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Black Identity and “Invisibility” in Europe

Allison Blakely

This conference will allow me a unique opportunity to explore with a knowledgeable and sympathetic audience a topic that has plagued much of my comparative research on African Diaspora themes: a broad spectrum of both official and personal attitudes towards “blackness” and the presence of Blacks in European societies.

A discussion of the influence of black Africans on Europe and on Europeans is complicated by the absence of a universal definition of “black.” In general, the designation “black” in Europe, unlike in the United States, has been reserved for those of dark color, not the broader definition based on known black African ancestry. Consequently, awareness of a “black” population in Europe has been limited by the fact that when interracial marriage occurred, subsequent light-complexioned generations might never be referred to again as “black.”

Hence the debate over whether Alexandre Dumas père, who had African ancestry through his paternal grandmother, was black. Consistent with the predominant European attitude, he emphatically rejected the notion that he was. Besides, in his France -- as in all the other European societies -- class was far more important than color, at least until the 20th century. The great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, who took pride in his African ancestry, shrugged off aspersions cast on that score, but took great offense at those who did not respect the centuries of nobility on his father’s side.

Have blacks in Europe experienced a kind of positive “invisibility” in contrast to the destructive American type chronicled by Ralph Ellison? On the surface the European racial definition seems more egalitarian. However, the history in question suggests also the possibility of an attempt to ignore or minimize the influence of a group considered sufficiently undesirable to have been excluded by law from European countries at various times. Today the French at times express opposition to what they consider “identity politics,” and officially prefer to be color-blind and not list such categories as skin color or racial grouping, even in library catalogs. The annual voluminous publication of the Commission

Nationale Consultative des Droits de L’Homme on the struggle against racism and xenophobia concerns itself exclusively with anti-Semitism and discrimination against North Africans. Interviews with black Africans in France, however, reveal a very different perspective derived from their everyday experiences, even though most seem willing to have a fully French identity if only allowed to do so. For in France too Blacks experience constant discrimination resulting from color bias, albeit not as much as the North Africans, especially Algerians and Moroccans.

For teachers and students of history a resultant practical problem is the absence of clear references to race in documents such as census data where it might be quite useful. Moreover, among European scholars, few have found the experience of blacks in Europe to merit special attention; and even those few of African descent who have achieved high status have done so by following the accepted conventions and by avoiding drawing attention to either their African heritage or to African characteristics in their societies. Until very recently this has been left to blacks in former colonies, not in Europe. This question of invisibility and identity is very important for a larger project in which I am engaged, outlining the history of blacks in Modern Europe as a whole.

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