Teaching colonialism is a first step in tackling structural racism in Europe, but inequalities will only be eradicated if taken into account in education as a whole, experts say.
“Colonialism, slavery and the Holocaust are rooted in our history and have profound consequences for today’s society”, reads the EU action plan against racism.
According to some, this is the first recognition at EU level of the existence of structural racism on the continent and of its roots in Europe’s colonial past.
“The action plan against racism is in fact the first European policy document in which we go to the causes, where we do not just talk about this short period in the history of Nazism”, said Ilke Adam, professor of political science at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. .
The plan, which sets out a number of measures to tackle racism at an individual and societal level, was adopted in September 2020, following the murder of George Floyd in the United States by a Minneapolis police officer.
Floyd’s death sparked a wave of protests which have spread to several European capitals, denouncing racism on the continent.
Many have also criticized their own country’s underappreciated colonial past.
In Belgium, for example, demonstrators disfigured statues of King Leopold II, who was guilty of violence, killings and other atrocities committed in Congo, then a Belgian colony, in the 19th century.
“History teaches us what should be duplicated, but also what should not be duplicated.” Juliana Wahlgren, acting director of the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), told EURACTIV.
“And I think education is the best platform to solve this problem,” she added.
School curricula in Europe often omit crucial pages in the history of the continent. For example, a 2019 UN working group report showed that the curricula of primary and secondary schools in Belgium did not “adequately reflect the history of colonization as well as the history and contributions of people of African descent”.
The report found that one in four high school graduates were unaware that the Congo was a former Belgian colony and that it was often teachers’ initiative to fight colonialism in the classroom.
Following last year’s protests, the European Parliament adopted a resolution who called on member states to incorporate a “global perspective” on colonialism and slavery into school curricula.
However, changing the curricula should not “only bring the colonial past back to the history books, but also bring more examples of authors, experts in all areas of the curriculum – being biology , be in math, “Wahlgren said.
Bringing in people who do not have a “Eurocentric approach” is also essential, she added.
Research has shown that diversity among school staff is low in Europe. A European Commission report found that teachers with an immigrant background represent only 2-4% in some Member States, while around 8% of EU residents were born outside the bloc and 10% of young people have at least one parent Born abroad.
However, the growing diversity of classes does not guarantee that structural racism is effectively combated.
“For example in Belgium, where you can still commit to revisiting some classes and bringing more diversity to our programs, and try to solve that problem, while celebrating Black Peter at the end of the year,” Wahlgren said.
She was referring to the controversial character accompanying Saint Nicholas and played by a white actor with blackface makeup and exaggerated red lips.
In addition, schools themselves can strengthen stereotypes and discrimination. For example, children of African descent are more often oriented towards vocational and technical training than towards university education.
“So we can do as much education as we want. If the structure doesn’t change either, that won’t help, ”Adam told EURACTIV.
Although the EU Action Plan against Racism shows political commitment against structural racism, denial within European society is hampering progress.
“What is difficult in the European context is that you can have the best of the law and the policies, but the level of resistance is very high, not only from the institutions, but also from the people in society “said Wahlgren.
Resistance to colonialism and slavery on the continent is also due to the reluctance of Europeans to accept that they “don’t have such a great story”, according to Adam.
Yet change is happening and it was already underway before the events of last year.
“The minorities themselves are now second generation, highly educated citizens, and are also starting to want to co-write the history of Europe,” she said.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]