European whiteness

September 29, 2020

As Black Lives Matter protests spread to Europe in early June, Rick Steves, the US’s most popular European guidebook author, shared a picture in solidarity on Instagram. It was Eugene...

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As Black Lives Matter protests spread to Europe in early June, Rick Steves, the US’s most popular European guidebook author, shared a picture in solidarity on Instagram. It was Eugene Delacroix’s 1830 epic, Liberty Leading the People. The image linked to his blog, where he had penned one of his Daily Dose of Europe entries celebrating the Delacroix masterwork and explaining how it depicted the popular protests of the July 1830 revolution that dethroned France’s Charles X.

Beyond the questionable judgement of posting an image of white people by a white person, he left out two crucial pieces of context. First, just weeks before the revolution in question, France had invaded Algeria and begun a violent (and deeply racist) 132-year colonisation. And second, Delacroix was on his way to becoming one of the leading Orientalist painters. Two years after completing Liberty Leading the People, he joined a diplomatic mission to North Africa and produced a series of famous works that helped feed the popular image of Black and Brown people as strange, lazy, deviant and uncivilised. Perhaps Steves could have chosen a less appropriate image, but he would have really had to try.

It was in keeping with a general pattern of guidebook writers glossing over Europe’s colonial past and erasing BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) from the European story. Travel writing has long gone hand-in-hand with Western imperialism, and it is surprising how many tropes of the colonial era remain in guidebooks today.

While most historians now see the story of empire as tightly interwoven with the story of Europe – you cannot imagine, for example, the history of World War I without the involvement of millions of soldiers and workers from India, North Africa, Senegal and Southeast Asia – the opposite is true for guidebook authors, who depict colonisation as something that happened 'over there' but ended a long time ago. They tend to minimise the connection between yesterday’s imperialism and today’s social problems. Read some of them, and you would not even know Europe had any social problems and certainly not any issues related to race.

Travel writing itself is thousands of years old, with examples from virtually every culture. We find elements of the traveller’s encounter with 'the other' in works as disparate as the Iliad, the Malian epic Sundiata and Ibn Battuta’s Rihla. But the late 19th-century explosion in the genre’s popularity was intimately linked to the expansion of European imperialism. Travel writers like Gertrude Bell, Edward Lane and Gerard de Nerval made far-flung places and Black and Brown people seem both exotic and intimate. That approachability demonstrated how the projection of imperial power could help travellers feel safe in “uncivilised cultures”. At its worst, the travel writing of the 19th century racialised and infantilised non-Europeans. At its best, it suggested a decent hotel in Damascus.

If travel writing in some ways paved the way for European colonisation or at least its popular acceptance, one of the long-term impacts of colonisation was to make Europe itself far more diverse. Non-white migrants from across the empires came to the metropole as students, workers, soldiers and spouses. But they were rarely afforded the rights and privileges enjoyed by native Europeans. These had to be fought for; they are still being fought for today in movements similar and parallel to Black Lives Matter.

The history of discrimination and disenfranchisement of BIPOC in Europe does not mirror that of the US, but it is no less central, and it should be no less obvious to even a casual student of European society. In other words, well-travelled guidebook authors have to consciously exclude it.

So, are the various shades of European whiteness simply what sells to tourists? Guidebooks may be about other places, but they are principally about the expectations of the home country audience. They reflect our expectations and desires as much as the lived reality of the destination. Americans’ disinterest in thinking critically about our own imperial ventures may be part of it too.

In this sense, it is hardly surprising that guidebooks avoid addressing social issues head-on. No one goes to France to learn about how labour strikes work, and no successful publication would devote as much attention to Paris’s poor (and diverse) eastern suburbs as it did to the Latin Quarter. But is it too much to ask guidebooks to include concise and accurate descriptions of European empire and to include some of the contributions diverse groups have made to European society? Are these not a central part of the European story?

If virtually all guidebooks are guilty of these erasures, what sets the bar a bit higher for Steves is his insistence that his methods of travel are a way of understanding one’s self and one’s own society better. In his 2003 book, Travel as a Political Act (since reissued), he argues somewhat persuasively that we travel to find difference, to understand it and to use some of what we learn in our own society. It is as trite as a fortune cookie, but it is still compelling, which makes it all the more surprising how Steves, in particular, writes BIPOC experiences out of the story of Europe.

Excerpted from: ‘Why does American travel writing erase Black people?’

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