Whiteness, European identity
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Hans Kundnani’s Forward-Looking ‘Eurowhiteness’ Suffers Blind Spots

Hans Kundnani’s Eurowhiteness is a take on racism from a European perspective, which is as forward-looking as it is occasionally short-sighted.

Eurowhiteness: Culture, Empire and Race in the European Project
Hans Kundnani
August 2023

Hans Kundnani has an axe to grind. Going by his account in Eurowhiteness, the European Union was only ever an enemy of democracy and economic equality. Everything it ever tried to do failed. Everything it ever stood for is broken and corrupt. Everyone who ever represented it promoted nothing but hypocrisy and racism. In the 180 pages of Kundnani’s book, I could not find a single sentence allowing that the European Union or any of its leaders ever did or even meant anything good, except perhaps for a very brief flirt with some healthy civic values, which led to nothing anyway.

In brief, Eurowhiteness is deliberately written not as a critique but as a tirade of the sort that a Brexit champion like conservative politician Daniel Hannan might have written. This is an unfortunate choice of register because it does more to undermine Kundnani’s perceived objectivity than to strengthen his persuasive power, but mostly because the rhetorical verve distracts from (rather than corroborates) the more sensible arguments in Eurowhiteness.

There is much in Eurowhiteness that is more than just sensible. Two years ago, reviewing a book about Europe by Middle East culture writer Dianne Darke, I lamented that “we need our own anti-racist language.” Kundnani’s long essay, Eurowhiteness, represents an attempt to develop a critical discourse on racism that treats the topic specifically from a European perspective and in light of Europe’s history. In this sense, its achievements are undeniable. At the same time, it suffers from some glaring shortcomings, highlighting – if nothing else – the unique difficulties of discussing racism in a European context.

Eurowhiteness is an account of two separate histories, that of the European Union and that of the idea of Europe itself. It also critiques the idea that European identity should call itself a ‘cosmopolitan’ one.

The critique of Europe as cosmopolitan(ism), though clearly heartfelt by Kundnani, is the least interesting part of Eurowhiteness. Partly, this is because it seems incontrovertibly right, but also because it seems the least urgent. Based on my experience, I don’t think the ‘cosmopolitan’ interpretation of Europe is quite as widespread as Kundnani thinks, but either way, he is right that it has to die. Europe is not the world, and the term ‘European’ should not be interpreted as “citizen of the world”.

Eurowhiteness‘ discussion of race and racism is a lot more powerful. The term ‘Eurowhiteness’, borrowed from Hungarian sociologist József Böröcz, refers to a constructed correlation between being European and being white. This conceptual correlation became especially widespread during Europe’s imperial age when white people living in colonies were identified as European regardless of where they were born and were awarded all sorts of privileges on those grounds. It is an extremely useful term that I hope becomes widespread in discussions of racism in Europe, and I applaud Kundnani (and Böröcz) for popularising it.

Kundnani’s account of the history of the idea of Europe, as he highlights not just Eurowhiteness but the Eurocentric ways of thinking popular among European intellectuals of the past and the present, is also very useful. It reminded me of a similar historical account by Professor Shane Weller (in its anglocentric shortcomings, no less – more on this later). Kundnani’s history is necessarily a lot less detailed, but it is no less impactful. I remain convinced that both Kundnani and Weller overstate the links between exclusionary philosophies in Antiquity and more modern Eurocentric ideas, but this is a quibble and a discussion for another day.

Kundnani’s history of the European Union itself is even more revealing. He traces precisely how leaders involved in the foundation of the European Union (or, more aptly, its earliest iterations) used these new agreements to protect their colonial ambitions and repress desires for independence in the lands they occupied. This part of EU history isn’t discussed nearly as frequently as it should be, and Kundnani is doing us all a service in pointing out the disgraceful manner in which these interests were later swept under the rug. Indeed, in learning about these things, I was only too pleased to have Kundnani displease me.

Therefore, there is much to be learned from Eurowhiteness, and I concur with Charles Emerson’s assessment by the review in Financial Times: “Some people won’t like it, which is probably why they should read it.”

These are its merits, and they are undeniable. How does Eurowhiteness come short? Ironically, although perhaps predictably, it is precisely how Kundnani handles the discourse of race. The most glaring problem has to do with his treatment of the Holocaust. While the author is absolutely right that Europe has not done enough work to confront its colonial past, he seems to blame this on the fact that too much attention has been given to the Holocaust: “It is not simply an accident of history that the Holocaust became a central collective memory for the EU while the memory of European colonialism was forgotten.”

This has the catastrophic effect of aligning the author with some nasty antisemitic tropes, particularly the shibboleth that the Holocaust wasn’t as big a deal as people say it is. Kundnani does this repeatedly, particularly when he takes issue with that historical tragedy being described as exceptional or special: “Privileging the Holocaust, and insisting on its uniqueness, obscured its connections with colonialism and slavery.”

These words are perhaps well-intentioned – the critical history of colonial oppression has revealed the world’s earliest concentration camps in Africa, arguably serving as a model for the Nazis. But the way Kundnani phrases this is incredibly tone-deaf, as he inevitably echoes the classic antisemitic arguments that anyone trying to teach the memory of the Holocaust will be familiar with. (e.g., Why are you making such a fuss about the Holocaust when Europeans killed millions of people in Africa? What makes Jews so special, huh?).

Such arguments might have been tempered if the author at least signalled a consciousness or an understanding of contemporary antisemitic discourse, for example, if he foregrounded his statements by writing something like, We must be careful to keep a revision of Holocaust memorialism separate from modern antisemitic clichés, but he never does. Kundnani seems to have a problem with the idea that the Holocaust was ‘unique’. Moreover, he writes of the sufferings inflicted on the Jews as something Europeans have finished metabolising, as though antisemitism in Europe were ‘solved’. He never acknowledges – or even bothers to mention – the very real discrimination that Jews living in Europe face today, and he conveniently glosses over the way that European countries continue to negate their Holocaust history in spite of his claims that everyone is doing exactly the opposite.

I find this lack of nuance troubling. I’m not sure how much recent European literature on the subject Kundnani has been exposed to (Swedish journalist and novelist Steve Sem-Sandberg? East Berlin author Jenny Erpenbeck?). Those who discuss the Holocaust as ‘unique’ aren’t saying that the Jews were the only persecuted people in the world, nor that it was a greater tragedy than the numerous crimes that Europeans have committed worldwide. Rather, the point is that the Holocaust represents the only case in history in which a global world power (European or otherwise) turned the entirety of its country, its state, its population, its culture, and its infrastructure into a gigantic machine whose sole purpose – even at the cost of its own destruction – was the extermination of a specific people. There was no logic of power, or politics, or economics – just pure, blind hate grown to the size of a nation. Not even Stalin’s Russia was so single-mindedly genocidal and malevolent.

Again, this is not to say that the crimes against humanity committed by the British or the French empires were less important or less terrible, any more than acknowledging that the Transatlantic Slave Trade was a uniquely evil and uniquely European system in any way implies that other historical instances of slavery were of less significance (ever heard a white person asking Why are you making such a big deal of European slavery, weren’t Africans already trading slaves? – yup, we’re in the same territory). Of course, as we said above, it is possible to draw some links between late colonial practices and what the Nazis did, but that is a very different thing from denying the exceptionalism of the Holocaust.

This also links to another of Kundnani’s arguments: the author rightly points out that the European Union has not done enough to remember its colonial past, but he also seems to feel that the heritage of imperialism and colonialism should, like the Holocaust, be central to Europe’s idea of itself, to its identity. Like Shane Weller before him, Kundnani is falling for a classic anglocentric fallacy – he is assuming that the terms of British identity (the most notorious historical crime of which lies precisely in its history of imperialism) should be the terms of European identity as a whole.

This is not sustainable because Europe’s history, in this sense, is split into two halves. There is a very clear divide between Western Europe, which gave rise to all of its post-Medieval empires but those of Russia and Sweden, and Central/Eastern Europe, which instead has a long history of being a victim of imperialism. Today, the countries making up that bloc represent 30 percent of the European Union’s territory. That percentage will grow much larger if the rest of the Balkans and large countries like Ukraine (which is fighting an imperialist invasion today) are accepted into the union one day.

Matters are further complicated by the fact that imperialism and colonialism were not European-exclusive. For the last 500 years, the aforementioned territory was oppressed particularly by Germany (formerly called Prussia), Austria, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. That is to say, two European powers, one that straddled Europe and Asia and one that was distinctly non-European. Indeed, the Ottoman Empire is a prominent example of a polity that saw itself as an Other to Europe and engaged in imperialism, colonialism, and slavery.

To see imperial responsibility as ‘essentially’’European is not just an act of disrespect towards the many European countries that have been (and continue to be) its victims, it also paints an ironically eurocentric history in which peoples outside of Europe never built empires of their own. Finally, it’s a classic example of Western Europeans trying to make their particular historical identity that of all Europeans (a topic that Weller, among others, highlighted as a widespread historical cliché).

On the other hand, while imperialism may have a mixed history, the Holocaust does not. Its origins lie in racial ideas developed in Europe, and almost all Europeans share its responsibility. The democratic powers victorious in World War I were responsible for crushing and humiliating Germany after the conflict, thus leaving its population vulnerable to demagogues and hate-based ideologies. Countries like Italy, Spain, and to a lesser extent, Portugal embraced military dictatorships and worked with the Nazi regime. Once the Nazis began their invasion, everywhere they went in Eastern Europe they encountered deeply antisemitic populations who supported and collaborated with them.

There are a handful of exceptions (arguably Scandinavia). Still, by and large, it is correct to say that the Holocaust should be treated as wholly, exclusively, and inescapably European, and combined with its recency, it explains why it is – and must be – central to European identity. Acknowledging Europe’s imperial history is necessary and overdue – but it should not obscure the reality of the Holocaust and certainly not its uniqueness.

In the final part of Eurowhiteness, Kundnani discusses Brexit, the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. Instead of seeing it as a xenophobic far-right project, he says, it should be interpreted as an opportunity for the UK to become more international and to open itself up to the rest of the world. This is, I suppose, a healthy effort to reframe an event that is no longer reversible and which the British left must learn to make the best of. (Although it’s more or less the same thing that far-right Euroskeptic parties have been saying since before the referendum. Were they right all along?).

At the same time, it says a lot about Kundnani’s anglocentrism that in discussing Brexit, he doesn’t have anything to say about European immigrants to the UK (like me). In particular, I find it incredible that he doesn’t write a single word about racism towards Eastern European people, which is more egregious in the UK than almost anywhere on the continent. This is racism systemic racism that is trumpeted by the far right, widely normalised by the left, costs lives, and boomed precisely as a consequence of Brexit. Is Kundnani even aware that this is a problem? Eurowhiteness doesn’t give us any clue that he is.

A humbler, more self-critical approach might have made Eurowhiteness more incisive as a critique. Instead, we have a book in which the author boasts that the UK is “far ahead of other European countries in terms of addressing racism” before engaging in what is basically antisemitic dog-whistling and burying under the carpet a class of racism, which is perhaps worse in the UK than anywhere else in the world.

All the same, even with its shortcomings, Eurowhiteness represents an attempt to discuss race from a European perspective, and this is something we sorely need. It emphasises useful concepts like ‘eurowhiteness’ and highlights parts of the EU’s history that deserve much closer attention than they get. This means that the merits of the book on the whole outweigh its fault. It is hoped that Kundnani’s Eurowhiteness represents the first and not the last word on this subject.