When is a European not a European?


Let us consider a simple ‘trivial pursuits’ type of question. Which is the biggest European city – in terms of population?  Yes, it depends, and depending on various factors the answer is likely to be different. 

If one is focusing on the European Union, the answer is London. If one includes Russia, then it is probably Moscow. However, if one includes Turkey, then the answer is Istanbul. Incidentally, about 1,000 years ago, the answer to our question would have been the same but, at that time, the city was called Constantinople.

There is no universal agreement about what is European – even the etymology of the word ‘Europe’ is controversial. Israel, for example, is allowed to take part in The Eurovision Song Contest and recently crowned Yityish Aynaw, a Black African immigrant from Ethopia, Miss Israel.  The current, holder of the European record for 100 meters is a Portuguese born in Africa; the previous one being a Brit born in Jamaica.  So, what’s the big deal?  As well as learning to deal with multiple identities of individuals, we are constantly being challenged by having to re-define everyday terms such as European, African, Asian etc..

The cardinals may have gone a long way to find a bishop for Rome but they found someone very much in their own image.

The media have made much fuss about the new Pope being “…the first non-European to be elected for almost 1,300 years…” (The Guardian, 14.03.2013). However, as the son of Italian immigrants, Jorge Mario Bergoglio IS (in some ways) very much a European – ethnically/culturally/linguistically (and any other alley you wish to explore).  Those who had put money on the next Pope being ‘Italian’ could be forgiven for thinking that they had won.  The cardinals may have gone a long way to find a bishop for Rome but they found someone very much in their own image.  I wonder how ‘second-generation Asians’ (sic.) feel about described as ‘non-Asians’?

As with the word ‘Asian’, the epithet ‘European’ is not easy to pin down except in certain well-defined contexts. The first words on my British passport, for example, are EUROPEAN UNION and, thus, bestow on me a legal European identity even though my physiognomy clearly points to my North Indian origins. Er, actually, no! I am often mistaken for a Mexican, South American, Italian, Spanish, and even in the land of my birth I am regarded as ‘foreigner’. But, that’s another story.

By Rakesh  Bhanot




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