your platform and resources to that local black and ethnic minority group to reach a wider audience? Once again, so many things, large and small but all important ways to make sure that George Floyd’s murder, and the murders that have preceded them, as well as the injustice that they highlight across the world can start being repaired.
It’s certainly not an exhaustive list but it’s a start. And if there’s one thing the black community has always demonstrated is that it certainly is a patient community. That is because we live by another proverb for us, however long the night, we know that dawn will eventually break.
About Kim Leonard Smouter
Kim Smouter, 37, is a Dutch national and a member of the political movement Volt. An Afro-European, he was born in Munich, Germany and grew up in France and the United States before moving to Belgium where he has lived for over 18 years, he is married to a Belgian. He was Volt Belgium’s lead candidate in the European elections for the French-speaking college, former city co-lead for Brussels, and was co-facilitator of Volt Belgium’s Governance Commission. He is currently active in the movement spearheading diversity efforts and governance reform within the Volt Belgium chapter.
He works in the dominantly white European bubble, in civil society and the European Parliament. He began his career working first in the field of equalities, skills and employability, and the role of civil society before joining the world body for the data, research and insights community ESOMAR as one of its senior managers in charge of a team responsible for advocacy, communications, and ethical and professional standards for opinion and social research.
He is also a passionate cyclist, and an amateur creative writer co-founding New Worlds Project, a collaborative science-fiction creative project bringing together writers, artists, and musicians to co-create creative works.