Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Questions of Europe and Race

Do Europeans understand what race is?

Quite a contrast in two stories out of Western Europe today. First of all, a rather stunning decision of the French railways to post some rather, er, targeted signage at some railway stations. The signs read:

"In the last few weeks concerns have arisen about Romanians. Indeed, numerous baggage thefts have been noticed.
"We ask you to redouble your vigilance. In addition, all the activities of Romanians should be brought to the attention of the PCNS [rail security services]."

So apparently, there was little proof of this happening by people of a certain, distinct nationality. But to single out a single group (not Roma, or Gypsies, but Romanians) for pubic notice and shaming represents an astounding callousness -- especially seeing that France is probably the most ethnically diverse country in Western Europe, with about 9% of its residents being non-white. It also indicates that a typical French railway worker or customer unfailingly distinguishes between Romanians and Bulgarians, Hungarians, and other neighbors.

On the other side of the Channel, a merchant in England is apparently getting in some hot water for selling what seem to me to be rather humorous shirts:

A company selling "Anyone but England" T-shirts for this year's World Cup has rejected suggestions it is racist after police in Aberdeen visited its store.

First off, the idea that Aberdeen Scots would be upset about this shirt humors me...I'd sooner expect them to support that shirt as "Yankees Suck" is supported in Boston. Secondly, I think the shirt is funny, and understandable. The English have a less-than-sterling reputation as players and fans, and selling these shirts in Scotland seems plain smart to me. If they were selling an "Anybody but Canada" shirt in reference to Olympic hockey, I’d buy one. Thirdly, even if it's in poor taste, it amuses me that police would feel compelled to visit the store.

There are differences in the two stories: undersensitivity in France, oversensitivity in England, for example. However, what they have in common is two things: an official reaction...and poor understanding of the concept of race.

I don’t grasp how the police in England and a union in France declared these respective actions to be "racist". Sure, if you’re an English yob with no sense of humor, I guess you could say the t-shirt is prejudiced -- if you leave aside the fact that it refers to the English soccer team rather than the nation, and the team itself is mixed-race to begin with. But racist? Since when are the English a separate race? Or Romanians?

I’ve read many a survey form that lists "White (non-Hispanic)" as an option, implying that Hispanics are white. Even in the broadest definition, though, I can’t see how Romanians are a different race than the French, the English a different race than the Scottish. What I do see is a culture so inexperienced with multiculturalism and diversity that prominent unions and law enforcement don’t really understand what racism is, and isn’t.

It’s a good thing that whatever it is, they’re against it; but as trackless as American discussion of race seems to be at times, we’re still light-years ahead of the folks across the pond.

No comments: