Expanding the ‘mental phone book’: unconscious bias and diversity in conference panels and edited volumes

This post originally appeared at the NYU Jordan Center blog on 3 August 2017.

Thanks to the feminist researcher and artist Saara Särmä, the blogging platform Tumblr, and some carefully-placed roundels of David Hasselhoff, the all-too-common sight of a panel or table of contents consisting entirely of male experts has had a convenient rejoinder since Särmä’s digital activism went viral in 2015: ‘Congrats – you have an all male panel!’

Särmä’s companion project, ‘Congrats – you have an all white panel!’, uses another legend of Eighties action cinema, Mr T, to call out events where – even on topics such as how to build a more democratic Europe – the picture of intellectual authority and expertise that organisers have created through their choice of speakers does not include any speakers of colour.

(Curiously – or not – the ‘All White Panels’ Tumblr gained much less traction with mainstream media such as the BBC, Time and The Guardian that helped #allmalepanels become a meme, even though Särmä had been speaking about both projects at once.)

As an academic who strives to put my first area specialism (the Yugoslav region) in a transnational and global context, and to understand how cultural imaginations of ideas like ‘conflict’ or ‘Europe’ are translated across national borders, I am frequently in the position of organising conference panels, selecting contributors for workshops, or choosing chapters for edited collections – including the volume on Gender in 20th Century Eastern Europe and the USSR I published in 2017 – so that a team of researchers can offer more perspectives on a problem than any one expert could alone.

In fact, this is part of the work of academia I enjoy most: creating dialogues between people working on different disciplines or areas who might not have met each other, and being able to work with junior scholars launching exciting new research at the same time as senior scholars whose thinking has helped to shape mine.

But when editors operate entirely according to the shape of the field that they already take for granted, we are at risk of perpetuating the same structural inequalities that anyone with a commitment to diversity in their field would say that they are fighting against – as the journalist Stephanie Boland recently explained in comments that are as relevant to workshop organisers and volume editors as they are to editors commissioning for the press.

Boland, the Head of Digital at Prospect magazine in the UK, points out that even when editors are keen in theory to diversify their pool of contributors, unconscious bias in the heat of the moment – compounded by the factors that make the media a disproportionately middle-class and white industry – often makes them fail to live up to their own aspirations:

In the past, I’ve been in commissioning meetings where there is every good intention to end up with a diverse table of contents.

Nobody really WANTS an all-male features list – usually, there’s a bit of hand-wringing if one goes to press

But most places commission by topic more than by writer. If there’s a feature idea floating about, they go through their mental phone book

And because white people/men are more prominent in the media, and most people have some unconscious bias, the names that come up… well, you get the picture.

Waiting until the editorial meeting to correct bias doesn’t work. You’ve got to sort out our inner Rolodex.

Once you’re looking at your flatplan/book chapters/speakers list/conference program and going ‘argh, we need a woman’—you’ve already lost

Putting together a table of contents for an edited volume, or choosing who to invite to a conference panel submission, very often starts with the same kind of mental phone book.

On specialist topics, such as the work on the aesthetic and embodied practices of ‘militarization’ that is emerging as a research area in feminist security studies and International Relations, I could easily ask myself ‘Who do I know that studies X?’ and write down five or ten names that, in this case, would all belong to white women.

I would at least have avoided an #allmalepanel – but would have created yet another all white one, moreover on a topic (the normalization of ideologies behind state violence) where the situated knowledge of people who experience racism and Islamophobia is essential for understanding the politics of emotion (as Sara Ahmed names them) behind nationalism and state power.

As my own career progresses, and as I become someone with the capacity to propose and publish collections of academic work – so that I am starting to shape and define fields of inquiry, rather than just participating in them – there are topics where I start to feel as if I know ‘everyone’ in a field: we have met at conferences or shared tables of contents in other volumes, we belong to the same mailing lists or Facebook groups.

For a new volume or panel now, even where I am close enough to the centre of a topic’s academic network that I might ‘know everyone’, I want to commit myself to at least 20 per cent of the participants I choose – the equivalent of at least one panellist on a panel of five – being people I have never worked with before (and that target figure should go up, not down).

This is all the more important when the opportunity is part of an ongoing collaboration, where many participants will already have presented to each other before: diversifying the range of who is involved helps to ensure that the conversation emerging through the panel or volume will move beyond its past iterations, along new directions – thus advancing the quality of the research.

The unfortunate but necessary cost, of course, is that an editor or panel organiser cannot involve every participant from their immediate, instinctive ‘mental phone book’ every time.

Even with strategies like these, however, too many of the contributor lists for panels, volumes and issues I have organised have been all white. The two annual conventions I am most likely to attend are the Association for Slavonic, East European and Eurasian Studies and the International Studies Association. An ISA member could feasibly pledge not to appear on or organise an all-white panel in the same way that thousands of speakers in academia, business and technology have pledged not to appear on all-male panels. At ASEEES, the discipline contains so few people of colour – a situation that the Association for Diversity in Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies is working to change – that, if participants made a similar pledge, far fewer panels could even be organised.

Beyond the levels of racial diversity in particular academic disciplines, moreover, other factors affect all my networks and have led to me organising all-white panels when I had tried to commit not to do so (including two panels at the ISA convention this year): the high costs of conference travel disproportionately affect people of colour, who – as a result of structural racism in academia – are more likely to be in low-paid and precarious work, and less likely to have the funds or time to travel.

The current US administration’s Islamophobic travel ban, which (first announced in January 2017) directly impedes scholars from the affected countries entering the USA and has persuaded many others, especially Muslims, not to travel, also contributed to the whiteness of our ISA panels, since after the ban was announced one participant (a South Asian woman) made the difficult decision not to attend.

At call-for-papers stage, at least, I could have chosen not to submit a panel I had organised if it turned out all white. So as not to disappoint other panellists, and because I have been excited about the opportunity to meet my colleagues, I have not yet made this choice: but, as a result, an all-white panel of mine has been selected when another panel, which might have contained more scholars of colour, therefore was not. I am still complicit in the panels’ whiteness even though I am pleased they went ahead.

Fewer structural constraints affect participation in edited volumes. Four years after beginning to plan Gender in 20th Century Eastern Europe and the USSR, there are still contributors I have never met, and while we did organise some related panels based on the volume (including at ASEEES 2016), developing the chapters never required the participants to gather together.

Gender in 20th Century Eastern Europe and the USSR involved authors based in Serbia, Germany, Britain, the USA, Canada and Hungary, and contributors who grew up in several other countries but now work abroad: and yet its table of contents, like almost every volume in Slavic and east European studies, is still all white.

If I were inviting and selecting chapters for a similar volume now, rather than in 2013, not only would there be more active researchers from underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities to approach, but I would have the benefit of four more years expanding my own mental phone book by reading outside what I initially thought of as ‘my area’ to try to answer how topics I had previously worked on (such as post-Yugoslav popular music, or the micropolitics of peacekeeping in Bosnia) had been structured by the global dynamics of race.

The effects of racism and unexamined whiteness in Slavic and East European Studies affect who chooses to enter or remain in this discipline in the first place: one panel or volume will not resolve this inequality on its own, but every panel or volume will make its contribution to the picture of diversity in the discipline that a researcher of colour forms, as they decide through their own impressions of the discipline whether it is likely to welcome them.

Editors and panel organisers in Slavic and East European studies are more likely to be conscious of ethnicity and nationality as an element of diversity than they are of race. Many specialist readers will already mentally note the balance of eastern European and non-eastern European contributors in a project, above all in gender studies, where east European scholars have often used analogies with postcolonial feminism to show how the Anglophone West has made ‘postsocialist’ Europe a periphery. Even the location where an author currently works – in the centre or the periphery of the global economy of academic knowledge production? – has a bearing, as Madina Tlostanova shows, on the politics of where intellectual authority is perceived as travelling ‘from’ and ‘to’.

(The idea of ‘coming from’ or ‘not coming from’ the region someone studies is of course a spectrum not a fence, complicated by infinite degrees of diasporic, familial and social entanglement – although some researchers, like me, are definitely not from eastern Europe no matter how one defines belonging.)

Without planning well in advance how to widen the pool of contributors I might involve in a project – and being open to the possibility that the boundaries of my theme might change as a more diverse group of contributors brings more diverse worldviews and politics to the original line of inquiry I perceived – I am much more likely as an editor to fall back on ‘unconscious’ bias and miss an opportunity to reach a better understanding of my topic as well as supporting the diversity of my field.

But the discipline will need as strong an institutional commitment to racial diversity as it has made to gender equality, and far more understanding from white scholars of all nationalities of the obstacles that scholars of colour face in Slavic and East European Studies research, to make the all white panel as uncommon as the all male panel at ASEEES.

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Introducing my next academic book: Race and the Yugoslav Region

Until the middle of last year I wasn’t expecting to be announcing this as my next academic book project, but now it is: Race and the Yugoslav Region: Postsocialist, Post-Conflict, Postcolonial? is under contract with Manchester University Press’s ‘Theory for a Global Age‘ series, will be going into copy-editing in the next few months, and ought to be due out at some point in 2018.

Six months after publication, as things stand, MUP will also make the book Open Access – like the others in the series – which will make it more accessible than anything I’ve published before to students, activists and scholars in and from the region (and elsewhere).

Race and the Yugoslav Region is the first of the projects I was working on during 2016 – a year that often felt as if, in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s words, I was ‘writing like you’re running out of time – to see print, but not I hope the last. Ultimately, it’s the outcome of my own confusion at my first home discipline of south-east European studies not seeming to offer a script for understanding the representations of race, blackness and whiteness I encountered during my PhD on popular music and national identity in Croatia in the same way that constructions of ‘westernness’ versus ‘easternness’, or ‘Europe’ versus ‘the Balkans’, did have an entire framework of academic literature to explain them.

Moreover, that framework had come from postcolonial studies in the first place, through the foundational work of Milica Bakić-Hayden and Maria Todorova and their engagements with (and against) Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism (producing the idea of ‘balkanism’) – and yet I could get away with bracketing race and the global legacies of colonialism to one side when writing about collective identity, in a way I’m deeply dissatisfied with after coming to understand that whiteness let me bracket them off and not have to engage with them, because ‘the Yugoslav region hadn’t had its own empire, after all…’

It didn’t: but many imperial projects have passed through it, and people from the region as travellers or settlers have been implicated in yet more, though their positions in structures of imperial and colonial power have often been as contingent and ambiguous as the global structural position of this peripheralised region of Europe itself.

Yet if the international marginalisation of the Balkans and the fact that the Yugoslav region did not become a destination for mass postcolonial migration of people of colour meant that ‘race’ – in contrast to ‘ethnicity’ or ‘religion’ – didn’t have to be on the agenda for understanding the region’s experiences, studies of the global legacies of race or ‘race in translation’ (the title of an inspiring book by Ella Shohat and Robert Stam) also tend to leave surprising gaps when it comes to incorporating state socialist and postsocialist Europe into their globe.

Without these connections, however, we don’t have the transnational and global historical context that we need in order to think ‘between the posts’, as Sharad Chari and Katherine Verdery put it in an essential article for Comparative Studies in Society and History that demonstrated postsocialism and postcoloniality needed to be drawn together as ways of thinking about the recent past, present and future, not kept apart.

Neither postsocialism or postcolonialism, Chari and Verdery argued, are just themes for understanding a certain region of the world: we should be asking about the effects of the collapse of state socialism as a ruling ideology in Europe beyond the places that were state socialist; we should be asking about the consequences of colonialism and decolonisation beyond the countries that had empires or were colonised by them.

But to do that requires understanding how – and simply talking about how – the Yugoslav region and its people have fitted into the global history of race, and of the colonial projects which spread ‘race’ as a structure of oppression around the globe so that it could be translated into many racisms through the filter of different societies’ own cultural narratives and social divides.

(I’ve blogged about this before in articles like this one on the politics of race behind post-Yugoslav states’ and citizens’ responses to the refugee crisis in 2015, or this one on reconciling the themes of south-east European studies with the premises of postcolonial history and international relations, not to mention on Eurovision and European multiculturalism here…)

Scholars of Black history in Germany, of postcoloniality and whiteness in the Nordic region, and of the meanings of ‘race’ or transnational connections with Africa in socialist and postsocialist Russia and Ukraine have all been able to put ‘race’ at the centre of their enquiry in a way that is also possible for the Yugoslav region – and would have been possible even during my PhD if the work of authors who were already writing on global ‘raciality’ and whiteness in eastern Europe (like Anikó Imre on ‘postcolonial whiteness‘ and media representations of Roma, or Miglena Todorova on translations of American, European and Soviet formations of ‘race’ through Bulgaria) had changed the course of debate in south-east European studies like the ‘balkanism’ studies had in the 1990s.

By the time I was teaching for a year at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, where I’d done my PhD, in 2011-12, I was starting to express my sense of what was missing from south-east European studies as ‘What would this field look like if its formative theory had been based on Gilroy’ – author of The Black Atlantic – ‘as well as Said?’

As a researcher, meanwhile, the point I could no longer avoid thinking about where the Yugoslav region belonged in the global politics of ‘race’ and whiteness was when researching the micropolitics of international/local encounters in peacekeeping needed me to contend with the idea – expressed by authors like Sherene Razack – that peacekeeping itself is a racialised project, showing far more continuity with colonialism than liberals like to think.

Razack, in her work on Canadian peacekeeping in Somalia, argued that peacekeeping ‘maintains a colour line between a family of white nations constructed as civilized and a third world constructed as a dark threat’ – but here, too, where would the Yugoslav region fit, in a part of the world which has traditionally seemed (as Maria Todorova, author of Imagining the Balkans, put it) ‘historically white’?

I wrote what I now realise was the very first outline for Race and the Yugoslav Region in June 2013, on the back of a programme at a workshop on ‘The Europeanisation of Citizenship in the Successor States of the Former Yugoslavia’, during a presentation by Julija Sardelić on Romani minorities and post-Yugoslav citizenship. The bullet-pointed list began:

  • Socialist/Communist ideas about race – what were they? What legacies? Did practice match theory?
  • Histories of thought about race in south-east Europe generally
  • Histories of people of colour in SEE – settlement, travel etc
  • Race and the Non Aligned Movement
  • Where do the Roma fit in

and carried on thinking about the region in the kinds of contexts that feminist and postcolonial security studies scholars had been using throughout the International Studies Association and International Feminist Journal of Politics conferences in April and May:

  • Border security and (regular and irregular) migration
  • […] Portability of postcolonial theory – if SEE or part of it is being thought of / has been thought of as the subaltern, can it actually get away with that?
  • Was there SEE complicity in the racial oppression of European colonialism
  • And what about SEE participation in the slave trade
  • SEE complicity in racialised narratives of the War on Terror; participation in detention and rendition of Muslims suspected of terrorism
  • How far is SEE as a site of international intervention, humanitarian relief, peacebuilding etc actually comparable to sites in the Global South? Did the whiteness of Croatians, Bosnians and Kosovars actually make these interventions and their politics of rescue fundamentally different in some way from interventions in (above all) Africa?
  • Peacekeepers and interveners of colour in SEE

It wove through questions from current politics and my own previous research that I still didn’t feel equipped to answer, even though I was beginning to know how to ask them:

  • Race and the far right (especially in light of those transnational Islamophobic European right-wing groups that keep going on about the ‘Gates of Vienna’…)
  • Position of BiH in post-9/11 discourses about the West and Islam
  • Popular culture/popular music
  • Production, appreciation and reception of ‘world music’
  • Do we need to talk about cultural appropriation? By whom? Of whose culture(s)?

and finished with the politics of knowledge in south-east European studies itself:

  • Methods issues: encounters with race and racism in field research
  • The politics of race within research and teaching on SEE

I wasn’t able to found the research network I wanted to bring together to start answering these questions from multiple perspectives at the same time, but I did use an invitation to a Russian and Slavonic Studies research seminar at Nottingham two years later to pose some of these problems together in a presentation that, to jar the audience into seeing the region differently, I titled ‘The Black Adriatic?’ in allusion to Gilroy’s Black Atlantic.

(I haven’t carried that title over to the book, for two reasons: most importantly, as the title of a book that could have a direct impact on my personal and financial success, I felt it would be an appropriation of Gilroy’s scholarship and the Black intellectual traditions he rests on for a white woman to take it up from him; and secondly, by the time I was proposing Race and the Yugoslav Region, the series it would join had already published Robbie Shilliam’s excellent The Black Pacific, on how the African diaspora’s struggles for liberation have resonated through the South Pacific.)

By the time I led a workshop based on it at Central European University a year after that – and because of the insight, sensitivity and solidarity with which the CEU graduate students and faculty talked from the perspective of their own research – my working document had become around 20,000 words of notes – and the single article I thought I could write to get my main point across would have had to be at least three articles for three different journals to keep everything I wanted to include together.

At the same time, I knew that I didn’t have either the source material or, really, the right intellectual and personal position to write a long historical monograph on race and the Yugoslav region that would become the authoritative work. Race and the Yugoslav Region is a short book, like the others in its series, which I hoped was achieving similar aims to what the series editor Gurminder Bhambra had called for in her own Connected Sociologies: in this case, to move beyond analogies of how the marginalisation of the Balkans might be similar to marginalisations based on ‘race’, into a mode of connection where the Yugoslav region, as well as the rest of the globe, is demonstrably part of the world that colonialism, slavery and racisms made, not outside it.

Race and the Yugoslav Region has one author’s name on the cover, but if not for other people’s writing – especially the scholarship of east European women and women of colour – would not have existed at all. The two largest intellectual debts I owe are to Flavia Dzodan and Zara Bain, both of whom I got to know as writers because of online feminism and activism – I would have encountered their work differently, or more likely not at all, in a less networked world.

Whereas ‘Europe’, in the study of postsocialism, represents the longed-for symbol of modernity and progress, the ‘Europe’ of Dzodan’s writing was and is a system of whiteness and ongoing colonial violence that, through the militarisation of the European Union’s land and sea borders, was directly implicating the ‘Western Balkans’ even if it had not done so before.

Bain, meanwhile, is a philosopher and disability activist whose research on the critical race theory of Charles Mills, once we started talking about it on Twitter, made me understand one of Mills’s key arguments and made me begin to see a hinge for joining south-east European studies’ translation of postcolonial thought with the global history of ‘race’ and racisms.

Mills argues, in The Racial Contract, that ‘race’ is a ‘moral cartography’ that divides the world into civilised and modern spaces, populated by and belonging to people of white European descent, and the ‘wild and racialized’ rest of the world, where people, territory, histories, cultures and knowledges are marked as permanently subordinated, exploitable and disposable.

Mills is talking about spatialised hierarchies of modernity and primitivism – and so is south-east European studies, where Imagining the Balkans or Bakić-Hayden’s work on ‘symbolic geographies’ and ‘nesting Orientalisms’ are among the core texts every postgraduate will read.

Alongside Mills and the literature on ‘global formations of race’ (Michael Omi and Howard Winant) or ‘race in translation’ (Shohat and Stam) I had already expected the article(s) that became Race and the Yugoslav Region to be based on, one of the books I direct readers to most often appeared early in 2016: Gloria Wekker’s White Innocence.

White Innocence, Wekker’s challenge to Dutch racial ‘exceptionalism’ and the comforting myths most white Dutch people hold about their nation having one of the most liberal and tolerant traditions in the world, has a critical drive behind it that is simultaneously deeply grounded in the political struggles of feminists of colour in the Netherlands and deserves to carry well beyond the Dutch context.

In the course of refuting the exceptionalist excuse that white Dutch people ‘did not know’ about race until large numbers of postcolonial migrants and guest workers started arriving after the Second World War, however, Wekker uses the critical tools of Black feminism and Afro-European Studies to show, as scholars of Germany and the Nordic region have done, that ample evidence of public consciousness of race, racism and whiteness can be found even in societies with no history of mass migration of people of colour.

Part of the ‘cultural archive’ of colonialism, a term Wekker brings over from Said, is the ephemera of advertising and commerce, of school textbooks and medical discourse, of popular culture and entertainment, that were already revealing whiteness as a core part of national identity – with racialised notions of primitivism, hypersexuality and Africanity on the other side of this symbolic boundary – at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

As well as a challenge to racial exceptionalism itself, Wekker offers a model for tracing race, racism and whiteness through the everyday consciousness of predominantly white societies which overcomes one of the obstacles to putting race alongside other social identities at the centre of south-east European studies: does race really matter if there have been so few people of colour living there?

Starting with the everyday, and with the embodied cultural politics that we become able to see when we take apparently ephemeral sources like popular music seriously, shows that it does: and besides, ‘few’, of course, is not the same as ‘none’.

Many of the examples I discuss for a paragraph or two in Race and the Yugoslav Region could be books of their own, and I hope this book will help others to conceive them and many other books like it: how has the Venetian figure of the Moor lived on in the Yugoslav region (where Rijeka has its own blackface carnival character, the morčić), and what traces did traditions of colonial spectacle that radiated out from the German-speaking cultural area through the Habsburg lands leave behind? What was it about the small shore of Martinska, near Šibenik, that inspired Aimé Césaire to begin writing his Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land) – and what ties of anti-colonial friendship and solidarity brought him there? What histories of migration, pushed to the sidelines when the region’s history is written solely as the history of majority ethnic groups, reveal the region’s transnational connections to their full extent? And what could myths of South Slav nations standing at the ‘bulwark of Europe’ against the Ottoman Empire, or Venetian-Ottoman warfare in the early modern Adriatic, have to do with the emergence of ‘race’ through colonialism and slavery across and around the Atlantic itself? Historians of other periods will be able to take this further than a specialist in the post-Cold-War: this book will at least suggest some of what is at stake when they do.

Even as I was writing the book, the amount of new research on race as well as postcoloniality in state socialist Yugoslavia seemed to be increasing month by month – Peter Wright, Nemanja Radonjić, Aida Hozić, Radina Vučetić, Jelena Subotić and Srđan Vučetić all presented new work at conferences in 2016 on issues such as the experiences of African students in Yugoslavia, or Tito’s visits to Africa – to say nothing of the amount of research starting to reassess the politics of post-Yugoslav national identity or public space in view of the refugee crisis.

For all these reasons, and in acknowledgement of authors like Dušan Bjelić, Tomislav Longinović and Konstantin Kilibarda who have already brought critical race scholarship to bear on understanding the Yugoslav region, plus the vein of ‘postsocialist/postcolonial’ research that has already started to extend so many of the connecting branches that made this book possible, I also hope that this book will not become the last word on race and the Yugoslav region – indeed, I urge the reader at the end to make sure through their own citational practices that it does not.

This is a book that responded to the challenges issued by campaigns such as ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?‘, rather than drove them, and is by an author who benefits from the assumed objectivity of whiteness and of not being from the region they are writing about: there is an even greater responsibility on me to create opportunities for the knowledge of marginalised scholars to be elevated, valued and remunerated than there would have been if I had not written this book.

In showing that the global legacies of colonialism have passed and do pass through the Yugoslav region, however, it also contributes to showing that Britain and the former Yugoslavia do not exist in separate spheres of history – and that if, for instance, recognition of historic wrongs (as so much scholarship on the Yugoslav region argues) is a precondition for social peace after ethnopolitical conflict, then for a society as implicated in and structured by the history of racism, slavery and colonialism as Britain, this must be even more the case.

The real impact of Race and the Yugoslav Region, I hope, will lie in how others extend, transform and criticise its suggestions in producing new knowledge and theory from their own situated perspectives – but, if nothing else, it will help to demonstrate that the Yugoslav region is not, and has never been, ‘outside’ the global politics of race.

‘I think you should change it!’: the Spice Girls guide to calling out racism

One of the essay questions that students on my music and politics module have been able to make their own, several times over, is one that columnists and gender studies academics were already debating in the late 1990s, when most current undergraduates were born: were the Spice Girls feminists?

I owe this one to a young woman called Emma who proposed it the first year I taught this module at Hull, who wasn’t sure something so recent and everyday and feminine and from her own experience was suitable for a history essay, even one where you have to choose your own topic like this; and of course it was, because that’s exactly the kind of thing that thinking like a historian can illuminate, so I added it to the list of ‘Past essay titles on this module have included’ in our handbook the next year, to give a signal that yes, the 1990s and childhood and girlhood and pop music are all part of History.

Other students since then have framed the Spice Girls idea their own way and, more than once, turned it into first-class work. I like to think getting the chance to find out how formative moments from your childhood were actually part of gender history is one of those transformative experiences that university teaching can create when teachers trust students to be independent and support them to do more with their knowledge than worry if they’ve got the answer ‘right’.

I won’t pre-empt future students working out how their childhood fits into the history of feminism, consumerism and any other context we might fit the Spice Girls into, but I will mention something I’d started to forget about them since they became, like the other nineties girlbands, commercial reunion fodder: the authenticity of their friendship and solidarity in the early years that still shone through the multinational industry they quickly became, the emotion behind what so many fans wanted to watch, be and buy.

This clip from a Dutch children’s TV show in 1998, which coincidentally resurfaced just as the Internet was getting ready to commemorate 20 years since the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – another artefact of 1990s popular culture in which so many women were able to recognise themselves, then talk about it through the nascent mass internet – shows the group of friends you wanted them to be, standing up for their best mate when the presenter confronts them with the blackface carnival character Zwarte Piet, but also shows how in their early twenties they’d already grasped something it takes a lot of white women, including me, much longer to learn – what you can do in the heat of the moment when someone does something racist.

Before we go any further, Zwarte Piet is a character from Dutch Christmas tradition, a sprite or demon who accompanies Sinterklaas (St Nicholas) to bring presents to children. He’s dressed as a servant from the Golden Age Netherlands, when Amsterdam was at its height as a colonial metropole, and traditionally is always played by a white person in blackface. Which is where the problem lies.

People of colour and their white allies have been protesting against the racism of Zwarte Piet for years, and some Dutch public institutions have very recently started to compromise by dressing their Zwarte Piets in a light dusting of soot (though that doesn’t change the character’s origins in the caricature of a black slave).

Many white Dutch people contend that since the Netherlands was a more benign imperial ruler than those slave-trading Brits, Dutch people can’t be racist and neither can Zwarte Piet; read Flavia Dzodan on how present-day Dutch racism makes that so unconvincing, or see Gloria Wekker’s excellent White Innocence for a book-length explanation of how Dutch racial ‘exceptionalism’ hides how long and how intimately race and whiteness have formed part of Dutch national identity.

In mainstream Dutch public opinion, all the more so in the late nineties, bringing out Zwarte Piet a few weeks before Christmas is no more controversial than – is the equivalent of – a British kids’ TV show bringing out Santa, so that’s exactly what the Paul De Leeuw show did in the middle of an interview with its star guests, the Spice Girls, late in 1998.

This fifty-second clip, unearthed by a Spice Girls fan site, says as much as many feminist blog posts about calling out racism and how you often get treated when you do.

Mel B, the only woman of colour in the Spice Girls, is the first to realise that De Leeuw and his producers are about to put her in the extremely uncomfortable position of having to perform the emotional labour of appearing as a star and role-model for children while surrounded by five gurning, waving characters in infantile blackface, knowing that hardly anyone is even going to realise why that might make her upset.

Calling out – which isn’t not in character – ‘I don’t like them! They’re not very good!’, she’s backed up at once by (it sounds like) Geri and Mel C, shouting ‘No!’ and not letting the interview stay business as usual. As white women and allies, they can use their whiteness as well as their membership of the same world-famous band to say: this isn’t how just one person feels because she’s black, this is something none of us find acceptable. ‘We don’t like them!’, as it becomes, is an even stronger, unified message.

Rather than making themselves the centre of attention as the woke white girls (in the nineties, we’d have said ‘right-on’) who know Zwarte Piet isn’t OK, however, they give Mel B the space and the reassurance to say what she wants to say: ‘I think they shouldn’t paint their faces! You should get proper black people to do it. You shouldn’t paint their faces. I don’t think that’s very good.’

De Leeuw’s reaction is also a classic example of derailing a conversation about racism – along the same lines as hundreds of Zwarte Piet conversations, and their equivalents in other countries, online and offline.

First he falls back on the argument that Zwarte Piet is part of Dutch ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’; then he turns the exchange into a joke that only reveals how far Zwarte Piet does depend on aggregated racist stereotypes as Africa by calling one of the Piets ‘Winnie Mandela’.

‘I think you should change it!’ says Mel B. ‘You shouldn’t have their faces painted… this is the nineties!’

Late nineties Britain, even as society liked to tell itself it had overcome the open racism of the 1960s and 1970s, was characterised by many forms of systemic racism, including an alarmingly high number of black people dying in police custody; the specific expression of racism the Spice Girls were encountering here, blackface on television, had gone off air in 1978 with the end of The Black and White Minstrel Show.

‘Yeah, but that’s culture!’ says De Leeuw.

‘Update your culture!’ says Geri – sadly not in tight enough focus for a gif – and Mel B is able to restate her point about blackface: ‘You should get proper ones! Proper black people!’

Another version of the clip, with a few extra seconds, shows De Leeuw doing something that anyone who’s called attention to racism, sexism or harassment will recognise: turning the person who pointed out the problem into the problem and making them feel responsible for spoiling the atmosphere.

(No-one in contemporary feminism writes about this more vividly or poetically than Sara Ahmed, who’s given a generation of feminists – many of whom grew up with the Spice Girls as icons – the words to understand that it really isn’t just them.)

When De Leeuw says, ‘I warn you, you mustn’t spoil a children’s party… don’t spoil a children’s party,’ he both reiterates the narrative that Zwarte Piet is an innocent children’s tradition, nothing to do with racism, and throws the responsibility back on Mel B for ruining the children’s Christmas treat.

The Spice Girls don’t march off altogether, as their ‘Wannabe’ personas might have suggested and as some stars would; other clips show them carrying on the interview. It’s still clear that the white women in the band are letting Mel B take the lead and using their own stardom and whiteness to have her back as best they can.

I wonder what impression this show might have had on a young Dutch fan of the Spice Girls, who might have been seeing for the very first time that idols she looked up to had a dramatically different view of a tradition that her parents, her school and wider Dutch society had always treated as normal and everyday.

Whether or not you think that the Spice Girls, as a phenomenon, were feminists, in the middle of a Dutch TV show at the end of 1998 they still managed to do something it’s taken many white feminists much longer to learn.

Why were Bosniaks treated more favourably than today’s Muslim refugees?: on differing narratives of identity, religion and security

This post originally appeared at the LSE EUROPP: European Politics and Policy blog.

In 1992, when 1,000 Bosnian refugees were housed aboard an adapted container ship in Copenhagen while the Danish government decided their asylum applications, 12-year-old Vladimir Tomić could not have known either that he would grow up to make an acclaimed documentary about the protracted wait to begin his life in Denmark or that 25 years later the arrival of refugees from the even more extensive conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa would become one of the most divisive issues in European politics.

Tomić’s Flotel Europa, based on refugees’ own video tapes from the ship, documents a moment in European refugee history that now serves as a comparison, contrast and example for experts debating whether and how more than a million Syrians and other refugees can be integrated into European societies.

 

A recent study by the Centre for European Policy Studies, rating the integration of Bosnian refugees in Austria, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden as successful, attributes the success to host countries opening up their labour markets to them – sooner or later – and to the high levels of education with which most Bosnians arrived.

Today’s refugee crisis, in contrast, is much more than a socio-economic policy challenge: in the eyes of the transnational populist far right which has moved its arguments about Islam as a threat to European culture into the political centre (the culmination of a process that started well before 9/11), Muslim refugees are so unable to culturally integrate into European cities that their resettlement would endanger Europeans’ public safety, secularity and democracy itself.

If European perceptions about the integration of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, the majority Muslim, were so different from today, this is not just a matter of labour market policies – but also of how the politics of European racism and Islamophobia have categorised each group of refugees.

Indeed, the very nature of ‘temporary protection’ measures extended to Bosnian refugees like Tomić when they fled to Western European countries independently or through organised resettlement programmes shows the extent of European welcome in the 1990s should not be overstated. Germany, in particular, was keen for its 320,000 Bosnians (the largest number accepted by any European Union member state) to return home as soon as Bosnia-Herzegovina could be declared ‘safe’ again; the British government haggled for months before receiving a much smaller quota of 2,500.

Western European governments had already tightened their asylum policies in the 1980s, undoing the relatively relaxed attitude they had shown to individual political defectors during the Cold War, in recognition that refugees were now arriving in larger numbers and from crisis zones in the Global South which could be expected to lead even more people to migrate. Khalid Koser and Richard Black obliquely noted in 1999 the fear that these migrants might have been ‘the harbingers of mass North–South migration in the face of uneven economic development’ (p. 525): in other words, Lucy Mayblin suggests, asylum rules tightened as soon as the typical asylum-seeker came from somewhere Europe had colonised and was non-white.

Popular imaginations of near-future disaster in the 1990s pictured vast waves of impoverished African, Middle Eastern and South Asian migrants – racial ‘others’ to the traditional whiteness of Europe, and targets of a pervasive cultural racism – clamouring to flee to Europe in order to escape savage conflict and environmental catastrophe; indeed, the very language of ‘waves’ of refugees and ‘savage’ conflicts fed into alarmist visions of the ‘coming anarchy’. ‘Fortress Europe’ policies, the antecedents of today’s FRONTEX and militarised EU borders on land and sea, were the result.

Bosnian Muslim refugees faced the anxiety and disempowerment of life in abeyance while they waited to find out whether they would be allowed to start new lives in their home countries – or whether they wanted to – but very rarely had to contend with the blanket Islamophobia that stigmatises every Muslim refugee as a potential terrorist today.

The reasons why Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks (a term that became much more widespread in the 1990s), were not subject to the same suspicion as Middle Eastern Muslim refugees today depend on how narratives of identity, religion and security inside and outside Bosnia have combined then and now.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, news images of Palestinian hijackers and Libyan and Iranian state-sponsored terrorists, mediated further by the stereotyped terrorist villains of Reagan- and post-Reagan-era Hollywood, had mapped the security threat of Islam on to brown, male, vigorous bodies of ‘Middle Eastern’ appearance, and more specifically on to ‘Arabs’ (no matter that Iranian ethnic identity is not Arab at all).

These Islamophobic representations catch today’s refugees in their net but exempted Bosnians. Light-skinned Bosnians wearing Western clothes were not ‘visibly Muslim’ in European symbolic politics, even when they were Muslim by religion and ethnic heritage, and did not resemble the stock figure of the Islamic fundamentalist and militant.

Bosnians themselves strongly distanced their form of Islam from the image of the Arab terrorist: the Yugoslavia they remembered was no rogue state, but a modern and diplomatically successful European country. The fundamentalist had been an ‘other’ of the 1980s in Yugoslavia as well, and indeed became an imaginary devil in the propaganda of Radovan Karadžić’s Serb Democratic Party, which sought to convince Serbs they were at risk of genocide by painting Bosniak nationalists as a second Taliban.

Many Bosniaks from middle-class urban backgrounds viewed religious practice in general as an outdated countryside tradition, within the politics of cosmopolitanism and secularity under Yugoslav state socialism. Those who did actively participate in religious customs believed perhaps even more strongly that Bosnia had been the cradle of a different kind of Islam, with an admixture of European culture and Bosnian tolerance that separated it utterly from the radical Islam of the Middle East.

By the time most of Bosnia’s 1.2 million refugees were fleeing, hundreds of thousands of Croats and Serbs had already been displaced by ethnopolitical conflict in Croatia, many arriving in Western Europe (though more ending up in Serbia or other regions of Croatia, depending on their ethnic identity). Bosnian Muslim refugees could easily fit into the same category as Croats as subjects of public sympathy and victims of Milošević’s aggression.

The second large group of Muslim refugees from the Yugoslav region – many of the Roma and Albanians who fled Kosovo (though Albanian ethnic identity accommodated Islam, Catholicism and Orthodoxy at the same time) – also largely escaped the framing of Islamist terrorism (again thrown against them by Serbian propaganda) when they arrived in western Europe in 1998–9.

This is not to say that Kosovars escaped xenophobia and racism. In Britain, at least, their resettlement was much more controversial than Bosnians’, and the arrival of 24,000 Kosovars came at the same time as a tabloid panic about ‘bogus asylum seekers’ that primarily targeted Romani nationals of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania.

The anti-Roma prejudice, or antiziganism, directed against these migrants and refugees carried over towards Kosovars. Some were Roma themselves, while many others had an ethnically ambiguous appearance that semi-racialised them as ‘other’ to more of an extent than the smaller number of Bosnians in Britain had been in 1992–5. The ‘racialisation’ of east European migrants in Britain as targets of xenophobic prejudice, which would intensify after the British government opened its labour market immediately to citizens of the new EU member states in 2004, began with the confluence of refugees from antiziganism in east-central Europe with those from the Kosovo War.

The Muslim refugees arriving in Europe now, in contrast, are from the very parts of the world which, since the waning of fears of nuclear destruction at the end of the Cold War, have represented the most immediate threat to European security in the geopolitics of racism and Islamophobia: the Middle East, Africa, Iran and Afghanistan.

They enter a political and social climate where, within the wider European economic and constitutional crisis, tabloid and far-right discourse has pushed back against the very category of refugee. Remarks like those of the Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović in September 2015 that ‘[w]e know that […] there are also people with forged Syrian passports, who are not real refugees, but have other aims in entering the EU’ exemplify a fear that refugee and terrorist are in practice indistinguishable – a myth which, when a very few terrorists (like two perpetrators of the November 2015 Paris attacks) have indeed entered the EU by claiming refugee status on forged passports, affects how more than a million people are perceived.

The imagination of Muslim refugees in general as a security threat, therefore as an existential risk to European life-as-we-know-it who cannot be allowed to settle in any European city, gained extra force after the Paris attacks – ‘Paris changes everything,’ said the Bavarian finance minister Markus Soeder in calling on Angela Merkel to reverse Germany’s large-scale resettlement of refugees. The implication that Christians and Muslims cannot coexist in European cities suits the polarising purposes of ISIS as well as the far right.

It became more emotive yet after the mass sexual violence on New Year’s Eve 2015 in Cologne, strengthening forms of nationalism that operate as masculine or liberal-feminist performances of power by turning away refugees and policing borders in order to protect white European women and their freedoms from Muslim men.

Indeed, while European media represented Bosnian and Kosovar refugees as multi-generational groups dominated by women and children, plus smaller numbers of old men, the most widespread images of today’s Muslim refugees – in photographs such as the UK Independence Party’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster, unveiled during the Brexit referendum hours before a neo-Nazi sympathiser shot the MP Jo Cox – are of men as an undifferentiated mass.

The different patterns of migration during the Yugoslav wars and today, with more families resettled together from Bosnia and Kosovo and more men in the current crisis travelling ahead on the dangerous crossing into the EU to make arrangements for their relatives to join them, are the missing context behind these different representations: but so too is how ideas of race, nationality and religion have intersected to imply that integrating Middle Eastern, North African and central Asian Muslims should inherently be more difficult than welcoming white European Bosnians 25 years before.

South-East European studies in the ‘House of International Relations’

This post originally appeared at the Forum Transregionale Studien (TRAFO) blog on 14 September 2016.

Six years after I finished my doctoral research at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, two years after I had briefly returned to SSEES as a teaching fellow leading Masters modules about nationalism and ethnic conflict, students at UCL launched a campaign against Eurocentric and institutionally racist structures of thought within the curriculum that they termed ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’.

The campaign, which began in 2014 and spread to other UK universities including Leeds, Birmingham and Warwick, framed its title as a challenge which, if a teacher were to answer it, would involve unpicking a complex of assumptions about rationality, modernity, and which people and places have become entitled to set themselves at the intellectual centre of producing knowledge about the rest of the world. Exposing the ‘unmarked nature’ of whiteness in the design of teaching and learning, and the unquestioned assumptions about which scholars represent the theoretical heart of a discipline and which are added on as marginal radicals or providers of empirical area-specific knowledge, would thus be the first step in ‘dismantling’ the white curriculum and starting to decolonise the university, alongside confronting structural racism in the academy itself (as a panel discussion at UCL organised by Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman had asked earlier in 2014: ‘Why isn’t my professor black?’).

The ‘House of IR’

The subtle dynamics of reproducing whiteness through the hierarchies of authority that teachers construct when suggesting the centres and margins of their field are illustrated by Anna Agathangelou and L H M Ling’s evocative metaphor, well-known to decolonial, postcolonial, feminist and queer scholars in International Relations, of the ‘House of IR’. Agathangelou and Ling consciously model their illustration on a colonial home: the intimate exclusions within/outwith the domestic compounds of Dutch-colonised Indonesia and French-colonised Indochina that the global historian Ann Laura Stoler has detailed in her own work.

The House thus has its founding fathers (individualist, masculinist realism), its good liberal mothers and daughters, its rebel critical-theorist sons, its fallen daughters (postmodernists and queers), its acknowledged and unacknowledged descendants inside and out, and its downstairs, where the ‘servants’ – IR’s ‘non-Western, nonwhite sources of knowledge, traditions, or worlds’ – ‘live, work, and produce for the House of IR’ (Agathangelou and Ling 2004: 27, 30).

Anticipating the #RhodesMustFall protests of 2015–16 about the unacknowledged legacies of colonialism and slavery on elite campuses in South Africa and Britain, and the ongoing struggles at US universities to confront the material and symbolic legacies of slave-owning benefactors, the UCL ‘Dismantling the Master’s House’ group also drew attention to the presence of the colonial past of their specific institutional setting: the commemoration of Francis Galton, who founded eugenics as a scientific field at UCL, in the 21st-century university’s public culture.

The ‘House of South-East European Studies’

If I had still been teaching at SSEES in 2014–15, how would I have answered the question ‘Why Is My Curriculum White?’ when looking at my own modules, or connected the history of an east European studies institute (founded in WW1 by scholars who were lobbying the British government to support Slav national liberation movements’ struggle against Austria-Hungary, later part of Britain’s Cold War infrastructure of knowledge, intelligence and research) to the colonial legacies of the university that SSEES had joined in 1999? What texts would someone need to add in order to bring race into the centre of the discipline’s debates, alongside its central paradigms of ‘nationalism’ and ‘ethnicity’ – or even to integrate histories of people of colour in central and south-east Europe into the core narrative of the region that an undergraduate historian would take away?

Did this subset of area studies, about a region of Europe which had been repeatedly occupied and which had never been the metropole of an overseas empire itself, need to reckon with whiteness and the global history of ‘race’ to the same extent as the history of Britain or America, the Netherlands or France?

Yet at the same time the ‘House of South-East European Studies’ – especially the interdisciplinary south-east European cultural studies/history/anthropology in which I positioned my doctoral work – would give critical inquiry based on postcolonial thought much more space upstairs than its equivalent ‘House of IR’. Since the early 1990s, a research agenda translating the premises of Edward Said’s Orientalism to south-east Europe, first developed by Milica Bakić-Hayden (with Robert Hayden and alone) and Maria Todorova, has suggested that the politics of differentiating a civilised and urban ‘Europe’ from a backward ‘Balkans’, a fundamental identity-making project both outside and within the region, depend on symbolic hierarchies similar to, or perhaps part of the same structures as, orientalising oppositions between ‘Europe’ and ‘the East’.

Questions of essentialisation, othering, stereotyping, exotification and mis/representation are inescapable in the study of post-socialist identities – with immediate opportunities, in the majority white and Anglophone classrooms where I teach, for reflecting on similar (perhaps connected; perhaps, too, not automatically identical) dynamics of othering and periphery-making directed towards the Middle East, Africa, South or East Asia, Latin America, Islam, or even Ireland.

For me, however, the construct of the ‘House of South-East European Studies’ I’ve postulated is a retrofitted house. The disciplinary conversations I was part of during my PhD were parallel to, but largely separate from, those taking place in other fields that grounded their knowledge in specific languages and regions.

(That sentence avoids the term ‘area studies’ deliberately: in 2010, at an applied linguistics conference where I was to talk about my postdoctoral research on language intermediaries and peacekeeping in Bosnia, I told a Brazilian colleague in the audience of a panel that I had done my PhD at SSEES, an ‘area studies’ department. For all the postcoloniality that my doctoral research had started to train me in – and SSEES itself is more engaged in rethinking ‘area studies in the 21st century’ than it was 10 years ago – I had still failed to appreciate how much more heavily the ‘area studies’ of a white English-speaking woman from and educated in London would ring to her ears as an extractive, colonising term.)

Situating South-East Europe in Global Dynamics of ‘Race’

Unlike contributors to this forum for transregional research who have positioned themselves in International Relations throughout their careers, I began engaging with IR (to which I had first been drawn as an undergraduate via the possibilities it offered for studying women and war, even if it meant reading against the grain of an intro syllabus largely devoted to explaining the English School) first because its critical and feminist studies of peacekeeping offered a conceptual language for connecting south-east Europe as a site of international intervention with the rest of the world, then because its emerging and hard-fought aesthetic, experiential and queer turns helped to explain why many of my interests in cultural politics had run together.

While it has taken extensive struggle by postcolonial and decolonial scholars to make race and racism a theoretical lens within IR, my own re-entry to IR – giving me a mental map where the margins of Agathangelou and Ling’s House look more like a centre – is what persuaded me, once the Why Is My Curriculum White? group posed the question, that situating south-east Europe in a global International Relations or a global history of anything else must involve situating the region in global dynamics of ‘race’ – a concept which, in contrast to ‘ethnicity’ or ‘postcolonialism’, is more isolated from the central conversation in the first discipline to which I belonged.

South-East Europe – like ‘central Europe’, ‘eastern Europe’ or ‘the former Soviet Union’, but also part of a transregional ‘post-Ottoman’ space – sits in an ambiguous position in the global history of race and imperialism. Ruled by the Ottoman, Habsburg and Venetian empires, cast into the periphery of ‘Eastern Europe’ during and after state socialism, and with the deepest colonial legacy in the region (that of the Ottoman empire) being left by a power that in northern/western frames of Europeanness was either on the margins of Europe or outside Europe altogether, it was never the metropole of an overseas empire.

Migrants from south-east Europe moving to postcolonial European countries or settler-colonial states have been subject to changing and conflicting frameworks of identifying with and ascribing race: having to ‘learn to become white’ (and to become complicit in whiteness, racism and settler colonialism) like other southern Europeans in early 20th-century North America, with access conditional on politics (not being a Communist or anarchist) as well as phenotype; being told ‘At least you’re the right colour’ by white neighbours offering – extremely conditional – acceptance to Bosnian refugees in late 20th-century Australia; being incorporated into the racialised category of ‘east Europeans’ in post-EU-enlargement Britain; and these are only three examples of the conjunctions between race, ethnicity, class, migration policy and history encountered by south-east European migrants and diasporas.

A common European antiziganism, inflected by distinct but comparable national identity discourses, marginalises Roma in south-east Europe and when they migrate to the West; while some Romanian migrants in western Europe deploy antiziganist constructions of Romanian nationhood in order to distance themselves from Roma in their host society’s racialising gaze.

The subaltern identification that adaptations of postcolonial theory has given south-east Europe can explain much about the region’s peripheral position but also sits uneasily with the investments in whiteness as well as Europeanness that postsocialist national identity projects have made, from widespread antiziganist media and everyday rhetoric, to occasional but unquestioned appearances of blackface performance on entertainment television, to the Slovenian and Croatian governments’ emphatic stance during the current refugee crisis that their states should be countries of managed transit – or no transit at all – not countries of settlement.

Anikó Imre, writing on whiteness and antiziganism in postsocialist eastern European media (including her 2005 essay ‘Whiteness in Post-Socialist Eastern Europe: the Time of the Gypsies, the End of Race’, and more recently ‘Postcolonial Media Studies in Postcolonial Europe’), and Dušan Bjelić, in essays on Balkan involvement in the colonization of Palestine and on the identity discourses of Kristeva and Žižek, both argue that south-east Europe would not stand outside the dynamics of coloniality and race that Global IR can place at the centre of the discipline’s inquiry.

Research like Miglena Todorova’s PhD ‘Race Travels: Whiteness and Modernity Across National Borders’, on Bulgarian identity and global formations of race throughout the 20th century, completed in 2006 (the same year she published an article on National Geographic and the Balkans), exemplifies the questions about race I wanted to incorporate into my teaching about ethnicity and nationhood at SSEES in 2011–12 but did not have the architecture to properly build. Academic publishing’s economics of ‘market’ that render small nations and ‘niche’ topics supposedly uncommercial are part of a politics and technology of knowledge production that restrict the opportunities for innovative scholarship about and from peripheralised regions to be made widely available in book form, while unmarked methodological nationalism among readers, instructors and reviewers can produce an exceptionalism of its own. ‘Connected histories’ thus fail to be connected not even because connections are never made, but because connections are made, missed, remade, and liable to be missed again.

During a collaboration with Jelena Obradović-Wochnik on ‘the nexus between peacebuilding and transitional justice’ – two fields where critical research asks similar questions about knowledge/accountability gaps, ‘liberal peace’ assumptions and the structural inequalities between international intervention agencies and local residents, yet which rarely seem to engage with each other – we had initially been surprised to find so little theoretical bridge-building between the fields when perspectives ‘from the ground up’ (knowledges based on everyday discourse, oral history, ethnography) made the shortcomings of peacebuilding and of transitional justice appear as two instances of the same problem. The theoretical connections we needed were already ‘there’, in the work of Chandra Lekha Sriram and Rama Mani; but neither had been extensively cited into the conversations about the liberal peace where we began.

Global IR– Not new, but a lens

Working transregionally in south-east European studies overlaps with, and may often be informed by, the ambitions of Global IR. As a researcher located at and educated in a centre of knowledge production ‘about’ the rest of the world which has that status as a legacy of colonial-era higher education and research, however, I do not wish to suggest it is a ‘new’ lens, far less to impose another hierarchy of progress and temporality in suggesting that in some way the field ought to ‘catch up’.

Instead, it is a lens that the centre of the field has failed to see through to the same extent as it has seen through lenses of ethnonationalism or even postcoloniality – and a lens that can permit old as well as new histories and solidarities to come into view.

Brexit has echoes of the breakup of Yugoslavia

This post originally appeared at the LSE EUROPP: European Politics and Policy blog on 5 July 2016.

Even before the results of the United Kingdom’s referendum on European Union membership, the tone of the campaigns, the polarisation of public attitudes and the uncertainty over the country’s constitutional future had all started to recall another European crisis, two and a half decades ago: the break-up of Yugoslavia and the international community’s failure to prevent a bitter constitutional crisis escalating into war.

Jacques Poos’s comment that ‘this is the hour of Europe’, when he flew into Yugoslavia as chair of the European Community’s foreign affairs council on 29 June 1991 to mediate between the Yugoslav prime minister and the presidents of seceding Slovenia and Croatia, not only proved hollow but also symbolised, as Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and Croatian Serb militia offensives against Croatian towns escalated, an emptiness of ‘Europeanness’ at the very moment the EC had looked towards a future as today’s EU. (Poos’s remark gave its name to Josip Glaurdić’s exhaustive diplomatic history of the break-up.)

Yet for several years the Yugoslav public had already been feeling a sense of spiralling, interlocking crises over the balance of power between different republics and nations inside the federation. Slobodan Milošević’s moves to recentralise the federation on terms most favourable to Serbs, addressing Serbs as victims of persecution as he did so, interacted with Slovenian demands for fiscal and political autonomy with such implications for Croatia and its border regions (where Serbs were concentrated), and threatening knock-on effects for Bosnia-Herzegovina, that by June 1991 the ‘Yugoslav public’ was already an extremely fragmented – yet not defunct – idea.

People who lived through the Yugoslav wars – like Kemal Pervanić, who survived the Omarska concentration camp after the Serb Democratic Party (SDS) took control of his home town in 1992 and now lives in Britain, or Feđa Burić, a Bosnian historian weighing up the dangers of referendums – draw parallels between Yugoslavia and Britain as multi-national, deeply unequal societies which would unsettle anyone who believed the causes of conflict in Yugoslavia were unique to the Balkan region. ‘These terrible things don’t happen to some strange people – they happen to people like ourselves,’ Pervanić said in a Thomson Reuters Foundation video published on 28 June.

The break-up of Yugoslavia took the public through a downward spiral of collapsing expectations, each dragging people into a new sphere of uncertainty and fear: from the Yugoslav system being more successful than its capitalist and Warsaw Pact neighbours, to the reverse; from it being unthinkable that the union of republics would break up, to it seeming inevitable that it would; from living an everyday working life to seeing your standard of living and the whole economy collapse beyond repair; from Communism being the ideology you learned at school, to an entire system of political power and property ownership falling apart; from moving normally around your town, to fearing for your safety on the streets, based on what others read as your ethnicity.

Even if these were ill-founded – historians still debate whether or not Yugoslavia had too many long-term weaknesses to be viable when it was unified in 1918 – they were part of people’s common sense, until they could not be.

When I teach courses about the break-up of Yugoslavia and the social contexts behind the 1990s wars, British students start seeing their own society differently.

The issues at stake for Britain and its constituent entities have many resonances with, and important differences from, Yugoslavia – but perhaps the most troubling parallels come from how politicians and the media brought Yugoslavia to the point of collapse and co-operated to intensify fear and hatred once Slovenian and Croatian secession was inevitable.

Recursive secession

Scotland’s likelihood of leaving the UK if Britain leaves the EU, because the larger country is seceding from something that the smaller country inside does not want to leave, is an example of what political scientists call ‘recursive secession’. In Yugoslavia, Croatian independence under a nationalist government was unacceptable to the Croatian Serb militias, supported by Milošević, who started taking control of Serb-majority municipalities in Krajina in August 1990. If Croatia seceded, the SDS threatened to secede in turn.

Structurally, though, Scotland as the Scottish National Party (SNP) currently imagines it is the Slovenia of the piece: the small northern republic, keen to prosper within ‘Europe’ and struggling against political shifts in the larger country that will prevent it doing so. Nicola Sturgeon’s efforts to negotiate independently with European leaders strongly resemble how the Slovenian and Croatian presidents, Milan Kučan and Franjo Tuđman, started sounding out international support – finding their strongest allies in Germany and Austria – for their plans to secede after Slovenia held an independence referendum on 23 December 1990.

Kučan, indeed, recently drew qualified comparisons between Brexit and Slovenian independence, comparing the Leave campaign to the self-interest of Milošević and his supporters.

Croatia, in this mapping, would be the Northern Ireland. The prospect that Milošević would support his Croatian Serb allies in opposing independence and undermining Serbs in other parties who co-operated with the Croatian government made independence much more complex and risky for Croatia than Slovenia, which had no settled Serb minority.

Despite the intense nationalism of Tuđman’s government, and its indifference to how Croatian Serbs perceived Tuđman’s ambivalence towards the legacy of Croatian collaboration with fascism during the Second World War, public and political resolve for independence in Croatia was lower than in Slovenia even in spring 1991. The Borovo Selo massacre on 2 May, when Serb insurgents killed 12 Croatian police officers in Eastern Slavonia, tipped the balance. 93.2 per cent of voters in Croatia – not counting Krajina, where Serbs boycotted the vote – voted for independence in a referendum on 19 May 1991. SDS in Krajina had declared autonomy in September 1990 and claimed republic status in December 1991, after six months of open war.

Like Croatia did in 1991, but along different lines, Northern Ireland has a recent history of ethnopolitical conflict, and independence would risk instability and political violence on the mainland as well as Northern Ireland itself.

But there are important differences between the two sets of secessions – including how few voters in England seem to have appreciated the impact that Brexit would have on Northern Ireland, the UK/Irish border and the Good Friday Agreement, and the effect of fearing a return to the violence of the 1970s–90s, compared to how keenly aware other Yugoslavs were in 1989–91 of the potential for violence in Croatia.

The most immediate is that neither Holyrood nor Stormont are militarising their police and equipping army reserves ready for confrontation with the armed forces of the larger state, as Slovenia and Croatia both did in spring 1991 – leading to Slovenia’s ten-day war against the JNA and Croatia’s much longer conflict with JNA and Krajina forces.

And, structurally, Scotland can hardly signify Slovenia and the Serb Democratic Party at the same time.

Asymmetric confederation

What makes Brexit a constitutional as well as a political crisis is that results in two of the UK’s ‘four nations’ (England and Wales) showed a majority to Leave, and results in the other two (Scotland and Northern Ireland) were a majority Remain. Westminster rejected the SNP’s demand for a ‘quadruple lock’ on the referendum (so that Leave could not succeed without majorities in all four nations) in June 2015.

Scottish and Northern Irish voters who feel that they are being taken out of the EU against their wishes have a sense of territorial democratic autonomy to draw on which is not available to English and Welsh voters who feel the same way – except by building territorial–political identities around cities like London, Oxford and Bristol with Remain majorities.

After 175,000 internet users signed a petition for London to declare independence, the city’s new mayor Sadiq Khan said on 28 June that ‘As much as I might like the idea of a London city state, I’m not seriously talking about independence today – I am not planning to install border points on the M25!’. He did demand new powers over business, housing, transport, health, policing and tax, and has been negotiating with Sturgeon and the chief minister of Gibraltar (where 96 per cent voted Remain) about their ‘shared interests’ in remaining in the EU.

Proposals for some UK territories to Remain while others Leave, but for the UK to stay together as a state, arguably have partial precedents such as the relationship between Denmark and Greenland or Spain and the Canary Islands – though still skip over the problem of residents of England and Wales who would still want and need to exercise the individual rights, especially freedom of movement, they had taken for granted as part of the EU.

They echo the plans to reform Yugoslavia as an asymmetric confederation, proposed by Slovenia and Croatia in October 1990, where each Yugoslav republic would have its own defence and foreign policies and the right to apply for EC membership individually. The presidents of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia offered another ‘asymmetric federation’ proposal in February 1991.

Scholars debate why the confederation plan failed or whether it was even intended to succeed (Glaurdić makes the case that Milošević sabotaged it; Dejan Jović argues it was only ever a tactical move); but this is the level of complexity with which the UK constitution would have to be re-negotiated in order to balance the democratic majorities from Scotland and Northern Ireland with the total majority vote across the UK.

Constitutionally, however, the UK ‘four nations’ and the Yugoslav republics are different kinds of entity. The status of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland dates back to ‘Acts of Union’ with the Crown from 1536, 1603 and 1800, with subsequent amendments including the partition of Ireland in 1921 and the devolutions of 1998. England, the largest nation and the equivalent to Serbia in a rough UK/Yugoslav parallel, has no separate constitutional status, and it is UKIP rather than Labour which has led calls for an English parliament.

The Yugoslav republics, established as Tito’s Partisans gained control of territory during the Second World War and confirmed by the 1946 constitution, had all officially exercised national self-determination in forming the federation and ostensibly had the right to secede – though whether this right applied to republics or to ethno-national groups (whose demographic boundaries did not coincide with the republics) was the very constitutional issue behind conflict in Croatia in 1990–1.

How quickly public support for independence can flip

Nicola Sturgeon’s immediate commitment that ‘the option of a second referendum [on Scottish independence] must be on the table’ after the referendum results rested on an SNP manifesto commitment in the May 2016 elections that the Scottish Parliament should be able to hold another referendum if there were ‘a significant and material change in circumstances […] such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will’.

While the change in the Scottish public mood isn’t so overwhelming for Sturgeon to actually call the referendum straight away, the closeness of the UK-wide result adds to the perception that the national Leave majority is too small to take such a drastic step.

So, even more damningly, does the feeling among Remain supporters that all the Leave campaign’s promises were based on misinformation – from the promise of taking back national sovereignty when the next prime minister is likely to be unelected, to the quoted £350 million per week that Britain could save by leaving the EU, to statements that Turkey was on the brink of joining the EU and, with its large Muslim population acquiring EU freedom of movement, posing a national security risk to the UK. (The Leave campaign subsequently wiped its website.)

And so does the revelation that neither the Leave campaign or Westminster had a plan for actually managing and negotiating Brexit, leading to a situation where the all-important Article 50 notification (which would trigger Brexit after two years) might not even be made.

Remain supporters, in Scotland and elsewhere, do not just feel outvoted – they feel betrayed, and afraid (as Leave voters will if Westminster never activates Article 50). Scottish voters have an outlet for those sentiments in the SNP.

The shock of the result and its aftermath does not in itself evoke the same kind of visceral terror as the Borovo Selo massacre – though the fear created by escalating racist violence on UK streets has its own similarities to the early stages of ethnopolitical conflict.

But majorities tip from supporting autonomy towards the riskier choice of independence when it becomes clear that the nation has no prospect at all of achieving what voters see as its self-determination within the structure of a larger country – and the referendum crisis may have brought Scotland to that point.

By the time Slovenian and Croatian voters were deciding between autonomy and independence, political activity in Yugoslavia was centred almost entirely on the separate republics, with the multi-party elections of 1990 all taking place at different times. By the time the Yugoslav prime minister formed his own Yugoslavia-wide party in July 1990, aiming to offer an alternative to Milošević’s authoritarian vision for the federation, Slovenia and Croatia had voted already, with nationalist parties winning in both.

Building political alliances across, as well as within, autonomous national units will be essential for UK political movements that seek to hold the country together.

‘Europe’ as a symbol of hope – about to be betrayed?

While the UK referendum was directly about the European Union, Slovenia’s and Croatia’s independence referendums might as well have been. Slovenian liberals aspired to join Europe culturally and politically, even (or in some eyes especially) if it meant leaving the ‘Balkan’ remainder of Yugoslavia behind. Kučan reformed the Slovenian League of Communists into a social democratic party under the slogan ‘Europe Now!’

In the early stages of the war in Croatia, the Croatian government as well as many of the public looked to the EC to intervene, force Milošević to accept Croatian independence and end the occupation of Krajina. ‘We want to share the European dream, we want democracy and peace,’ Tomislav Ivčić sang in an English-language song, written as war intensified in August 1991, which Croatian Television hoped would serve as a promotional video for the Croatian cause abroad.

 

A few months later, the hopes Croats had invested in Europe would be dashed as the JNA and paramilitaries overran Vukovar in November 1991 and the Croatian government accepted a ceasefire in January 1992 which left one third of its territory under occupation – just as SDS in Bosnia-Herzegovina was about to declare a sovereign ‘Republika Srpska’ to prevent Bosnia seceding too.

Bosnians who had hoped in 1990 that the Krajina conflict would not affect Bosnia would share Croatians’ disenchantment with ‘Europe’, and suffer an even more devastating war, as the EC failed to prevent SDS militias and the JNA killing and expelling non-Serbs in municipalities they controlled, encircling other towns and nearly partitioning the capital, Sarajevo.

Violence on the scale of the war in Croatia or Bosnia is not imminently threatening the United Kingdom. But scenes of young people appealing directly to ‘Europe’, like the March for Europe on 2 July or the demonstration in London that interrupted a live Channel 4 News broadcast on 28 June, recall independence rallies in Slovenia or, even more so, peace rallies in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina where other young people begged leaders not to let them down.

Politicians get emotional as ‘normal’ politics fall apart

Scenes from the European Parliament on 28 June – with the European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker asking the UKIP leader Nigel Farage why he was still there, Farage goading MEPs (‘You all laughed at me… well, I have to say, you’re not laughing now’) and the SNP’s Alyn Smith, after demanding the EU respect Scotland’s vote to remain, receiving a standing ovation for his concluding ‘Scotland did not let you down… please, I beg you, do not let Scotland down!’ – were so far outside the usual frame of EU parliamentary politics that they immediately became items of viral news.

The spectacle came from the contrast between speakers’ emotions and what viewers probably expect to be the dispassionate nature of a European Parliament chamber (much more so than the unruly, ‘braying’ sound of UK Prime Minister’s Questions). The feelings Juncker, Farage, Smith and others displayed hinted at longer-standing resentments over questions of sovereignty and independence which were suddenly on public view.

Notable, too, was the invisibility of the United Kingdom, as opposed to its individual nations, in Smith’s direct appeal to European lawmakers.

All of these seem to be signals that the boundaries of ‘normality’ in UK/EU politics have shifted in a very short space of time, driven by people who are still coming to terms with it.

People who remember scenes from televised Yugoslav Party congresses and parliaments in 1988–92, or indeed news footage from the period in 1990–1 when the European Community still appeared to be able to influence the outcome in Yugoslavia, might see several parallels – from the unprecedented emotion with which politicians talk to each other, to the fact that, the euro crisis apart, the break-up of Yugoslavia was the last overnight geopolitical crisis where the EC/EU as an institution played a major role.

In the UK as in Yugoslavia, however, the media have been implicated in producing the crisis for much longer, in ways that might parallel the course of events that made it even become conceivable in the late 1980s that Yugoslavia could imminently break apart.

Media spectacle can make centres out of extremes

Only a few years ago, UK media treated UKIP and Farage as marginal parties rather than part of the core of political options (where Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats belonged), giving them and the Green Party broadly similar coverage.

Ofcom and the BBC awarded UKIP ‘major party’ status in England and Wales for the 2014 European elections after it made significant local election gains in 2013–14, and confirmed UKIP, but not the Greens, as a ‘major party’ for general elections in 2015.

‘Major party’ status entitles parties to an extra party political broadcast and is also likely to influence news editors charged with maintaining political balance in reporting election campaigns. Themes and images in tabloid media, especially on immigration and on the disenfranchisement of England, harmonise with UKIP campaigns more directly than any mass newspaper or television channel amplifies Green campaigns when their policies fall to the left of Labour.

UKIP ‘managed to define the discourse around migration’ in the 2015 election, Laleh Khalili writes, even though the party itself only gained one seat.

Farage’s confrontational and triumphalist tone as a speaker appeals to UKIP supporters as a sign he will take on the Westminster and Brussels elite on behalf of England but strikes many on the Left experience as bullying and unpleasant, most of all in his post-referendum victory speech when he praised ‘the dawn breaking on an independent United Kingdom […] without having to fight, without a single bullet being fired’ only a week after the shooting of Jo Cox. Although his own background is in City trading, and for years Labour and Conservative politicians had already been politicising immigration, his discourse stands out from established members of the political elite.

In a parallel way, Slobodan Milošević used populist language and a promise to reverse the disenfranchisement of a nation through constitutional change to present himself to Serbs as a political outsider, leading the so-called ‘anti-bureaucratic revolution’, even though he had risen through the ranks of the Serbian Communist Party and previously headed a major Yugoslav bank. (Charles Simić, writing in December, likened Milošević’s political communication to Donald Trump.)

Non-Serbs, especially Albanians in Kosovo, Croats and Bosnians – as well as Serbs struggling for more rather than less democracy in Yugoslavia – feared Milošević as a figure who would legitimise and incite ethnopolitical violence by Serbs. (One of Milošević’s first acts of aggression, in March 1989, was to revoke Kosovo’s autonomy as a province of Serbia, repress Albanians’ political and cultural rights, and introduce martial law.)

Serbian media helped to create the myth of Milošević as a combative, anti-elitist defender of Serbs when TV Belgrade repeated clips of his comment, made while visiting Kosovo Serb protestors in April 1987, that ‘Nobody is allowed to beat you!’ (referring to their allegations of being beaten by Kosovo police).

Farage’s and Milošević’s programmes resemble each other in that both address disenfranchised members of majority nations (a white English public or the Serbs) as groups who are marginalised, victimised and under siege, using language of crisis and threat. For Farage, the threat is of floods or swarms of immigration, putting Britain under social and cultural strain, which EU rules supposedly prevent Britain from reining in.

Earlier on the day of Jo Cox’s death, Farage had posed in front of a poster reading ‘Breaking point: the EU has failed us all – we must break free of the EU and take back control of our borders’. The image was of a column of refugees, mostly Middle Eastern, on the Slovenian/Croatian border in the summer of 2015.

Both Serbs in 1988 and residents of deindustrialised England in 2016 faced serious economic disadvantages, of recent onset, that Yugoslavia or Westminster had not addressed. (Even for Serbs, living standards would fall yet further under Milošević except for those in positions to benefit from corruption, war profiteering or organised crime.)

Yet ethnic minorities, EU migrants, LGBT people, disabled people threatened by further austerity, and left-wing activists in the UK fear the consequences of a UKIP-driven government in the UK in ways which are not identical to, but have some parallels with, the fears of non-Serbs in the early stages of Milošević consolidating power through the Yugoslav federal system.

One major difference between the media of 1988–91 and the media of 2016, however, is how and where the public see tide-turning audiovisual moments and in what ways the media fragment their audiences.

Fragmented media help interpretations of the crisis diverge

In Yugoslavia, people saw incidents like Milošević’s remark to Kosovo Serb protestors or the pictures from Borovo Selo at home on broadcast evening news. Today, moments like the European Parliament speeches or the news about Jo Cox reach us throughout the day, on workplace computers and mobile devices, at different times.

Which moments, narratives and interpretations even reach us are conditioned by how we structure our own social media and what network algorithms then choose to show us, in a more finer-grained way than different newspapers have always framed reality in different ways for their readerships.

Late 1980s Yugoslavia did not have such individualised media fragmentation but, with all republics’ broadcasters controlled by their republics’ Communist parties (and some programming shared between republics), its broadcast infrastructure still meant that viewers in different republics formed divergent, directly opposed understandings of what the Yugoslav crisis even was, unless they consciously sought alternative sources of information. After the 1990 elections, Slovenia and Croatia could follow Milošević’s lead in using television as a vehicle for their own political and historical narratives.

Different publics in Yugoslavia knew less and less about how the crisis was seen elsewhere in the country. Within an escalating cycle of ethno-political fear, increasingly, they did not want to, until ethno-national identity became the predominant frame of reference in public.

The Yugoslav crisis happened, and the Brexit crisis has happened, at dizzying speed, leaving the public trying to piece together ‘instant histories’ from media, their own experiences and their friends and neighbours. Digital media might intensify polarising tendencies even further, if people see less and less outside their online as well as offline ‘filter bubble’.

They might deterritorialise the polarisation which in Yugoslavia occurred on a territorial, ethno-national basis; in England, at least, the two hardening ‘sides’ are spread throughout the country, with more or less concentrated majorities or minorities in certain areas. Within as well as between nations, the public end up with substantially different ‘instant histories’ and act on them in different ways.

But digital media also give more access to alternative perspectives than print media and analogue broadcasting ever made possible – an advantage on which campaigns based on solidarity across difference will need to capitalise.

Ethnic and racist violence shapes how collective identities form

The most frightening, immediate effect of the referendum campaign and result in the UK has been what is publicly perceived as, and is highly likely to be, a dramatic increase in racist abuse and violence.

Jo Cox’s assassination on 16 June by a man linked to neo-Nazi terrorism shocked the public – including her fellow Labour MPs, now embroiled in a contest over the future and existence of their party – because it marked a form of political violence that UK residents not already under threat by the far right usually suppose not to exist in Britain.

During the referendum campaign, far-right groups circulated propaganda about Muslim refugees as terrorist infiltrators and sexual predators – playing on the attacks in Paris, Brussels and Cologne – that harmonised horribly with the mainstream Leave campaign’s public statements about immigration and Turkish membership of the EU. (Compare how caricatures of Albanian Muslims as rapists circulated in late 1980s Serbia, adding their undertones to Milošević’s claims that Serbs were being persecuted in Kosovo.)

Cox resembled the moderate police chief of Osijek, Josip Riehl-Kir, in her potential to interpret the crisis in an alternate way to the political consensus. Cox had written, days before her death, in defence of EU membership and free movement of people, and campaigned for Britain to resettle more Syrian refugees. Reihl-Kir had tried to defuse ethnicised Serb/Croat tensions in Slavonia in spring 1991, in marked contrast to Serb militants’ antagonism towards Croatian police elsewhere on the emerging front line, until his assassination by a Croat ex-policeman that July.

A report on Islamophobic hate crime by Tell MAMA, which Cox would have launched on 30 June, had already found a 300 per cent increase in offline crimes against Muslims in 2015 compared to the previous year, with spikes after the attacks in Paris. Muslims were most likely to be attacked in shops, on streets or on public transport, and when wearing Islamic dress.

Accounts of on-street attacks, threatening letters, school and workplace bullying, and racist slurs have spiralled since the very day of the referendum result – with police recording a 57 per cent increase in reported hate crimes compared to corresponding days last year, the National Police Council calculating that hate crime reports have increased fivefold since the referendum, and a Facebook group organised to collect first-hand accounts of racist violence, Worrying Signs, becoming overwhelmed.

Ethnic minorities, Muslims, East Europeans (already targets of cultural racism in UK tabloids) and white people with foreign accents have all reported abuse and attacks – giving the impression of violence that is both escalating and widening the range of people meant to be intimidated.

Public concern about a sudden ‘surge’ in xenophobia, Akwugo Emejulu writes, conceals years of ‘everyday and institutionalised racism and violence’ that people have experienced in Britain and which they have often been disbelieved when they describe. Race, and who has been more or less likely to feel the effects of racism, is the deepest-rooted dimension of the divergence of ‘scripts’ that different members of the public now have for making sense of the crisis.

Acts of ethnicised and racialised violence, even between one person and another, have collective effects. Before open war broke out in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and beyond areas that were occupied or became front lines, people who belonged – or were just finding out that they belonged – to ethnic, political and sexual minorities suffered intimidation that was supposed to reverberate into the consciousness of others who shared the same identity.

The difference between Britain and Yugoslavia is not the underlying dynamic of collective violence and intimidation so much as the different balances of histories and power behind the violence. War broke out in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina after sustained campaigns of intimidating ethnic others, undermining social and political alternatives, and equipping future armies and paramilitary groups on a mass scale.

The identities drawn into conflict with each other in Yugoslavia were ethno-national, all based on a link between ethnicity and sovereignty over territory that had to be proved or broken to determine which state the land should belong to.

Racist violence in England is based on a narrative of white English sovereignty in which Britain can never be ‘home’ to immigrants or to any Black or Asian Britons at all – a country which, Kehinde Andrews writes, ‘was always happy to exploit the dark skinned subject, but never comfortable living with them.’ The global historical legacies of British imperialism and the legacies of Serbian national expansionism are not identical, and too direct a comparison between Yugoslavia and Britain would erase the reckoning with colonial history that Britain, in the aftermath of Brexit, needs urgently to undertake.

Uncertainty and insecurity harden social divisions

The scripts about belonging that EU citizens living in the UK thought they had – though their scripts were already inflected by race, language and religion – have been whipped away since the beginning of the referendum campaign.

Without their own say in the referendum (unless they were Irish), 3.3m citizens of other EU states have had to watch British politicians and the public overturn plans they had made for their long-term future and expose them to at least two years of uncertainty over whether they can continue living in the UK on equal terms. Some arrived in schools and workplaces the morning after the referendum to be told by classmates and workmates they were going to be sent home.

Their uncertainty has only built further as David Cameron and Theresa May (now a front-runner for Conservative leadership) have refused to guarantee that EU citizens already living in the UK would retain their current residence rights after Brexit and a UKIP peer, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, encouraged the government to use uncertainty over EU migrants’ status to ‘retaliate’ if necessary in negotiations with the EU.

EU citizens’ prominence in arguments about immigration at this moment does not alter how seriously the political consensus to present immigration as a source of scarcity and tension has already affected non-EU citizens, or the violence that the EU will continue to inflict at its borders and through detention centres unless it significantly alters its own migration policy. Yet since Westminster not Brussels already controlled UK immigration policy, Brexit would change neither of those things except to the extent that non-EU citizens would have greater chances of obtaining UK visas – yet migrants from the Global South could anticipate visa requirements as restrictive as they are now.

Even many UK citizens who voted Remain have had their political identities, and their very senses of self, affected by the willingness of the Leave campaign to manipulate EU citizens’ uncertainty: with shock that they never predicted such indifference; with dread that extremism they had already predicted is coming closer to the centre of power; with grief and disbelief that the other side voted the way that it did.

How do you comprehend that so many people in the country you are supposed to share values with could vote with such indifference to 3 million others’ status and wellbeing – or, when stakes were so high, might not have been bothered to vote at all?

This is the beginning, but only the beginning, of how new political identities emerge and ‘other sides’ form.

The social bonds that broke down, and were deliberately broken down, before and during the Yugoslav wars included many ‘former neighbours’, close friends who found it impossible to understand the other’s perception of events when they themselves were experiencing so much horror.

Britain is nowhere even close to experiencing the levels of violence that divided Vukovar or Sarajevo, and the forces impelling polarisation are differently configured. In coming days and months, movements seeking to build coalitions for change will nevertheless have to appeal to mixtures of Remainers, Leavers and voters who did not use their vote, building solidarities which hardened political boundaries – though grown out of comprehensible, fearful emotions – could impede.

Here, polarisation can work both ways: projecting symbolic value judgments on to whole cities, such as Sunderland which highly visibly announced a Leave majority early in televised coverage of the results, ‘misses complex stories of racism and resistance’ that could help to build a broader consensus against austerity and racism than the Remain campaign was able to mobilise, or even commit to, in June 2016.

People are demanding alternatives nobody is offering

Public participation around both the Leave and Remain positions has revealed demands for social and political alternatives that no large political option currently has on offer.

No politician with a UK-wide remit began their post-referendum remarks with the kind of messages to EU citizens that Nicola Sturgeon or Sadiq Khan addressed to their electorates in Scotland and London.

No Leave voter who believed that a Britain outside the EU could afford to revitalise its economy and public services has been offered anything other than a politics of fear and ethnicised entitlement, or guarantees that the fruits of any prosperity Britain did achieve would go towards repairing their own marginalisation.

The loudest voices that members of the English and Welsh public determined not to be taken out of the EU against their will can identify with in their calls for an alternative to Article 50 negotiations are only able to offer another way out to a different British nation, unless Sturgeon can win substantial concessions affecting England and Wales in Scotland’s negotiations with the UK.

The pro-EU rallies since the referendum in cities that voted Remain are not direct equivalents of the Sarajevo peace rallies – and no Euromaidan.

But Yugoslavia in 1990 and 1991 contained a strong civic upswell of support for democratisation and peace within a still-Yugoslav framework which some alternative political parties channelled yet no leader with sufficient power was prepared to adopt. Instead, bases for political solidarity outside the nationalist consensus were systematically intimidated and undermined.

Britain’s history is distinct from Yugoslavia’s, despite the surface parallels that attend the potential break-up of a multi-national state in contemporary Europe. Yet perhaps the most important insight from the break-up of Yugoslavia is that it was not inevitable, nor pre-determined by long-term ethnic tensions, for the constitutional collapse of the country to descend into war; the history of the Yugoslav wars, whether in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina or Kosovo reveals detailed evidence of violence deliberately perpetrated and alternatives suppressed. Interrupting comparable processes in Britain, within a different set of social and political contexts, will be essential in building a more democratic and just society whether the UK’s future is as one country or more.

Guardians of the frontier?: migration, racism and solidarities along the ‘Balkan corridor’

In the early 2000s, as Slovenia prepared to join the EU and Croatia waited for its relations with the ICTY to be judged acceptable, post-Yugoslav film-makers became fascinated with the figure of the undocumented Chinese migrant. The plots of films such as Varuh meje (Guardian of the Frontier, 2002), Rezervne deli (Spare Parts, 2003), Kajmak i marmelada (Cream Cheese and Jam, 2003) and Put lubenica (The Melon Route, 2006) turned on the organised smuggling of Chinese migrants into the EU, enabling the ‘Balkan’ criminal networks that facilitated Chinese movement through this intermediate territory (or in one case the police who tried to apprehend Chinese migrants travelling into Slovenia from Croatia upriver) to become settings for their directors’ tales of fragmented post-Yugoslav society. Sunnie Rucker-Chang, in a book chapter on post-Yugoslav films about Chinese migration that deserves to be more widely read, argues that the films ‘us[ed] the Chinese as a proxy for unrecognizable change’, connecting ‘some problematic aspect of [post-Yugoslav] transition – usually crime or social deviance – to the Chinese’ (p. 201).[1]

These were not films about the experiences of undocumented Chinese people trying to reach the EU, but about dislocations the directors wanted to use them to symbolise – the same narrative technique that Kevin Moss and Mima Simic critically argue characterised post-Yugoslav directors’ representations of gays and lesbians in the same period.[2] (Indeed, Varuh meje places both the silent Chinese migrants and its lesbian and bisexual white Slovene protagonists as targets of the mysterious small-town nationalist politician that the Ljubljana students encounter on their canoeing trip.)

Human trafficking is not the only context in which post-Yugoslav film-makers represented Chinese migration – Rucker-Chang also discusses Oprosti za kung fu (Sorry About the Kung Fu, 2004), where a returning Croatian refugee gives birth to a half-Chinese baby, and a group of Serbian films depicting Chinese migrants who have settled to open restaurants and markets – but is probably the single most common form of depicting Chinese presence, notably in the films from Slovenia. Released one or two years before Slovenia would join the European Union and enter the space of the Schengen Agreement, they implied that one facet of post-Yugoslav modernity was the novel visibility of racialised difference in everyday Slovenian life, and Slovenia’s participation in the pan-European project of regulating who should or should not have the right to enter and settle in European space.

Rucker-Chang’s book chapter, and the volume it comes from (Chinese Migrants in Russia, Central Asia and Eastern Europe, edited by Rucker-Chang and Felix Chang in 2011), is remarkable for placing these questions at the centre of how it understands the post-Yugoslav region’s international position – the kind of agenda that will need to be embedded much more widely in south-east European studies in order to contextualise scenes such as those of Macedonian police confronting thousands of migrants this weekend after Macedonia temporarily closed its border with Greece.

The early 2000s trafficking films depicted undocumented migration as a flow that goes unnoticed to citizens except those who (themselves socially marginal – yet still belonging to national society in a way that is unavailable to the migrants) participate in the underworld activity of moving them on, with small groups concealed in vehicles or led across rivers at a time. In contrast, the routes of migrants/refugees – many fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan – attempting to travel through the Western Balkans this summer en route to the EU have created not just domestic political disputes but an international spectacle. Media attention has turned from Lampedusa, Kos and Calais to places such as Gevgelija, where last weekend migrants trying to board trains and travel further north took direct action against the Macedonian police lines.

Schengen and the ‘Balkan corridor’

Gevgelija’s railway station makes it a node on the so-called ‘Balkan route‘ or ‘Balkan corridor’ which migrants who have managed to reach Greece (by boat across the Mediterranean, or by crossing from Turkey) follow to reach their intended destinations in the EU. Until June, they had to walk clandestinely through Macedonia and were vulnerable to robbery and even kidnap. A new Macedonian asylum law in June created a temporary asylum status where migrants had 72 hours to transit the country and get to Serbia – where Belgrade has become another waystation before they travel on to Hungary. The fastest way, if someone can find space to board, is using south-east Europe’s international trains.

On 20 August, however, the Macedonian government closed the Greek/Macedonian border and declared that it could no longer manage the 1,000 or more people per day who were coming to Gevgelija seeking onward travel. Scenes of Macedonian police firing stun grenades and tear gas at refugees – desperate to travel on to Hungary before the Hungarian government could finish fencing off its own border with Serbia – amplified a humanitarian crisis where the most visible agents of the violence are the Macedonian police officers dressed in camouflage uniforms and riot gear, but where more complex structures of power, finance and ideology need to be recognised in order to understand the politics of migration, racism and solidarity along the ‘Balkan corridor’.

Hungary’s own closing of its border, which Dario Cepo called ‘a cynical twist in history’ after the flight of Hungarian refugees in 1956 and the consequences of Hungary’s opening its border to East Germans in 1989, was announced in June and follows months of anti-immigration rhetoric by the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban. The spotlight of the European refugee crisis, now the continent’s largest since the aftermath of the Second World War (and with a death toll far exceeding the numbers shot at the Berlin Wall by East German border guards), has shifted to the ‘Balkan corridor’ as people hurry to complete the part of their journeys through the Balkans before having to access the Schengen area another way.

Schengen, the space within the EU where states have agreed to mutually lift their national border controls (enabling travel from, say, Hungary to Germany, or Italy to France, though not from any Schengen member state into the UK), is much more than an ‘area’. It is a political compact, where, as Ruben Zaiotti writes, the ease of movement within the Schengen Area once admitted is exchanged for the ‘exclusionary underpinnings’ (2007: 554) of a strict and frequently humiliating visa regime which explicitly or practically prevents all but the wealthier non-EU citizens from legally entering the EU, and for a racialised system of profiling that states depend on in determining who should be allowed; it is a symbolic obstacle, which exacerbated eastern Europeans’ (perhaps especially post-Yugoslavs’) feelings of marginalisation within Europe as the visa application process reminded them of the unequal terms on which they belonged; it is an system of physical power, intelligence-sharing and surveillance technology that shifts responsibility for regulating overland border-crossing to the states on Schengen’s external borders, organised through the EU border management agency known as Frontex. It is a network that does not defend states and the EU from other states, but from ‘a host of transnational, social threats, […] often personified in the racialized figure of Islamic and nonwhite people’ (Walters 2002 [£]: 570[3]) – individuals, but people whom border management ideology strips of their individuality.

In south-east Europe, however, the Schengen borders and the EU’s own external borders are a moving wall, with complex implications for narratives of national identity. The ‘visa liberalisation‘ agreements of 2009-10, incentives for post-Yugoslav states to progress through the EU’s stabilisation and association road-maps, removed Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania from the list of states whose citizens require visas to enter the Schengen Area (though did not extend to the non-Schengen UK); from being targeted as Schengen’s presumed undesirables, Western Balkan states were now expected to participate in guarding it from outside, after a certain liminal period (when they were ‘harmonising’ their border management practices with the EU but visa requirements had not yet been lifted) when they would have been in both relationships with Schengen at the same time.

Moreover, gaps still remain: Kosovo’s passport-holders still require visas for Schengen and, in Vjosa Musliu’s words, ‘pretty much anywhere’; the EU’s safe-listing of Western Balkan states for asylum purposes has impeded Roma asylum-seekers who still face persecution from their home states.

Standing at the bulwark of Europe

Schengen members Slovenia and Hungary, plus Croatia which began applying for Schengen membership this year, are among the states required to manage the EU’s external borders – a role that lends itself well to contemporary incarnations of the ‘bulwark of Europe’ or ‘bulwark of Christendom’ narratives, well-known for instance from Croatia or Poland, where a certain nation can imagine itself as having historically defended Europe or Christendom against threats from the East. (Other narratives of standing at the ‘gates of Europe’, meanwhile, have inspired the contemporary far right’s narrative of itself as Europe’s last defence against Islamisation.)

Sabina Mihelj suggests that ‘the symbolic position of Slovenia as a devoted guard of Europe’s borders’ (2005 [£]: 122) was institutionalised in the amendments to Slovenia’s asylum laws made in 2000-01 after unexpected rises in asylum applications (from 776 in 1999 to 12,943 in 2000) and undocumented migration from the Middle East and Asia – the same context in which the Slovenian human trafficking films were being conceived.

For Mihelj, ‘Europe’ appeared to represent a ‘wishful projection’ (p. 110) in the national identities of Slovenia and other central and eastern European states – an ‘affective’, almost emotional investment in belonging to simultaneously a community of imagined values and a set of structures which bring pooled state power to bear on determining who can enter, and participate in the social and political life of, the territory linked to that community.

The emotions behind such a longing for belonging are those which, following Sara Ahmed, bind individual subjects to the nation in a way that depends on the exclusion of others – above all ‘the figure of the asylum seeker and the international terrorist’ (Ahmed 2004: 119), Ahmed considered, in contemporary constructions of the West and Europe.

Indeed, post-Yugoslav states have been implicated in guarding not just against the asylum seeker but against the terrorist. In 2003, for instance, Macedonian police arrested Khaled El-Masri during a cross-border bus journey, mistaking him for a suspected terrorist, and interrogated him for three weeks before handing him over to the CIA for the unaccountable process of ‘extraordinary rendition’. El-Masri spent four months at a secret CIA detention facility in Afghanistan. His case against Macedonia at the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled in his favour in 2012, was the first time a court had found that extraordinary rendition constituted torture.The UN Human Rights Council secret detention report of 2010 alleged that Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo and Eagle Base (near Tuzla) in Bosnia had both been used as secret CIA detention sites, as had facilities in Poland, Lithuania and Romania.

US forces had also been able to arrest suspects directly in post-Yugoslav states, as in the ‘Algerian Six’ case in Bosnia, where six Algerians were arrested the day after 9/11 (on suspicion of conspiring to bomb the US Embassy in Sarajevo) and taken to Guantanamo Bay. This too resulted in legal proceedings, with the US Supreme Court ruling in 2008 that the US constitutional right to habeas corpus did extend to prisoners at Guantanamo. Meanwhile, in the public face of the War on Terror, Western Balkan states aspiring to join NATO have been able to demonstrate their readiness and to gain their operational experience by sending contingents to the coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The project of integrating Western Balkan states into the ‘Euro-Atlantic institutions’, chiefly the EU and NATO, links border security practices and participation in the War on Terror materially as well as discursively – yet in a way that depends on narratives about what ‘Europe’ is there to provide security against.

The weekend’s scenes at the Macedonian border, therefore, present much more than a story about Macedonian police tactics – even though the government of Nikola Gruevski is no stranger to turning a crisis into a spectacle, and, as Ivana Jordanovska writes, ‘[t]he ordeal of hundreds of children crying at the border of our country, afraid of the stun grenades and tear gas, forever bearing the imagery of a Macedonian police uniform as one of the scariest figures of their childhood’ will remain a legacy of the crossing for the refugees at Gevgelija that day.

Police and border guards on the EU’s external borders are trained and coordinated through European institutions, including the Frontex programme on which almost a billion euros have now been spent; the contemporary form of police paramilitarisation which can be read from the Gevgelija photographs is a global configuration of technology, capital and power.

Yet there are also many potential narratives of solidarity between citizens of post-Yugoslav states and today’s refugees: based on memories of displacement and hospitality in the 1990s; based on anti-nationalist activism against immigration controls; based on a universalist humanitarian ethic; perhaps even some based on connections between Yugoslavia and countries like Syria during the Non-Aligned Movement, a period where quite a few Yugoslavs’ life courses crossed into Syria and some Syrians’ vice versa.

Energies of solidarity

As in Greece (where residents of Thessaloniki have been organising to feed and support refugees for months), Hungary (where the immigrant/refugee/Hungarian coalition Migszol formed in Szeged, and Migration Aid in Budapest, to assist refugees at ‘transit zones’) or France (where Calais Migrant Solidarity is monitoring police violence against migrants at the improvised camps near the Channel Tunnel), self-organised solidarity groups have formed at all the nodes along the ‘Balkan corridor’ – from the Help the Migrants in Macedonia group (which has appealed for donations from inside and outside Macedonia) and Legis (helping to deliver food, water and supplies to migrants camped outside Macedonian stations), to groups collecting and delivering support from Croatia and Bosnia, to initiatives in Belgrade that the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Studies has helped to coordinate (including appeals for volunteers to deliver essential goods to refugees at Belgrade station in person, and an online map of resources for refugees which is now being crowd-translated into Arabic). Indeed, the CEAS map has extended into a Balkan Refugee Map which, at the time of writing, was starting to cover Skopje, Budapest, Sofia and Thessaloniki as well as Belgrade – and continued to be in need of content and translators.

The energy of these solidarity groups recalls responses to the floods of 2014, which again mobilised pan-regional self-organised expressions of solidarity in the face of ineffective governmental reactions. As with the floods, the practical question once the moment of crisis has passed is what kinds of structures can sustain these solidarities between such moments when national political systems – conveniently for the political and financial interests of existing elites – leave very little space for them to be expressed.

At the same time, there may and should be implications for the questions that researchers ask about the region. Just as the global financial crisis of 2008 seems to have helped questions of social inequalities and economic precarity return to the agenda for explaining the break-up of Yugoslavia and its consequences, the 2015 refugee crisis may yet accelerate the momentum to ask how the region’s national identities have been embedded in ideologies of race and whiteness that have so often given meaning to ideas of European belonging. This is a different kind of postcolonial lens to the one that is most commonly applied to the Balkans, and sometimes an uncomfortable one to apply. The tension between them is there in the silences that, Stef Jansen noted, ran simultaneously with Bosnians’ and Serbians’ anger at their own exclusion from ‘Europe’ through the visa regime:

Almost nobody compared EU visa restrictions for BiH or Serbian passport holders to that of people from, say, Asia or Africa. And if anyone did, it was often precisely to prove the point of humiliation. Some expressed exasperation at being ‘in the same newspaper reports with Rwanda,’ and others made rueful comments to me about having become the object of anthropological research, a discipline considered to be about ‘primitive tribes’.

In a post-Cold War context where capitalist liberal democracy was projected as the only possible route of development, this resonated with the Eurocentrism so central to the EU-project itself. The relentless calls by EU politicians that ‘BiH and Serbia prove their commitment to Europe’ implied that they distance themselves from non-Europeans who might or might not share some of their predicaments. At every step on the ‘road to Europe’ – built around the progressive fulfilment of conditions and a presumably known destination – EU officials exhorted local politicians to raise the outer European fence in order to be allowed within it.

Simultaneously, however:

The Yugoslav lands, lest we forget, have the historical experience not of colonizers but of colonies, having been parts of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. Moreover, through the Non-Aligned Movement, they have been central to a non-Eurocentric, anti-imperialist global alliance. Yet that engagement is part of the region’s socialist history, which has been declared illegitimate as a foundation for its future by both local and EU elites. When anti-Eurocentrism might be a luxury that those on its margins can only afford at the price of their own exclusion, in this geopolitical moment Eurocentrism is the channel through which they can prove their European-ness in terms acceptable to the EU.

Jansen’s final question looked into a future when Bosnia and Serbia themselves might have joined the Schengen regime, asking how their citizens’ own experiences of exclusion from Europe might shape their relationships towards the contemporary EU bordering project:

If and when BiH and Serbia join the Schengen zone – or some successor of it – what will be the legacy of the furious resentment of the first two post-Yugoslav decades? Will their citizens prove to be exemplary Europeans, approaching migration matters with selfishness and inhospitality? Or will there be a hopeful residue of the anger? As rows of other people, seeking to travel to Europe, are being treated as ‘idiots’ in the queues under the EU flags in front of some BiH or Serbian embassy, will anyone be able to turn the memory of their own humiliation into a source of solidarity?

Some hint of Jansen’s speculation is already becoming visible in Gevgelija, in Belgrade, and indeed in Thessaloniki and Szeged and Budapest.

Groups currently supporting migrants in the areas discussed here include:

Bosnia-Herzegovina

Croatia

Greece

Hungary

Macedonia

Serbia

Pan-regional resources

Many initiatives are small, and this won’t be an exhaustive list. Thanks to Elissa Helms, Kole Kilibarda, Nidzara Ahmetasevic and Isabel Stroehle for advice on links to include here.

[1] While her chapter doesn’t mention Varuh meje, its representations are very much in the same vein as the other Slovenian films.

[2] Moss and Simic’s article isn’t open access, but this book chapter by Moss covers similar problems of ‘queer as metaphor’ in central and eastern European film.

[3] At the time of writing, also available online here.