Breaking the Colour Barrier

Truth in advertising. Berlin, August 2018.

The racists have it wrong. The invading hordes of migrants are neither Arab nor Muslim. The majority, in the two cities I work, Berlin and Turin, are African. Black African that is, many speaking indigenous languages, if not French or English. If they’re religious, generally the choice of faith is Evangelical Protestantism, not jihadist Islam.

The signs should be obvious. Most of the television news coverage today features non-Arab migrants, not hijab-clad women and dark-skinned men with otherwise European features. Yet, to encounter the rhetoric of populists, particularly in northern Europe, the demographic threat is always couched in Orientalist language, as though anyone not white is from the Levant.

The idea that Africa might be as ideologically challenging as the Middle East remains lost on refugee critics. Their concerns about migration are more focused on the civilizational aspects of migration, which they somehow separate from the cultures and social mores brought to Europe by black asylum seekers.

The reasons are what you’d expect. African migrants are considered secondary threats because they are perceived as lacking in cultural and religious attributes in any way competitive with the West.  Never mind, of course, how much African-American culture plays a role in their lives, through musical idioms such as R&B and hip-hop, or through other US cultural imports.

Those are American events, not black events, even though the two are inseparable. The point is that Africa is Africa, not the United States. Only America would produce Barack Obama and Serena Williams. Their skin colour is secondary, even though it remains a negative.

With the exception of France, blacks are otherwise invisible to Europeans, physically separated on the one hand from their countries of origin, and from hyphenated Africans in more recognised diasporas. As such, they constitute an underclass, living in the margins not too dissimilarly to the Roma.

Hoodie in the heat. Turin, August 2018.

The reasons are obvious. Blacks remain identified with indentured servitude, with slaves. They were objects of genocide across for nearly every significant European colonial power. The Italians had Eritrea, the British, South Africa, Germany, Namibia.  Their contemporary invisibility is a reflection of that.

So are the crises of their home states in central and eastern Africa, and in the Maghreb. Driven to Europe by everything from desertification and war, to racism and religion, many of today’s African migrants in Europe are refugees, fleeing crises afflicting their natural and social environments.

The pictures in this photo essay are a consequence of that. The key is to zero in on the vulnerability the images communicate and imagine what it stems from.

The only appropriate response is to see these migrants for who they are, as people living in precarious circumstances, ignored, as their portraits imply, due to their appearance: their skin colour, and otherwise non-European physical attributes.

Photographs have a way of establishing that, by isolating their subjects for being somehow unique or different. Difference, in this case, being the fragility communicated by these photos’ subjects, and their outsider status as foreigners who are not considered as guests.

It takes one to know one, or so the saying goes. Particularly when the photographer is also a foreigner, who, though white, sees in their blackness something of his own Middle Eastern difference.

Hanging on to Berlin. East African migrant, Rathaus Neukölln.

Commentary by Joel Schalit. Photographs courtesy of the author.