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Panel: “Decolonizing Knowledge Production on Black Europe and the African Diaspora"
Afroeuropeans: Black Cultures and Identities in Europe, University of Tampere, Finland, 6-8 July 2017
By Stephen Small and Sandew Hira
On July 6 through July 8, 2017 the 6th biennial conference on Black Cultures and Identities in Europe took place at the University of Tampere in Finland. Keynote speakers included Paul Gilroy, Elisa Joy White, Henry Mainsah, Domenica Chidei Biidu and Johny Pitts. The conference had more than 35 panels, and was attended by several hundred people from across Europe and the world.
Stephen Small, University of California, Berkeley and Sandew Hira of the International Institute for Scientific Research, (located in The Hague, Netherlands) organized two sessions of a panel entitled “Decolonizing Knowledge Production on Black Europe and the African Diaspora”. The panel included 7 presentations, covering a range of issues and several nations.
The goal of the two panels was to challenge the dominant knowledge production and teaching in mainstream European universities on Black Europe and the African Diaspora, by rejecting the academic (and political) preoccupation with immigrants, adaptation, tolerance and gratitude, and the typical disavowal of the relevance of racism and the legacies of colonialism. Presenters on the panels instead focused on the ways in which alternative knowledge about Black Europe, inside and outside the academy is produced in ways that highlight citizenship, evaluate the nature and extent of institutional racism, and focus on the need for rights and respect of Black people, both citizens and immigrants.
On the first panel Jennifer Tosch from Black Heritage Amsterdam Tours presented a paper entitled “Hidden in Plain Sight”. The paper articulated insights from the tour, intersected with an emphasis on the Decolonizing the Mind framework, including a focus on Black Archives of knowledge production. Tosch highlighted the Black presence, sites of memory, institutional racism and resistance in the Netherlands. The paper compared the dominant cultural archives of Dutch colonial history, institutionalized in the form of museums, and official archives, with the subaltern archives of Decolonizing the Mind, which informs and structures her work, and that of her associates, in a variety of ways. In this way, she foregrounded how Black voices and visions that are silenced or muffled in the dominant archive can be brought to life in ways that convey the variety and vitality of Black Dutch life, past and present.
Angelica Pessarini presented a paper on “Citizenship, Racism and Belonging: Legacies of Phenotype and Biology in Italian Political Discourse”. She revealed how historical notions of both remain at the core of contemporary Italian political discourse and are reiterated and rearticulated in a variety of ways. They are reformulated for contemporary consumption in the nexus of citizenship/race/belonging. Central to these articulations are notions of race-mixture, and people of mixed race, including the ways in which patriarchy unfolds in the historical relationships of white Italian men and women of color in the Horn of Africa. Despite the continued denial of the relevance of race in Italian political mainstream, Pessarini reveals how current ideas of citizenship are still based on enduring historical notions of blood lineage. Any attempt to fully grasp the depth of these ideas in contemporary life, without understanding the profound significance of their historical antecedents can produce only a deficient analysis.
Beverley Brathwaite presented a paper on “The Female British Black Caribbean Nurse: Post-colonialism, Gender and Power”. Using the institutional terrain of the National Health Service, she described and evaluated how practices and policies that reinforce white privilege and institutional racism work to control and contain British Black Caribbean Nurses. These practices reiterate colonial practices, displaced from the colonies to the metropolis, and from the past to the present. In other words, a powerful nexus of white domination, supremacy, and modern constructs of race informs these relationships. In this way, she insisted that the general patterns of race/gender/ideology that shape British society as a whole have distinctive analogues in the institutional terrain of health services.
On the second panel Sarah Demart paper was on “Articulating Different knowledge production locations: Belgian-Congolese Voices and Dissidences” raised important questions and issues around collaborations between academics, artists and activists. She explored some of the ways in which Congolese/Black voices are marginalized from the legitimate field of knowledge production (including universities). She insisted that the impetus to such exclusion arises in large part from national anxiety and protectionism in Belgium.
Olivia Gieskes paper on the "Sociology of Postcolonial Migrants in their former metropoles: The Cannon of post-colonial Habitus and Congolese women in Belgium" explored ways in which post-colonial relations between origin and destination nations condition the lives of Congolese women (and men) in Belgium. The forces of racism, institutional discrimination and cultural denigration shape Black women’s lives, and affects self-perceptions, inter-subjectivities and social participation. Drawing on and transforming Bourdieu’s concept of ‘Habitus’ and the notion of ‘post-colonial habitus’ Gieskes described the ways in which they structure Black women’s lives.
While each of these papers focused on a specific nation – namely Belgium, England, Italy and the Netherlands - collectively they reminded us that Western European nations, especially those with strident imperial histories, share much in common. Black life is still shaped in fundamental ways by ideologies, institutional practices established during colonialism and transformed for use in contemporary, metropolitan societies in Europe. Gender ideologies also remain fundamental stratifying mechanisms today. Collectively they reminded us that while primary understanding of contemporary intersections of race/gender/class/nation must come from contemporary analysis, presenters heeded us to recognize the need to understand and appreciate how contemporary ideologies, institutional practices and resistance are fundamentally informed by historical patterns. These are assumptions central to decolonial knowledge frameworks for understanding Black Europe.