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Theorizing Black Europe From a Global Perspective

Young-sun Hong

I am currently working on a book entitled THE THIRD WORLD IN THE TWO GERMANIES: RACE, GENDER, AND HYGIENIC MODERNITY, 1945-1975. My book examines the East and West German encounters with peoples of color from Africa and Asia at the height of decolonization and the Cold War. In this work I argue that discourses and social practices of health and hygiene were integral to the construction of competing conceptions of Germanness, Europeanness, and humanitarianism during this period.

My basic argument is that visions of citizenship and identity were mediated in complex and contradictory ways not only by the ideological competition between the two German states, but that they were also shaped in equally integral ways by their relations to the newly independent countries of Africa and Asia and the peoples of color who inhabited these lands. All of these issues are condensed, on the one hand, in the highly racialized images of health and disease which were employed by the East German government to establish the superiority of the socialist path to development and modernity and, on the other hand, which were designed by the West German government to come to grips with the growing presence within their own borders of colored--and potentially unhygienic--bodies from the “underdeveloped” countries of the Third World. Thus, I suggest, Germans and the people of Third World were all present at different times as spectators, agents and objects of the great struggle between the First and Second Worlds as it was fought out in the territory of divided Germany.

While the history of the two German states has traditionally been written within the overarching framework of the Cold War, the fall of communism has created a conceptual space for new approaches to the history of the region. However, the focus on the east-west Cold War meant that this literature was unable to focus on the relationship between modernity and coloniality in the two German states, the global formation of racialized and sexualized difference during these years, and the impact of these discursive processes on the construction of citizenship and national identity in the divided Germanies. My study broadens existing approaches by viewing post-war German history from a postcolonial perspective. While both East and West Germany regarded their own societies as models of industrial modernity to be emulated by Third World countries, over the past decade postcolonial theory has made us sensitive to the ways in which these visions of modernity were constructed in opposition to the non-western world. Drawing on this literature, my work will demonstrate how conceptions of health, pleasure and citizenship in the two Germanies were constructed in and through the contrast with Third World bodies, which were simultaneously viewed as moral and medical pathogens and as fascinating objects of erotic desire.

Based on my research, I would be interested in two issues: the relationship between Black Europeans and other ethnic groups, in particular, Asians in Europe, and a Black European research perspective for the 21st century. I hope to contribute to the “Black Europe” workshop in two ways.
First, the history of race and ethnicity in Europe since 1945 should be studied in relation to decolonization in Africa and Asia. Not only did decolonization and the national liberation movement lead to the reversed immigration of white settlers from their former colonies to Europe. Many European countries in the East and West launched the development programs, which brought a large number of African students and trainees to Europe. This global population movement played a significant role in the construction of emerging subnational, regional, and transnational identities in Europe. In this regard, the US historians have recently contributed much to deepening our knowledge by placing the US civil rights movement in a global context. Their study has shown that civil rights activists sought support from the global audience, especially the Third World countries, in their fight against continuing racial injustice in the United States. I believe that a Black European research project needs a transnational approach in the new century.

Secondly, the category of “Black Europe” needs to be interrogated as systematically as the same way that British scholars of critical race studies have done recently. In particular, we need to discuss the binary category white/black in relation to such categories as non-Europeans and peoples of color, which were used interchangeably with non-whites or black. What do we gain or lose by using such an all-inclusive term in our strategy of political mobilization and the postmodern politics of difference? This need for critical rethinking of the black/white dualism is especially urgent in view of the so-called new racism in present Europe, which is increasingly conditioned by the new dynamics of globalization, transnational migration, and the mass influx of political and economic refugees.

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