Reflections on 'race' and racism within the context of the European Youth Work sector



The brutal killing of George Floyd, an African-American man by a white Minnesota police officer, witnessed by three other officers, has brought millions of people, black and white, to protest against structural and individual racism. Besides sparking these widespread protests and calling for systematic change and justice, the tragic death of George Floyd has once again re-opened the conversation on ‘race’ and racism.


As a white youth work practitioner, I feel a need to reflect on my work practices and my anti-racism, which is to acknowledge all the forms of racism and commit to challenging it even when it shows up in me. White people have created white supremacy, thus white people have the power and the duty to demolish it.

Uncomfortable conversations

I have felt that talking about ‘race’ and racism has become somewhat uncomfortable in the field of Youth in recent years. If you were to bring this topic to the table, you better have a strong reason and arguments for doing so. In the politically correct era, and politically correct sector which we claim to be, discussions on racism have shifted towards talks on cultural diversity, intercultural learning and inclusion, somehow diffusing the focus on racism, and silencing conversations on ‘race’. In recent years, I have observed the diversion of our attention from this vital topic towards the promotion of post-racial ideology and I have heard many claims of ‘color-blindness’ coming from mostly well-traveled white Europeans, which I find to be deeply worrying.


I have spent a few years working with young Afro-Irish (that’s how the majority of young people I have worked with identify themselves) and I’ve realized that we, white Europeans, are a long way from the utopia of a post-racial Europe. Racism was present in these young people’s lives, though in some cases it may have been hidden, difficult to point out and very often internalized and minimized by the young people themselves.


Honestly, for some years I could not find a way to articulate my active anti-racist position or publicly challenge racism, post-racial ideology and claims of color-blindness. At times, I wasn’t sure how to respond to the young people’s experiences of racism. Furthermore, I felt uneasy to use some terms, such as ‘race’, being unsure of my white privilege position. Some clarity has come since I started studying an MPhil in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict, in Trinity University in Dublin which has enabled me to explore some conversations on ‘race’ and write this piece today.

Let’s talk about ‘race’

Can we even use the word ‘race’? Is there not only one ‘race’, the human ‘race’?

Although, in our contemporary European society we are struggling to establish a common definition of ‘race’, the discussion is well past the reference point of ‘scientific facts’ and biology. The meaning of ‘race’ is fluid. It changes depending on the historical and social context. As Stuart Hall explains: we read social differences and we read ‘race’ as one of the forms of human classification. The problem occurs when we start making connections with the way people look and what they think, do and how intelligent or talented they are. Racist philosophy is built on the beliefs that human characteristics are the result of biological genes and not of the environment. The conclusion is that at the heart of sociological and anthropological studies of ‘race’, this term has social meaning but not a biological one.


However, even if ‘race’ is socially constructed, it has very real and tangible implications on how people experience life. The words, “I can’t breathe,” which can be heard around the world today, are especially understood by many black people and minorities, who are suffocated if not physically, but in some way their livelihoods, their quality of life and opportunities are being impeded by a racist system. So yes, we can and need to talk about ‘race’, because ‘race’ is an analytical tool through which we deconstruct individual, institutionalised and structural racism. ‘Race’ has the ultimate implications for the likes of George Floyd and many others whose lives and livelihoods have been taken because of the colour of their skin. It is only by understanding the concept of race that we can move forward.

Racism and post-racial ideology

According to Salman Sayyid a ‘post-racial’ concept emerged in the United States promoting the idea that America was no longer a racist society. The election of Barack Obama for the presidency in the USA became a visible confirmation of such a concept. In parallel, in Europe, a ‘post-racial’ understanding of racism has also emerged. In global ‘post-racial’ culture where racism is universally denounced, it becomes increasingly difficult to pin down. In other words, as we have less incidents of individual racism in politically correct societies, racism gets swept under the carpet. However, the static data in the EU shows that widespread racism continues to plague Europe. According to Fundamental Rights Report 2019 ‘Ethnic minorities and migrants continue to face harassment and discrimination across the EU, despite longstanding EU laws against racism. Only 15 out of the 28 EU Member States have dedicated action plans and strategies to combat racism and ethnic discrimination and gaps persist in national laws criminalising racism’.

Unfortunately, celebration of cultural diversity and intercultural learning workshops won’t fix it. In my opinion, we need to ground our practices in Critical Social Education theories and to open conversations on ‘race’, racism, racialisation and systems of oppression with young people in order to start creating an anti-racist culture that calls for systematic change. The death of George Floyd and the anti-racist protests around the globe are just some of the indicators that we are nowhere near to a post-racial utopia. Some ground work needs to be done and the Youth Sector could undoubtedly contribute towards this.

Racialization

If topics of ‘race’ and racism seem too far removed simply because of living in a country that has a small or almost non-existent black population (as is the case for some Eastern European countries), I would invite the reader to think about racialization experienced by Roma communities in Europe and draw some parallels with black people in the USA. The historical and socio-economic context of the Roma community is grim: Roma have been enslaved in parts of Eastern Europe, were subject to genocide during the Nazi regime, “sterilization” of Roma women was a wide spread practice, and likewise the practice of segregated schooling of Roma children was still taking place in some countries up to the late 90’s. Today, discrimination, physical violence and hate speech against this ethnic group continues and research indicates Roma to be one of the most marginalized groups in Europe.


Having no black or Roma people in our neighborhoods, doesn’t mean we should shy away from talking about the associated issues. For me, being anti-racist means that I see and hear the pain and injustice suffered by marginalized groups, be they black, Roma or any other minority. Racism and racialization are global issues, thus requiring global unity and global solutions.

Tokenism

As current events have opened a space for honest conversations on ‘race’ and racism I believe we have to be careful not to fall into the traps of tokenism. As well as that, to avoid confusion between learning and teaching about intercultural learning, and anti-racist work. Though celebrating diversity and building intercultural communications has great value in itself, it is not the same as anti-racist work. Just because we appreciate each other’s cuisines and listen to some afro beats, this has little to do with actually challenging racism. We need to gain a deeper understanding of the context in which racism is imbedded and to have honest, and perhaps often very uncomfortable conversations. To ensure real diversity, it takes more than a banner at a conference where all the speakers are white and five out of six panelists are well educated, middle aged men. Until we have a balanced representation on our panels, no banner of diversity or inclusion will fix it. I believe, that inclusion and diversity is about walking that extra mile to ensure that opportunities that are supposed to be available for all, actually reach minorities and marginalized groups and not only our poster campaigns.


A few years ago, I happened to attend an event for youth work practitioners and relevant stakeholders organized under one of those diversity or inclusion banners. At the event a group of black artists were entertaining the crowd. I looked around the room and spotted two black people from around 100 in the audience. The rest of us, including me, were white. At that moment I wished for the ground to open up and swallow me. I was speechless and angry to be a part of this practice that reflected a truly narrow minded, and I would dare to say, tokenistic approach to diversity. In my opinion, inviting black people purely for the purpose of entertainment of a white crowd echoes colonialism and little black representation in the audience highlighted the fact that the youth work sector is predominately white and has a long way to go until the banners of diversity and inclusion are no longer needed. If we really believe what we say on the banners of our conferences and workshops, then we should see equal and proportional representation of black and minority voices in the audience, not merely providing the entertainment.

Some tips for youth work practitioners

Most of us are already working with young people with fewer opportunities and who are experiencing economic, geographical, educational or other difficulties. Becoming an active anti-racist doesn’t mean you have to shift away from your current practice and suddenly focus on issues of ‘race’ exclusively. We can build an anti-racist culture within our existing environments and based on my work experience and current studies I have prepared a few practical points on how do so:

- Talk about ‘race’ and racism, even if you are white! If you need a bit more confidence to do so, educate yourself and have a look at the additional resources list at the end of this article;

- If you are white, reflect on your white privilege. Being white doesn’t mean that we don’t experience hardships in life, but it means that the color of our skin isn’t one of the things making it harder;

- Don’t be scared to call racist acts racism, even if it may be uncomfortable to do so;

- Don’t be bound to political correctness. We all make mistakes. No language policing please!

- Initiate conversations and discussions about ‘race’ and racism within your youth work practice even if you work predominantly with white young people;

- Organize an interactive workshop on privilege. This can help young people to understand that we all have different starting points, and different obstacles in life;

- Together with young people reflect on the realities of ethnic minorities in your country, your town or your city. It helps if you have a bit of homework done in advance. Have a look at some social research from your country or region;

- Make sure your youth service and/or practice is inclusive. You may need to walk an extra mile to ensure that services, that are technically available for all, actually reach all young people including those from ethnic minorities;

- If you have young people of colour or ethnic minorities in your youth work setting, create spaces for them to share their experiences of racism and racialization. This needs to be done in a safe space and never doubt their experience;

- Be aware of tokenism. It is as toxic as racism!

- Confront color-blindness. By claiming not to see colour we minimize oppression and racism experienced by black people. Furthermore, such a statement contributes to creating false post-racial ideology which claims that racism no longer exists;

- Support anti-racist online campaigns and raise awareness about racism.


These are some reflections, some guidelines based on my own experiences as a youth work practitioner, as a trainer and as a student of ‘race’, ethnicity and conflict. This doesn’t mean that I am always able to adhere myself to these principles, it is rather work in progress that requires continuous reflection.


The tragic death of George Floyd and events that have followed it, have opened this window for change, thus I invite you to discover your own anti-racist youth work practitioner’s superpowers. In order to assist you on your journey of further investigations, I have prepared a list of reading materials that maybe somewhat helpful.


For audiobook lovers (on Audible):

- Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, Third Edition: Critical America by: Richard Delgado, Jean Stefancic, Angela Harris – foreword

- Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 50th Anniversary Edition by: Paulo Freire, Myra Bergman Ramos - translator, Donaldo Macedo - foreword, Ira Shor – afterword

- Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism (2nd Edition) by: bell hooks

- Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by: Akala

- From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation by: Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

- Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race by: Reni Eddo-Lodge

- How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by: Walter Rodney, Angela Davis – foreword

- The New Jim Crow. Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colourblindness by: Michelle Alexander

For ‘practice, practice and more practice’ folks:

ENAR is the pan-European anti-racism network that combines advocacy for racial equality and facilitating cooperation among civil society anti-racism actors in Europe. Check out their work and find links to anti-racist organizations in your countries.

FRA, European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, has some statistic data, reports and practical toolkits worth exploring.

Racist hate speech effects young people today. During the ‘No Hate Speech Movementcampaign the Youth Department in the Council of Europe produced manuals and other resources to tackle hate speech online and offline. If you are interested to explore this topic further check out their website.

The Equality and Intercultural Programme’ at the National Youth Council of Ireland has created some resources to support you to embed equality, inclusion, diversity and interculturalism in your youth work setting.


As for academic types www.scholar.google.com is an excellent resource and I personally got clarification and inspiration from the writing of many great scholars, but these are my favorite authors so far: Stuart Hall, bell hooks, Kimberle Crenshaw, Steve Garner, Sayyid Salman, Peter Hopkins and Audre Lorde.

© 2020 by Aistė Šlajūtė