Addressing Europe’s Colonial Legacies

By: PSjoberg

The European integration project has always proclaimed itself to be a champion for unity through diversity and an advocate for a common European identity that achieves this goal. However, as seen in this week’s readings, a European identity appears to be fundamentally at odds with the idea of being “United in Diversity” (the motto of the European Union). At the core of this identity crisis is the lack of self-awareness on the part of white Europeans to acknowledge the privileges afforded to them by their imperial and colonial ancestors. No matter how much white Europeans may wish otherwise, they cannot (and should not) completely divorce themselves from the legacies of colonialism. Many Europeans’ mindset that colonialism has stayed in the past makes them prone to resuscitating those racist values and actions. Colonialism should be treated throughout Europe as Nazism is treated today in Germany: it must be addressed directly and not swept under the rug.

This is a problem of ‘collective memory,’ as discussed in Dan Stone’s article “On Neighbours and those Knocking at the Door: Holocaust Memory and Europe’s Refugee Crisis.” Stone challenges the writings of two other scholars, Jan T. Gross and G. M. Tamas, who each respectively published an article addressing the 2015 European refugee crisis wherein they argued that Eastern European countries like Poland and Hungary were trapped in the past, demonstrated by their “failure to respond in a humanitarian way to the refugee movements.” Reacting to these two articles, Stone is correct in his critique that Poland and Hungary are trapped in the past, but that this is not a strictly Eastern European phenomenon: it can be expanded to all of Europe. As Stone states, collective memory is as much about ‘forgetting’ as it is about ‘remembering.’  

While Poland and Hungary have no issue ‘forgetting’ the fact that many Poles and Hungarians were co-conspirators in the Nazi-administered Holocaust, Gloria Wekkers demonstrates in her chapter, “…For Even though I am Black as Soot, My Intentions are Good,” that the entire collective memory of the Netherlands seems to forget about the legacies of Dutch colonialism. The absolute refusal by so many Dutch people to acknowledge that the figure of ‘Zwarte Piet’ is in fact a racist caricature, was shocking to me. For the modern descendants of European-colonized populations, it is impossible to escape the legacies of colonialism – they exist in a state of decolonization and postcolonialism. For modern descendants of European colonizers to believe they can simply move on from their colonial ancestors as if nothing ever happened is the ultimate display of white European privilege.

Fatima El-Tayeb expertly demonstrates this privilege in her article, “‘Gays Who Cannot Properly Be Gay.’ Queer Muslims in the Neoliberal European City,” wherein she explores how queer Muslims are repressed within the wider pan-ethnic queer community in Europe because of their ethnicity. This Othering of queer Muslims by queer white Europeans illustrates the prejudice shown by Europeans even in which kinds of people they choose to include under the slogan of “United in Diversity.” Thus, Europe clearly still has not addressed its ugly colonial past, creating the environment for this past to rear its ugly head even under the guise of “tolerance” and “diversity.”


El-Tayeb, Fatima. “”Gays Who Cannot Properly be Gay.’ Queer Muslims in the Neoliberal European City” European Journal of Women’s Studies 19/1, (2012): 79-95.

Stone, Dan. “On Neighbours and Those Knocking at the Door: Holocaust Memory and Europe’s Refugee Crisis.” Patterns of Prejudice 52, no. 2/3 (May 2018): 231–43.

Wekkers, Gloria. “….For Even Though I am Black as Soot, My Intentions are Good”: the Case of Zwarte Piet/Black Pete” in White Innocence. Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race (Duke University Press, 2015), pp. 139-167

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