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04/11/2013

On racist racelessness in Europe

Consider these two scenes:

1) Recently talking to a graduate of a top-tier British university:
I [concerned]: "This summer an Italian Senator referred to the black Minister of Integration by saying 'Every time I see her, I cannot help thinking of an orangutang'".
HE [serious]: "And does she really look like an orangutang?"

2) A recent Facebook thread in Italian:
STATUS: The media accounts about the Romani girl in Greece that I'm reading these days are horrible! Can any of my friends write a good commentary or op-ed on the case?
COMMENT: The interesting thing is that the case was finally solved by a Greek journalist inquiry.
As if to say: when journalists get off their chair and do their job, they can be of help.

These two scenes can introduce what may be named racist racelessness in Europe. In the past few weeks the global media used the photo below to generate a massive case around that Romani girl. The girl was finally proved not to be the biological daughter of the two adults (in the photo) with whom she was living in Greece. Rather, investigations showed that her biological parents live in Bulgaria. The biological parents recognized her and explained that some time ago they left the child to that couple because they were extremely poor and had several other children to take care of. 

Persons
Left: [name unknown, age unknown]
Centre: Maria (?), or Mariya (Bulgarian), or Μαρία (Greek)
[age (real age unknown) between 4 and 6]
Right: [name unknown, age unknown]

 Location
Somewhere in 'Central Greece'/a few sources write 'Farsala'

Date
[unknown]  

The two main characterizations of this photo, the only photo picturing both the unofficial adoptive parents and the child, are particularly interesting. As the caption shows, the viewer knows nothing about the adults and very little about the girl. This decontextualization is stunning. What the viewer immediately notices, instead, is a chromatic contrast between the adults and the girl. This does not only concern their skin colour, the colour of their eyes, or of their hairs, but also the colour of their clothes and of the wall behind them. The second strong characterization of the photo are the three facial expressions. They all look either tired, or stressed, or concerned; moreover, the girl does not meet 'Western' standard of cleanliness and propriety. All this allows the 'Western' average viewer to 'legitimately' conclude that the adults are 'inapt parents'.

Different visual characterizations of one single object work simultaneously. Hence, the chromatic contrast gets immediately juxtaposed to the 'inapt parents' characterization, resulting in the black-inapt link. That photo, therefore, is a racist visual configuration, which is squarely framed within deep-rooted and popular anti-Roma and anti-Black discourses in Europe, at once instantiating and reinforcing them.

How could such a racist image circulate globally without raising almost any concern in Greece and Europe about race and racism? The European state(s), the media as their extensions, and sometimes the European Union, are able to reinforce racism without raising any opposition, because, as some scholars have been poiting out, they represent themselves as raceless, i.e. not historically and at present constructed on racial premises and domination. "Race? That's an American (Brazilian, South African...) thing!" - goes the refrain. I'm afraid that's not what the media coverage of that event shows. Race in Europe is actively ignored. This is what the two scenes I wrote as incipit, and specifically the two replies, show. This 'ignorance' allows race and racism to germinate wherever the terrain is fertile. That photo, and the huge anti-Roma consensus it raised in the past weeks, account exactely for that.

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