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Is Racism the New Pandemic: The Perspective of An African Woman Living in Europe

Written by
Liza Sekaggya

Is Racism the New Pandemic: The Perspective of An African Woman Living in Europe

Un article de
Liza Sekaggya

Talking to my children about Black Lives Matter, and 8 minutes and 46 seconds killing

As an African woman born and raised in the motherland Africa, I had never experienced racism until I came to study at university Europe. When I did experience it, I naively was unable to identify the racist act immediately until a white student who I narrated my encounter to, confirmed that the person was racist towards me. You see in Africa, we hardly experience racism, although there are other forms of discrimination that exist.

How human beings could stand still and witness the killing of a fellow human being outrages me.

I initially had mixed feelings about the killing of George Floyd. At first, I was passive, then numb, and then progressively as the days passed I became sad. Gradually my feelings snowballed and evolved into anger and rage. How human beings could stand still and witness the killing of a fellow human being outrages me. At this point, race was not the issue, the right to life was, and the only thing I could think of was another human being losing his life in an undignified manner. I finally spent the greater part of the weekend with a heavy melancholic feeling, not being able to pinpoint exactly what emotion I was feeling, and how I would discuss this with my children. He was a son, a father, a brother and a black man living in America.

I always reminded him that statistically, as a black boy, he was susceptible to being racially profiled at any time, and should be very careful and vigilant.

As a mother of two black African boys (19 and 5 years respectively), I instinctively felt afraid and anxious after the murder of Floyd. Although we live in Europe, my boys are black just like George Floyd was. I felt a responsibility to speak to them in different ways with due respect to their age and development. I called up my older son first in the UK, and asked him what he felt. He at first remarked that the incident took place in America, “do not worry mom it is not that bad here in the UK” (where he is currently studying at university) and hung up the phone. I had developed a habit of calling him often to remind him to dress decently, behave extremely respectfully and be cooperative with authorities at all times if stopped on the street in whatever country. I always reminded him that statistically, as a black boy, he was susceptible to being racially profiled at any time, and should be very careful and vigilant.

I had a flashback of 2018, when my son was selecting universities and insisted that he wanted to study in the US, after attending a summer football camp there he was convinced that the universities were of a better quality. He opined that there were more career opportunities in America as well, and it was a place where one could fulfil their dreams. I could not agree more, but was anxious to let him stay in America, because of the frequent stories of violence against black men that led to arbitrary killings. His father suggested Canada as a safer option and compromise. All my family members prayed incessantly that I would not submit to my son’s wishes of living in the United States. Even though he was awarded a partial sports scholarship, we reluctantly told him to give up his dream of studying in America and go to the UK instead. Today after seeing what happened to George Floyd and others I have no further regrets.

After George Floyd’s death, my 19 year old, like me, was a bit passive, noting as Africans, it was not our narrative. An African American once said to me that you have “African privilege” because you know which country you come from, have a culture and real identity, and that African Americans are descendants of slaves with no particular country of origin.  This is true. I do have a home in Africa and can go back to it if things went bad abroad, so in some respects this individual had a pertinent point of view. However, on the other hand, no one can tell the difference physically between the two categories of people on the street. We are both black, and can be victim of the same discrimination and prejudices, including police brutality.

A few days after my first discussion with my son, we both had a dramatic change of perspective after deep contemplations and reflection in our separate locations, he in the UK and I in Switzerland, where demonstrations were rapidly unravelling in every large city and all around the world. My son sent me footage of a couple of demonstrations he participated in the UK. My heart leaped, worried that he could get hurt, or targeted, as he was holding a banner of black lives matter, high up in the air, among a large group of students of all races.

I decided to call him again, this time with an open mind, and he sounded enthusiastic, and, tired from a demonstration and said “Mom it is wrong, 8 minutes and 46 seconds and someone is dead, because of being black, what the policeman did was wrong,” he voiced out in an angry tone. We spoke at length and analysed the human rights and criminal dimensions of the act. I told him I was proud of him, and realized that he was no longer my baby but a young man with a conscience. I therefore could not reprimand him, but only cautioned him to take care. Speaking of my anxiety to a couple of friends with children the same age brought me to a surprising realization that their kids too attended demonstrations around the world and I was not the only one with that sentiment. One of them, as young as 13 years old, a Kenyan/Ugandan American child, led a peaceful demonstration in his hometown in the US and even made a speech in front of an audience of more than 5000 people.

I calmed down and put on the television, and with a sense of pride, being a human rights lawyer, I hoped that my work and activism had seeded a future human rights activist. I later saw him feature some interviews on his Instagram of African American kids in the US discussing their views on the killings of African American men. I was proud of him taking an activist approach, but afraid at the same time, because he is still a black man, who could be vulnerable to racial stereotyping and profiling, and get stopped, questioned and queried by the police. No one would be able to distinguish whether he is African, Afro-Swiss or African-American, a student with a purpose or a thug, privileged or not.

Repeat after me “my black skin is beautiful”.

I then decided to turn to my 5 year old who on the other hand was chanting “black lives matter '' the whole week, without totally understanding it, obviously affected by me watching protests around the world. I watched with admiration a number of African-America women, including Tamika Mallory speak out on racism and call on the law to be enforced against the police officers who killed or were complicit about the killing of George Floyd. She stated, “Black people are in a state of emergency”. My little boy now thinks that every demonstration is a black lives matter cause. For him, I explained to him quite simply, “a police officer killed a black man, and that is wrong. I want you to know that the colour of your skin is beautiful, you are the descendant of African kings and queens, always be proud of your heritage, and love yourself no matter what anybody says to you”. Repeat after me “my black skin is beautiful”. He did so, ran off, and played with his car, without a care in the world. The only thing he got that was wrong, was the act of killing. He still did not get the “black” part. I am convinced that if all people could have the mind of a child, there would be no prejudices in this world. A friend later shared with me a useful website with resources on how to talk to children about racism, which has unexpectedly became quite handy this season.

I cried after speaking with both my children, praying to God that he would protect them, as they grew up, and relieved that fortunately for us, Europe was not at that level. However, my tears took me back to a very dark place.

I can’t breathe and its deeper and symbolic meaning

While in the beginning I did not identify with the African American struggle of police brutality and arbitrary killings at the hands of police, after viewing several times on national television, George Floyd draw his last breath, saying “ I can’t breathe”,  my inner woman (conscience and soul) had been reluctantly surrendering to the fact that I can’t breathe either. I cannot breathe goes deeper than what is happening in America, it is the systemic and institutional racism that manifests itself in social, economic and political structures and spaces including employment, education and business all around the world.

“I can’t breathe” is not only about Floyd; to me it is symbolic of all the structural and tolerated racism and injustice that I saw since I left the motherland. I too had been judged by the colour of my skin on several occasions in Europe, America and even Asia. My experiences with racism range from being offered a job after a telephone interview and arriving to sign the contract and being told the job was “just given away”,  to not being given much attention in a shop as other white customers, or my point at a meeting not taken seriously until it was repeated by a white colleague. Witnessing my son being asked to keep quiet on a flight, while playing with a white child who was also making noise but did not get reprimanded, and being asked rudely my immigration officials to open my bags and yet my white colleagues and travel companions swiftly checked out are also other examples. The list is endless and of course, the gravity incomparable to the Floyd incident, but these incidences remain profound hurdles of micro aggression and subtle acts of racism. Many African people I have spoken to complain of similar experiences.

I cannot breathe when black people or people of African descent are always on the margins, underserved, under represented and discriminated against and continue to face violence because of their race. A recent example being a woman of African descent and German member of the European Parliament, Pierrette Herzberger-Fofana that was allegedly apprehended and harassed by police officers in Brussels when she filmed nine police officers harassing two black youth walking out from the train station. As she filmed the incident with her mobile phone, four of the officers approached and brutally pushed her against the wall.

I can’t breathe too, when, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) criminal justice fact sheet, in 2014, African Americans constituted 2.3 million, or 34%, of the total 6.8 million-prison population and that, African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites, and African American children represent 32% of children who are arrested. This is disproportionately shows a serious systemic challenge given that they do not even form 20 percent of the total population of the US.

Ironically, the US Declaration for independence of 1776, was so beautifully written, with powerful diction but in reality is still far from the backdrop of the current state of affairs and racial unrest. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. I call on the US government to walk in this truth and make it a reality for all, just as the writers of the declaration hoped as they abolished slavery.

I can’t breathe knowing the current covid-19 pandemic has hit African Americans, and they are more affected than any other racial group in America. This speaks to the reality of the healthcare system, its accessibility and efficacy for African Americans.

I can’t breathe too, when black people continue to be racially stereotyped, deprived of equal opportunities especially to resources, employment, and education, and are side lined even when they happen to exude a large amount of talent and intellect.

Notable statements of UN officials of African descent

“Enough is enough,” stressed United Nations Deputy Secretary General, Amina Mohammed at the 17 June 2020, meeting to the Human Rights Council on racism. Being a black woman as well, at such a high position, it is only imaginable the kind of hurdles she had to climb to get there, including racial discrimination. Her speech echoed and resonated with many African women, as she further elaborated on her childhood memories. She also affirmed that, “The colour of our skin sentences us to a life of injustice”.  

The unprecedented and heart-warming joint-statement made a few weeks ago by high-ranking, senior African United Nations officials on racially motivated violence against people of African descent is a symbolic sign of unity and solidarity in the face of this global pandemic. I applaud this action. They reminded us to live in the spirit of the United Nations charter that states all human beings are created equal and called for stronger action from UN agencies on racism. Ironically, the killing of George Floyd also melodramatically scars the celebration of the UN Decade of People of African Descent. We all cannot breathe properly anymore.

Young people’s courage to protest in face of the covid pandemic.

In conclusion, the current civil protests are a form of deep-seated anger against racism and inequalities. Demonstrations do not only show black people angry but people of all races, in particular, young people boldly making statements, even in the face of the covid-19 pandemic. They view racism as the new pandemic that has superseded the health crisis, and they continue to risk their health and safety for a noble cause.

We must not be blinded and remember that when the protests are over, the majority of people go back and retreat to their seats of privilege, and the rest of the underserved communities continue to carry the burden of racism in solitude in their daily lives. It is time for this narrative to change as some walk back to the protected life of privilege and comfort. We should think about how we will make the world a better place even in a small way. We need to be clear and vocal about what needs to be done, by addressing the root causes of this racism pandemic.

A call to action individually and as a global community

As a black woman living in Europe, I and many other women have been subject to both gender and racial discrimination, and therefore suffer this double-prejudice and are further left behind, in particular in career development and advancing in leadership  positions. This severe inequality and lack of diversity in leadership and management positions led me and a group of women of African women around the world to establish a platform to share our challenges and experiences in relation to advancing in our careers and professional lives. Phenomenal Women Global is a non-profit association that supports woman-to-woman empowerment and mentoring, connects and advances women of African descent, and builds capacity in leadership.

As human beings, we all have an unconscious bias within us, and have the potential to discriminate against another human being for various reasons not only race.

As human beings, we all have an unconscious bias within us, and have the potential to discriminate against another human being for various reasons not only race. We need to work on this innate bias. People also need to stop negative racial stereotyping  and profiling. Judge people for the “content of their character and not the colour of their skin” as Dr. King put it.

Let us have this conversation with children early so that they can shun racism. Racism and hate are taught at home. Parents, are you teaching your kids to love all races, or do you make subtle comments discriminating against other races in front of them?

My advice to non-black people is to educate yourself on racism and put yourself in the shoes of someone who has experienced it. Take a moment to understand why people are angry without being biased or afraid; understand the emotional side and the history. It is not enough to hold a banner and walk down the street in protest. What next?

As a global community, we need to work together to remove the structural barriers that prevent not only black people, but also immigrant communities from advancing and progressing in their lives, and continue to work towards equal opportunities for all. Governments have a huge responsibility to ensure not only legislative changes, but also policy changes. Very practical, sustainable initiatives should be put in place to address inequalities and racism, equal opportunities to employment and representation in leadership structures, when qualified to do the job. The UN Sustainable Development Goals give some guidance of key targets to reach in relation to addressing gender equality and discrimination. Action is required by governments right now, not tomorrow, but today.

The European Parliament resolution of 19 June 2020 on anti-racism protests following the death of George Floyd, was just adopted as I concluded this article. It addresses in part some of the issues I discuss. The resolution appears to be promising, and opens a window of hope. It requests, (paragraph 9) that all anti-discrimination policies have an intersectional and gender approach in order to tackle multiple discrimination. It also calls upon member states to collect de-segregated data on ethnic discrimination and hate crimes, and to have national action plans against racism be developed, among other issues.

The resolution also strongly condemns the killing of Floyd, and calls for justice, affirms that Black lives matter, acknowledges that studies have shown that a large number of black people in Europe experience racial profiling by police. Many recommendations have been made to check the actions of police including setting up police investigation commissions.

I encourage rights groups to take advantage of this momentum, and follow up government’s implementation of this resolution in the respective countries. A resolution remains ineffective if there is no follow up or political will.

In my view, it is important for all member states of the EU to diligently apply the resolution to their national contexts and deal with other areas that are not strongly elaborated in the resolution. These include ensuring political participation and representation for people of African descent in governance; as well as reforming educational systems to ensure that African history is taught and reflected well.

To the young generation out there, I commend you for putting the spotlight on racism. Your voices are important as future leaders. You have shown us, by uniting all races as you walk down the street in protest of the heinous acts committed, that black, white, yellow or orange, the world is indeed a rainbow of colours and people. We are one people, one race, the human race.  Continue this walk to the administrators of your schools, who have the power to teach tolerance and respect for human dignity. When all the institutions start to think introspectively and improve their structures to tackle racism, the dream will slowly but surely be realized. 

To my fellow Africans, people of African descent all over the world, Africans Americans, the spotlight is now on us. I have renewed hope and I am not dismayed, but cautiously excited. Do not give up or be discouraged, as with every battle, there is normally an end, and a light shines out at the end of the tunnel. In order for real and sustainable peace to be achieved, justice must prevail. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere; let us walk in the truth, principles and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King that had a dream, and Nelson Mandela who fought apartheid as well as of all the other civil rights actors that are now dead and gone.

To the family of George Floyd, our sincere condolences and may he rest in eternal peace, as the struggle continues, he is gone but not forgotten. His name will always be remembered as it vehemently unravelled the ugly face of racism and caused the world to stand up for what is right and just, even if it means challenging all the historic reminders  and monuments of racism.

Everyone, regardless of race has a moral responsibility to promote racial tolerance and states should hold all people accountable who commit acts of racism towards any group of people in order to promote peace in our countries.

About the author

Liza Sekaggya is an international human rights lawyer, she works with an international organization, in Geneva Switzerland. She is also the Co-Founder of Phenomenal Women Global, a Swiss and Uganda based association with a mission to advance, connect and empower women of African descent through career development, mentoring and building leadership skills.

Phenomenal Women Global is one of the 2020 projects incubated by BØWIE, the first Gender+ Projects Incubator in Switzerland.

Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not that of the author's employer, organization, or other group or individual.


Many thanks to Clay Banks for the cover image, the picture of the kneeling protesters, and the "Black LGBTQ Lives Matter" photo. Many thanks also to Obi Onyeador for the "I can't breathe" image.

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