I have now lived in Europe for over a year, and previously spent a month here followed by another two weeks. People often ask me what qualities of Europe I’ve found strange or different, what’s shocked me the most. I always have trouble answering – I’m still in developed countries, usually Western, so I’ve just adjusted to the small cultural and infrastructural differences as they’ve arisen. Truthfully, there is only one thing that never ceases to shock me:
During my whole life in Europe, I did not know that I was white. I knew I had pale skin and light eyes, but this was because my father was a ginger. Then, when applying to an American university for the first time, I had to indicate my race and ethnicity in the official paperwork. I learned that I had to tick the box that said “White/Caucasian.” Then, within a couple of weeks on a Midwestern campus, Americans made me understand that I was white – not only in the literal, but in the racial sense of the term. Together with my fellow exchange students from Europe, we decided pretty fast: Americans are obsessed with race. Race is everywhere; in media and political discourse, in art, in peoples’ minds. In my classes, African American and Latino students repeatedly reported racial discrimination by white police officers or in job interviews. Friends advised me to avoid specific neighborhoods – black neighborhoods.
Before going to America, it would have never occurred to me to even use the term race. Race may apply to dogs, or horses. But humans? No way. To me, groups of people were rather characterized by their different cultures, traditions, values, and beliefs. For example, I knew that I, myself, was European. As such, I identified as an heir of centuries of European culture with its Greek and Roman heritage, Christian traditions, secular art, Enlightened thinking, modern science and technology, as well as the more recent belief in liberal democracy.
When looking at the actual ideological debates in Europe, I now wonder if Europe is not as obsessed with culture as America is with race. Just as most Americans take “the” five races (white/Caucasian, black/African American, Asian American, Native American/American Indian, Latino) as naturally given, most Europeans tend to think that one can distinguish between clear-cut and mutually exclusive cultural communities, such as the European cultural community, the Muslim cultural community, the… well, it often stops here. Against the backdrop of current issues such as the so-called refugee crisis, the term “European culture” is only used in order to contrast European culture with Muslim culture. In so doing, the speaker suddenly forgets about the cultural diversity within Europe, as well as the negative prejudices toward other European nationalities (e.g., the humorless Germans, the lazy Greek, the arrogant French, and so forth).
In Europe, the cultural category has very clearly replaced the racial category that is still used in America. Culture is hereby seen as something that is inborn in individuals or trained at a very young age, and therefore cannot evolve, transform, change. I often have the impression that it is understood exactly like race was conceived of during Europe’s darkest periods – as a biological determinism that decides good and bad, superior and inferior. As a consequence, Europeans seem to be experts in exercising cultural racism – they prefer to declare that a certain culture is not compatible with Europe, instead of a certain race or ethnicity. This wording might seem more lenient, but has the same meaning in the end.
So what is real, and what is a mere construction? Race? Or culture? Maybe neither. Or maybe both. Looking at the lived realities in the United States and in Europe, one has to conclude: in the US, race is real. It is real because it has real consequences on peoples’ daily lives, and entire personal narratives. In Europe, on the other hand, the belief in incommensurable cultural communities is gaining ground in a manner that this social construction is real as well, because it influences how Europeans perceive other parts of the world. Yet, with regard to current issues such as the refugee crisis, we could try to put our convictions into question. Is Muslim culture really as opposed to European culture as right-wing populists and racists want to make us believe? Are cultural values unchangeable?