It is easy to shrug off the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle’s revelations alleging racism in and around Britain’s royal family as just another celebrity-triggered tsunami in a tea cup.
Worthy of another Netflix series certainly, but nothing to do with us.
What about confusion and disarray in the British media after being accused of endemic racism by both Prince Harry and Markle?
Nope, nothing to do with us.
Britain is different. What happens in Britain, stays in Britain.
With its colonial history, out-of-control ‘woke’ conversations on race, deep class and ethnic – and increasingly generational – divides, what happens across the Channel has absolutely nothing do with the rest of Europe.
Actually, let’s be even more emphatic. What happens on race and identity across the Channel and across the Atlantic – in that no-holds-barred, cancel-culture, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ world – have no relevance, no resonance, no parallels here in the European Union.
There is no impact at all on the ‘European Way of Life’. And not just because of Brexit.
For years, the EU’s “united in diversity” motto has allowed policymakers to claim that conversations on race, religion, colour and ethnicity are foreign to European “culture”. As imports go, they are unwelcome and unnecessary.
Instead, the focus remains on the great and inspiring narrative of a “colour blind” Europe where all are equal. Allegedly.
It is a fairy tale. The reality of 21st Century Europe is not one of inclusion or acceptance of religious, racial and ethnic diversity. And the new-found emphasis on race is not the result of Anglo-Saxon contagion.
There is no dearth of documented evidence of systemic racism, whether it is in encounters with the police, in meetings with recruiters and potential employers, or sometimes just because Europeans of colour – as Markle described it – “are breathing”.
Actually, it is whiteness and Christianity, a message disseminated daily by not only Hungary’s Viktor Orban but many other European populist and Far Right politicians.
Worse still is the tacit embrace of such discourse by mainstream European politicians seeking to outflank the Far Right.
True, conversations on race are often more muted, less incendiary – and also less frequent in the EU – than in either Britain or the US.
That is no surprise. Most – mainly white – EU politicians, policymakers as well as academics, think tankers, journalists and lobby groups do not think questions of racial justice and ethnic inequalities merit special attention.
Often, they are viewed as a distraction – or as competition for other aspects of the Europe’s equality agenda.
There is no powerful cross-border civil rights organization demanding racial justice in Europe. Lack of data collection on race and ethnic origin remains a problem.
Still, there are signs of change.
First, the devastation caused by Covid-19 has revealed the role of essential workers, many of whom are people of colour.
Second, Black Lives Matter protests that erupted across Europe after the killing of George Floyd in the US last summer have forced the continent’s own reckoning with racism, police violence and harassment.
The initial reaction from some EU policymakers was that “it could not happen here”.
‘Brussels, we have a problem’
But before too long EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen admitted the bloc still had its work cut out on building a Europe that is more equal, more humane, and more fair.
An EU Anti-Racism Action Plan adopted last September promises the appointment of an EU anti-racism coordinator, more inclusive recruitment policies, stronger national equality bodies and an update of the 20 year old anti-racism directive.
A first-ever anti-racism conference (online) is being held on March 19*.
These are good steps. But they are not enough.
Enforcement of existing anti-discrimination legislation must be a priority. Efforts are still needed to ensure fair policing, prevent unlawful racial profiling and provide training on ethics and human rights to law enforcement agencies.
Legacies of slavery and colonialism should be tackled, not least because they are impacting on Europe’s relations with its African partners.
Finally, there must be an even more ambitious collective effort to change the narrative of Europe.
It is high time that the concept of who is European in the 21st Century is expanded and enriched beyond current restrictive definitions and perceptions, becoming more modern, more fluid and more inclusive.
It that is done, questions like “where do you really come from?” may – finally – become redundant.
Such conversations will be difficult and painful. Too many Europeans are still in denial over their racist past and present.
Yet such a discussion is eminently necessary and need not be confrontational.
No magic wand will turn Europe into a true Union of Equality overnight.
But Markle’s personal story of pride and prejudice amid Britain’s Royals has lessons for everyone. We should be listening.
*Shada Islam will be moderating the online European Anti-Racism summit on March 19.