In November 2016 The United States elected Donald Trump as president, despite Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote. At the time, the world was still reeling from #Brexit, a long anticipated referendum to determine whether the UK would stay in the EU, or exit; The decision to leave after 40 years of unity shocked the world. The election of Donald Trump just five months later was a full-on blow to cohesion in the West. Yet, the monumental scale of these cast votes reflect the social climate in the West right now, although this has been years, arguably generations, in the making.
While people in the West love to congratulate themselves on how “progressive” our societies are, and the “liberal”, “social”, and “intersectional” approaches in which our governments address social issues, these same societies could not function without fostering policies in other parts of the world that are in direct opposition to these ideals. Western nations have been engaged in perpetual war since the 15th century in order to establish themselves as imperialist powers globally. Today, the West includes some of the largest weapons producers in the world, including the UK, Italy, Germany, and the United States, all countries who also share global colonization in the fabric of their histories.
The West also depends on conflict metals to sustain its ever-growing reliance on technology. This dependency has caused and continues to cause violent, impoverished, and dangerous conditions in societies throughout Africa and beyond. The average citizen in the West consumes more resources daily than citizens in China and India combined, meanwhile many people throughout the Global South die from inadequate food and shelter, or from fleeing conflict.
The Democratic Republic of Congo supplies more than half of the world’s supply of cobalt, one of the precious metals used in smartphones. Amnesty International reported children as young as 7-years-old working 12-hour shifts to mine cobalt in toxic conditions for companies including Apple and Microsoft, for less than $5 a day. Annually, it is estimated that $41.3 billion is stolen from Africa collectively by the rest of the world through multinational company profits, pirate fishing fleets, and illegal logging.
These are just a few examples of Western involvement in fueling global conflict and chaos. As a result of this wanton violence and poverty, many people across Africa are forced to leave their homes. Western wars, weapons, and financial exploitation directly contribute to African emigration, and it is because of these conditions that we now face the largest humanitarian crisis since the horrors of World War II.
As the first decade of the 21st century came to a close, we began to hear and see intimate stories across media of people fleeing their homes and seeking refuge in safer parts of the world. The stories were framed through a lens of empathy and deep concern. We learned of the tragedies; the families trapped in Syria, the children lost to the sea, the Black Bodies fleeing across an entire continent to the freedom they believed to be just on the other side, here, in the “safe” West.
How do people in the West cope with these tragedies in light of our own collective benefit from them?
In Germany, “Refugees Welcome!” is a phrase which best illustrates the initial response to the crisis. It became an unofficial slogan across Germany, chanted at protests, printed on t-shirts, bags, and other merchandise, and adopted by the most “liberal” and “progressive” citizens.
This response came as a result of The Good Refugee narrative – a person who survived the dangers beyond “our” safe borders and managed to arrive here relieved and ever-indebted to us. In their humility, this person enthusiastically strips their traditions and culture from their identities (unless giving a performance) and instead soaks up the local Western language, gets the highest education, and becomes the most contributing member of society through total assimilation.
Some countries, like Sweden, joined Germany in attempting to relieve the calamity by presenting open-door policies. Whether deliberate at the time or not, these policies have been short-sighted and inadequate for the magnitude of this dilemma. Once here, people seeking refuge are housed off in cold accommodation where they must sit with their trauma for months, or even years, unable to start a new life until they have been “processed” by Western bureaucracy.
And these are the models of the “welcoming” countries. European nations like Greece, Spain, France, Slovakia, and Hungary (to name a few) were immediately and openly hostile in response to the influx of global citizens seeking refuge within their borders. These countries used the inverted image of the Good Refugee as justification for their policies… a fear-mongering stereotypical caricature: The Bad Refugee.
This image of a Bad Refugee is often portrayed in media as a dirty man of color who has “cheated” his way over here, sweaty and uneducated, only to rob and rape and steal “our jobs(!)”. This was most clearly illustrated on New Year’s Eve 2015, when over six hundred women were sexually assaulted including cases of rape in Cologne, Germany. The incident was immediately racialized by mass media, as the attackers were described as “North African” (meaning not white).
Overnight, the entire umbrella-term for the dozens of thousands of people forced to seek safety and shelter from the havoc and instability directly connected to Western policies was twisted into a derogatory label projected and smashed onto all Brown and Black bodies in the West and beyond:
This tactic of “othering” People of Color by white societies has been used for hundreds of years. From Blackface to Anti-Muslim racism to degrading depictions of Indigenous Peoples, we see the pattern in Western society’s current narrative surrounding “refugees”. The creation of these images of Good and Bad around the people most affected by the current humanitarian crisis is dangerous for several reasons.
First, it is a way for the West to avoid taking responsibility for our political and historical failures that have caused the “refugee crises” to begin with. It is also a way for the West to avoid honorably receiving and treating refugees because the blame is instead put on the very people the West hurts and exploits most. Summed up, these narratives are coded racism, and give a platform to blatant racism.
By creating an “Other”, the West inescapably creates an “Us”, defined in terms of white and white-passing people of European descent vs. anyone who falls outside of that category. That means that white Western people (and the powerful governments that they control) engage with everyone, from Zimbabwe to Turkey, through a lens which views People of Color and People of African Descent as either a threat, or infantile.
The effects of these beliefs can be seen on institutional levels. Politicians are now running for the highest offices on platforms of harsher border control and xenophobic governance. Less than two weeks after Donald Trump was inaugurated, he signed his executive order “banning Muslims” from 7 countries in the Middle East and Africa, a move that was ultimately struck down by federal American courts, but alas was a “promise” Trump echoed throughout his election campaign and went on to re-propose through another executive order just one month later.
There are documented cases of white supremacists (within Western institutions such as the police force and military) attacking People of Color, especially People of African Descent, and even plotting terrorist attacks to frame “refugees” and accelerate the rise of fascism. In April 2017, three men from the German military were arrested for planning a shooting at the Vienna airport with fake Syrian passports. All men were of German descent.
In early 2017, a Black man was sexually assaulted by French police. A lawyer for the officers accused claimed “it was an accident”. Hate crimes against People of Color in the West have been steadily rising, and while we have always been concerned, it is now at a point where everyday we live here under the threat of violence.
We see how quickly the world can turn hostile when hate is allowed to form policy.
People beyond Western borders trying to seek refuge here are experiencing atrocities such as kidnapping, rape, murder, enslavement, and organ harvesting while narratives about them within our borders completely derail any genuine conversation about how to solve this humanitarian crisis. These are just a handful of the nightmares our siblings are experiencing at the hands of “our” governments’ foreign policies.
Western nations backed the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, which resulted in the total collapse of Libyan society, the effects of which can still be felt today. Where the West could have supported African and Arab nations to strengthen peace and stability within their regions, they instead focused on their own exclusive issues. Now, the European Union is knowingly allowing Libya to remain the hub of migrant activity for the most marginalized peoples of the world, accepting that thousands of people are dying in Libyan detention camps and the Mediterranean Sea upon escape. This makes the West not only complicit in the atrocities inflicted on people seeking shelter here, but active players in the crimes against them.
Although we all are at risk of violence as People of Color and People of African Descent, there is a hierarchy amongst us living in the West based on our birth place, gender, citizenship status, sexual orientation, language proficiency, and education, and these structures are inherent to the fabric of white supremacy and western imperialism. As People of Color and especially People of African Descent, we must be aware of the ways in which anti-Black and anti-Muslim framing in media and policy disproportionately targets refugees and asylum seekers. It is in our awareness of ourselves, each other, and these systems that we can also work together to liberate one another at all levels.
This is a conversation about the very real human beings fighting to survive in a world trapping them between borders and bureaucracy. This is not to say there aren’t valid conversations about terrorism or ISIS, but this isn’t one of them. This is a conversation about the Black organizations across Europe that are working to amplify these issues and our solutions, whether shedding light on the atrocities Africans face in Libya, or by creating safe spaces for Black Bodies in Europe.
This is the foundation of ENPAD’s new series “What’s This with Dan Biss: A Chronicle of Black Organization and Movement in Europe.” With generations of history and wisdom to draw from, we know that global liberation is intricately intertwined, and the common denominator of oppression is anti-blackness. It is in that knowledge that we must all work together to create a truly peaceful world. Join us as we engage in this conversation with our siblings across Europe who are proving through their projects and initiatives that when we do the work, justice and security is an attainable right that everyone is entitled to.
About the Author: Dan Biss currently resides in Southern Germany. Originally from outside of Washington, D.C., Biss organizes events for People of the African Diaspora, facilitates workshops for justice and empowerment, and writes down everything in her mind. In 2014 she began a blog about sexuality, pop culture, and her pursuits to live more intersectionally… You can follow her journey on Twitter @xDanBiss.