May 10, 2014
An African American woman living in Europe? Here’s why!

I’m certainly not the first. Nor will I be the last.

But I am often asked: what is it like for an African American woman living in Europe?

That’s a tough question because it is quite loaded and multi-dimensional.

  • Is life is different for a Black woman living in Europe than for a Black woman living in the United States?
  • Are Europeans different than Americans?
  • Are Europeans racist?

Wow, tough questions. And very good questions that I think should be addressed.  But, for the most part, I can only answer based on my personal experiences.

Still, I understand that many African Americans came to Europe to escape the segregation, invidious racism, and lack of opportunities in the United States.  Many musicians and performers like Josephine Baker, and scholars like W.E.B Dubious and Frederick Douglass moved to Europe. Writers like Richard Wright lived in Paris. Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes lived in the Soviet Union!

But let’s return to the present question about my experiences in Europe.

Europe is different.

And it is the same in a different way.

That is a confusing answer so let me break it down.

I discovered how different Europe was from the United States when I first arrived in The Netherlands to study law. (I should have realized it when I visited the law school and met the professor that I with whom I wanted to study.  But I’m jumping ahead.)

I chose to study at the Rijkuniversiteit Maastricht in the Netherlands because I wanted to study international human rights law with this famous and prolific Dutch professor.  I never expected to be accepted. But I was. And I received a scholarship. Big differences here!

When I met Professor Theo van Boven, I was immediately impressed with his openness and enthusiasm for a student who was passionate about human rights. My other professors behaved in a similar fashion.  In class, I did not need to fight for respect or watch other students get preferential treatment.  My professors and the other students distinguished me by nationality, not race.  The racial and ethnic distinctions and stereotypes were not plastered on me; I was an American.

Of course, that distinction sometimes caused other problems. I won’t digress on that issue!

Over the years, I have had many positive experiences.

I have had professional and personal opportunities that might not have been available to me as an African American. Or that would have been an uphill struggle to obtain.

I have been approached and treated as an American. That was not always positive, depending sometimes on the current president or the personal biases of other people that I met. But my interactions were mostly positive.

Yet the important point is that I was not being mistreated or judged by the color of my skin but by the content of my nation’s character. It was difficult but refreshing! (I wonder if Dr. King would find that acceptable?)

During my first years in Europe, I felt like Europe was, indeed, the place for me as an African American.  It was a place where the sky was the limit, not the glass ceiling.

Yes, sometimes, I feel like the only one, but it does not feel threatening or lonely.

Again, I say that Europe is definitely different from the United States.

But I say that Europe is not completely different.

There are problems.

Beneath the smiling and inclusive exterior is an under current of belief that a Black person is different. Black is different.  I use “Black” in the sense of a Black person from anywhere around the world, including Africa, the Caribbean, and America.

People stare.
People stay away.
People wonder.
People make assumptions.
And some people are afraid.

I have had negative experiences such as people changing seats if I sat next to them on a bus (Netherlands), seeing groups of people staring at me in a public place (Sweden), hearing my then-young son disparagingly called a mulatto (Italy), or being denied a house to rent (Belgium). I’ve had the surprised looks and double-glances from my husband’s colleagues when first meeting them.  And, yes, I have had the “shopping while Black” experience in many stores, from my local market in Belgium to a high-end department store in Milan!

What is really different?

Remember my “ignorance or racist?” restaurant incident and the Obama newspaper incident?

Europe has also had its incidents of racist violence. In England, the high-profile case of 18-year old Stephen Lawrence who was killed in a racist attack took nearly 13 years and intense community involvement to secure convictions for the attackers. And police corruption was rife throughout the investigation.

There was also, in England, the tragic case of 10-year old Damilola Taylor who stabbed to death in a racist attack. It required three trials to finally convict the attackers who have already been released.

And I was recently reminded of “The Laser Man” in Sweden who targeted foreigners during his lengthy shooting spree. He ultimately shot 11 people, killing one person. He is serving a life sentence.

It is bigger than these individual incidents and my personal experiences. However, they are not isolated incidents as I discovered from talking to other African American expats.

Many European countries have quite horrendous histories with Africans and others persons of color.

Belgium had King Leopold II who colonized and brutalized millions of people in the Congo. He was ruthless and violent towards the local population, having the hands of men, women, and children chopped off if they failed to bring their required allotment of rubber. Belgians continue to revere him and honor his legacy.  Read the book about him, called King Leopold’s Ghost, and try not to get angry.

England was an active participant in the transatlantic slave trade. However, slavery was abolished in England twenty years before it was abolished in the United States.  Spain and Portugal were active participants in the genocide of the millions of Native Americans.

But this was history and many things have changed, right?

A big election is happening throughout Europe. This May, there will be major decisions for the European Parliament, which will affect a number of important issues.  There are “extremist” political parties that are opposed to foreigners within their borders.

  • Vlaamse Belang in Belgium is a Flemish nationalist political party that rejects multiculturalism and demands restrictions on immigration.
  • The Sweden Democrats (not to be confused with the liberal Social Democrats) are openly and strongly opposed to immigration and integration.  They believe that immigrants threaten Sweden’s national identity and social cohesion. The Sweden Democrats are determined the strip funding for multicultural initiatives, instead, strengthen support for Swedish culture.

Both parties are receiving increased popular support and political power. There are similar far-right parties throughout Europe.

So, there are some similarities between Europe and the United States.

Is there a perfect place to live? No.

Is there a good place to live and breath and raise your children? Yes.

But this is not a one-size-fits-all decision.

I am happy that I live in Europe. I have grown and changed in ways that I feel would not have been possible for me in the United States.  I have a wonderful husband from Sweden.

My son does not consider himself as a black, white, or mixed race kid. He’s just a kid.  Yet he speaks Swedish fluently, likes rap music, basketball and skiing in Switzerland, and loves to eat grits and moose meat (not together!).  He feels at home with his grandparents in both countries. He enjoys picking blueberries with his Swedish grandmother and he feels right at home eating barbecue with his cousins in Houston.  He lives well in both worlds. It has taken effort and time but he has mastered it.

Many people feel differently.

One “size” does not fit everyone. But there is a size for everyone.

Just be open to “finding the fit” and willing to make alterations so that it fits you in the best way.

And remember that you can always change clothes…and continents!

It’s your life.




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