Sept. 14, 2020, 2:35 p.m.
The recent Covid-19 pandemic not only effected national states, but also had an important impact on the European Union. It brought back old debates on European versus national identity leading to headlines about a ‘European Identity Crisis’. Inspired by these current discussions, our European Studies and International Relation MA students wrote on different aspects of European identity.
In this special blog series, we would like to share with you four research papers submitted in the course of the seminars ‘Special Topics in European Studies’ and ‘Political Sociology’. While our first three contributions deal with European identity in the context of the recent pandemic, the last explores the connection between European identity and cinema.
In her commentary ‘Racism and Fake European Solidarity’, our Erasmus exchange student Kalina Pavlinova Vasileva, from the Sociology Department of Sofia University St. “Kliment Ohridski”, focuses on the increase of racism during the Covid-19 pandemic. Her paper was submitted for the seminar ‘Political Sociology’ in the spring term 2020.
Racism and Fake European Solidarity
by Kalina Pavlinova Vasileva
The views and opinions expressed in this blog entry are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Istanbul Bilgi University and European Institute.
25th of May, 2020. This is the date of George Floyd’s death in Minnesota. The Afro–American man, who was choked by a white police officer, while being arrested. This is not the first, neither the last act of violence towards a citizen with a different skin color. The racism against the ‘other’ was and is a part of the modern world. It is still choking certain groups. Is someone listening to them saying that they can’t breathe? ‘I am not black, but I see you. I am not black, but I hear you. I am not black, but I mourn with you. I am not black, but I will fight for you’. In this paper, I would like to turn your eyes to a very painful topic – racism, because being an Afro-American doesn’t mean that he is criminal, being a Muslim doesn’t mean being a terrorist and an Asian is not a carrier of Covid-19.
Racism results from the social perception of the biological difference between the people. In many of the cases, the racial discrimination is on an ethnic or cultural basis. There is a belief, according to which some groups – because of their physical appearance, are thought to have a certain behavior, abilities or qualities, corresponding to the first one. Due to the prejudice, the people are positioned in a hierarchy of the races. Ones are said to be superior, which results in discrimination against humans from different ethnicity. A definite stereotype is formed and people start judging someone, because of the color of the skin or a different point of view. This always has its political and historical background, for which we never think about.
As a sociologist (or future sociologist), influenced by many theorists, I can say that ‘race’ is a social construction. Actually right now I am feeling worried and insecure, while using this term, because I don’t know how appropriate it is. All the conclusions, made by some people, about the ‘other are influenced by the cultural ideologies. They shape human’s point of view. Racism can be found in the society, at individual and institutional level. First, on an institutional level the distinction between the humans are made. Secondly, the people have perceived these social and institutional constructions. As a consequence, they put themselves in these boundries and think about them as a part of a definite ethnic group. The presence of ethnicity is a new form of identification. It stems from the objective given – blood, speech and custom. There are different approaches about identity – some scholars argue that it is natural, but according to some of my colleagues the ethnicity can be thought to be given, constructed socially, sedimented (this makes it according to Durkheim – a ‘social fact’) over time and it marks deeper social divisions. The differentiated groups form a community, which lay on a mutual set of symbolic resources. Тhe cultural theory has shown how ethnic culture and tradition are, to some extent, invented. In this way the imagined community was formed – even if the people from one group don’t know each other, they are connected, because they speak the same language and have mutual traditions and culture. The nationalism is a form of contemporary imagined community. Studied as an ideology, this has contributed to our understanding of the construction of imagined communities. They have become a horizon of a politics that claims to speak from for the national interest, which is a good base for racism against the foreign. The predominant form of contemporary imagined community is the nation. According to Benedict Anderson, nationalism takes over the imaginings of religion ‘transforming fatality into continuity, contingency into meaning . It emerges out of a set of cultural changes, which are a part of economic and political developments. We may note here the extent to which national cultural policy is shaped in order to protect the imagined community. National governments demonstrate anxiety over the interference of foreign culture in the national – particularly the American. The nationalism involves emotions and the feelings of a shared culture. This brings the members of the nation together and forms the idea for a community and solidarity. The spring of power of the nation is the identity. The last helps people to find their place in the world. They are provided with the sense that they are a part of something – to an imagined community. Nationalist movements draw their strength from their validation of one particular culture. The force of nationalism lies in its appeal to a particular community and feeling of identity. Moreover, the nationalism can destroy the civil unity and polarize communities in terms of ethnicity. The identities can take pathological forms: ‘mobilizing the members of a nation in total unity against some ``Other,'' against an outsider group seen as threatening to the culture and identity of the ``in-group’.
Since I am in Turkey, I started thinking more about racism as a social problem. Before my trip, everyone was asking me – “Why are you going to Istanbul?”. Why not? I am so happy here. I met people from different parts of the world, which means different cultures and point of views. The life in the multicultural city opened my mind and changed my perceiving about people. Istanbul is real terrain, where the East meets the West. But very often the social actors are misleaded by the stereotypes towards a definite culture (the Turkish or the Arab for example). This, so called cultural racism, is often seen in Europe and is growing bigger nowadays. Racism can be characterised by the belief that one race is inherently superior to another, cultural racism can be characterised by the belief that one culture is inherently superior to another. This phenomenon appears, when а stereotype is guiding the perception about the different ethnic groups. In this case, a given culture, language and traditions are thought to be superior (like the European culture over the others). There is a great part of xenophobia, resulting from the fear of the different, the unfamiliar, which unlocks aggression towards the outgroup members. For example migrants and Muslims are seen as a distinct social group, separated from the others. This conclusion is based on their cultural traits. So here is the moment to introduce the term ‘Islamophobia’ – a phenomena observed all around Europe and in Bulgaria as well (sad to admit this). It can be seen as a cultural racism or as hostility, based on someone’s religious beliefs. Islamophobia can be described as a fear, resulting from prejudice against Muslims, because very often they are said to be terrorists. Guilty for this to great extent is the media, which in case of a terrorist attack always emphasizes that the performer is from a Muslim country. There is a study, which examines the articles in the British newspapers (1994 - 2004) and the conclusion is that all the issues, connected with Muslims are depicted in a negative light. The Islam is said to be “a threat” to the Western values and security. The hostility derives from a stereotype, increased by the media, that the Muslims are irrational, primitive and sexist. How we already know – the fear eats the soul. Due to this, the social anxiety spreads among the people, when it comes to talk about the Muslims. Those from the last group are stigmatized, which ‘takes the shape of daily forms of racism and discrimination or more violent forms, Islamophobia is a violation of human rights and a threat to social cohesion ‘. Their ‘racialization’ comes from the fact, that they are regarded as unitary group on the basis of shared cultural traits. The hostility and the prejudice, based on the cultural difference (the belief in the biological differences as well) can lead to exploitation, oppression, exclusion and extermination. Moreover, biological and cultural differences are connected. Europeans think that their culture is the ‘normal’, the dominant one. Due to this fact, they are underestimating the ‘others’. А widespread point of view is that Christians and Muslim can’t get along because of the different religion and culture.
Because of the institutional and individual perceiving of the culture – the social relation were formed in a way that the white Westerns see themselves to be part of a superior culture – ‘European culture’, ‘Western culture’, ‘the West’. Through the cultural difference, those who are thought to be higher in the ‘cultural hierarchy’, exclude the rest. This comes together with a social and economic inequality between the different ethnic groups. That is probably the reason why in 2016 Turkey wasn’t permitted to become a part of the European Union – because of the fear of the ‘different’. Margaret Thatcher already has said in the past that Britain was being ‘swamped by people with a different culture’, but now Europe has to fight against the ‘threat’.
The current Corona virus situation made me pay more attention to the racial problem in comparison with before, because we are surrounded by another ‘terrorist attack’ – ‘the Chinese virus’. It was called in this way by the president of the USA – Donald Trump. Since that moment, the racist incidents against the people from Asian countries have increased. I have friends from South Korea – amazing, funny people. They were really in love with Istanbul, but had to leave. Not because of Corona, but because of human’s attitude towards them. When I was with these girls, I was able to see the eyes of the people, while looking at them – full of fear and hatred. The girls said, that really don’t want to leave, but have to because of the racism they experience. Since the outbreak of the virus the Asians in the US (and not only there) faced the racial prejudice. They are thought to be guilty for COVID – 19, due to their ‘unhygienic’ habits. The Chinese culture was blamed, because of the consumption of wildlife. This kind of speech is turning one group of people violently against another. Some of my classmates said: ‘Now I hate the Chinese’. But actually, the fear is the one, which turns the people against another. Especially during the pandemic – the fear is bigger than the virus and it is causing more the problems.
Moreover, there are many aggressive incidents – people being physically abused (which is accompanied with mental suffering). The racist jokes are a supplement to the physical violence and the racism is a tremendous burden to the mental health. I came across many occasions of Asians sharing how people on the street are staring at them and avoiding them in the public areas. I admit, before the quarantine I was with some friends in Hagia Sofia and there were many Asian tourists. I said let’s wait out. It was a joke I am not proud of, but I would like to show how when the media is showing to us a certain situation – it forms some stereotypes. A report from a company called ‘L1ight’, that specializes in measuring online toxicity, examines that there has been a 900% growth in hate speech towards China and the Chinese on Twitter.  Now, the world hates the Chinese, because of COVID, but after 11th of September, there has been an increased attack of discrimination, based on different stereotypes against the Middle East.
There is something contradictory in the relationship between the Europeans and the ‘other’ cultures. Europe is supposed to profess the humanistic world – view: ‘The humanistic world-view starts with the thought of giving value to a human being (humanistic thinking) and ends with the thought of giving value to all people (human rights). It is a world-view made by the people for the people.‘ On paper yes, but in the reality the Europeans smash these values, because they believe they are superior. Why they underestimate all the other cultures? Indeed, in this point of view the people are not with equal value. ‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’. So where was the solidarity of Europe, when the refugees started crossing the borders? The rich countries were sending them in the poorer states – where the governments didn’t have money for their citizens, so they couldn’t afford to ensure the migrants a normal life. This is the fake solidarity of Europe – saying that all the people are equal, offering help, but when the poor souls come, there is nothing, but the hate of the locals. The democracy proclaims for equal rights, but very important for the democratization in Europe is the creation of a healthy civic nation. This means an eradication of the xenophobia and activation of the minorities – giving them the same opportunities as the nationals. In reality, there is a gap, existing between the citizens of a certain state and the immigrants, working in Germany. In this context they can live and work in a certain country, but without the opportunity to hold some political rights (citizenship or being able to vote). The migrants are often seen as a threat and they are always the minority, which often means trying to go through the hard and very often impossible process, called integration in a foreign country.
Democracy, equality, open policy and solidarity. Really? Are these still the European values? Or closed borders, protecting the familiar, building walls and closing the routes for the migrants. I think that these are the present European values. Still talking about solidarity, but I don’t see it or at least the racism and the fear of the ‘different’ is stronger. That’s why I called it “Fake European solidarity”. The Europeans should change themselves and their attitude towards the rest of the world or stop talking with pride about their European values, which exist only on paper.
 Nash, K. , Scott, A. (2004), The Blackwell Companion to Political Sociology. Imagined communities. UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, pp. 283.
 Nash, K., Scott, A. (2004), The Blackwell Companion to Political Sociology. Nationalism and fragmentation since 1989. UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, pp. 390
 European values.info. Definition of the most basic European values and their significance for our modern society.
Nash, K. , Scott, A. (2004), The Blackwell Companion to Political Sociology. UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
„Nationalism and fragmentation since 1989“
“The politics of ethnicity and identity”
Aratani, L. (2020) ‘Coughing while Asian’: living in fear as racism feeds off coronavirus panic. Find: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/24/coronavirus-us-asian-americans-racism
Kim, C. (2020) Racial slurs and hateful acts against Asian Americans are on the rise. Find: https://www.vox.com/identities/2020/3/25/21190655/trump-coronavirus-racist-asian-americans
Haynes, S. (2020) As Corona virus spreads, so does xenophobia and Anti – Asian racism. Find: https://time.com/5797836/coronavirus-racism-stereotypes-attacks/
European values.info. Definition of the most basic European values and their significance for our modern society. Find: http://europaeischewerte.info/fileadmin/templates/Documents/ewdef_en.pdf