'Issues of diversity and race in Europe today are not always issues of migration'

In this episode, we speak with dr. Andrew DJ Shield (Assistant Professor of Migration History at Leiden University) about the relevance of history, race, and sexuality in studying migration, his past and current research, and the LDE Centre GMD.

By Vanessa Ntinu

What prompted your initial interest in studying migration?

Andrew DJ ShieldAh, that's a good question! When I was an undergraduate in the United States, I studied Middle East Studies and Arabic. Arabic was always positioned as something that was spoken in the Middle East, and maybe some places in the US. It was never a major conversation that Arabic is also a very prominent language in European cities. Yet while I was studying abroad in Amsterdam, I started to notice Arabic in storefronts, I could hear it on the streets, I could see events for Amsterdam’s Ramadhan festival. So ever since then, I have been interested in diversity and multiculturalism in Europe. As an American, I also think my outsider perspective has also brought a unique angle into studying this.

Why do you think a historical approach – particularly a contemporary historical approach – is needed when studying migration?

When I was in high school, I was having a chat with a friend about what we did and didn’t learn in History. She complained that our classes always stopped at WW2, and exclaimed, "Why don't we just have a history course called ‘The Last 100 Years’." Oftentimes, people assume that younger generations know about the last 50 years and that's not really true. I never discussed the 80s in my high-school history classes, and I see this with my students too. For young students today, there is a blank spot.

Whether you study sociology or political science, you see that our present realities are built on the last 50 to 100 years. When reading through certain primary sources from the 60s and 70s – like grassroot periodicals or early foreign worker journals or personal ads from gay/lesbian journals – you get to read conversations that people were having then that are still being had today. This shows that we can build on contemporary debates with the discussions of the past that already took place. In Europe, this can be very important when looking at diversity because a lot of times it’s seen as a much more recent phenomenon. For example, the 2015 influx of Syrian refugees was talked about as if that was the first time Muslims migrated to Europe, or the first time non-Dutch speakers arrived in the Netherlands. If you just look back at the last 50 years, all of these things have so much precedence that could really shape how we look at these topics today.

Whether you study sociology or political science, you see that our present realities are built on the last 50 to 100 years.

You focus closely on sexuality and other identity markers that are often crucial to one's migration path: you stated in another interview that: ‘’In the field of migration studies, notions of sexuality influence debates about family reunification policies, or the legitimate grounds for asylum, for example', could you elaborate on that?

Sexuality relates to a lot of aspects of the migration process. I specifically look at lesbian, gay, bi, trans, and queer people and how their identity may affect their migration. Sexuality fits into a lot of people's migration stories; before, during, and after. Within this long migration process, your LGBTQ identity can largely determine your network, the types of neighborhoods you go to, the types of establishments you patronize, the people you meet, your roommates, the jobs you can find. That being said, we should not over-emphasize that LGBTQ migrants in Europe are always moving from places of oppression to places of liberation. When we think about queer migration today, we often think about asylum-seeking or couple reunification. However, one's sexual or gender identity is not the only reason why a queer person migrates.

Being an American, what are some key differences you see in the way Europe discusses sexuality/race in relation to migration and the way America does?

A big question! I guess these are two questions: sexuality and race. With regard to sexuality, Europe can be quite progressive in talking about difficult issues, from teenage sex education to adequate health care for queer people. That’s why many in the U.S. think Europeans are more open and free.

However, the U.S. has a much easier time openly discussing race. For some reason, that is difficult in a European setting. One rationale that I hear is that this stems from a post-Hitler Europe where discussing race was seen as taboo and would only lead to white supremacy and genocide. I also think a linguistic element affects how race is discussed in Europe. For example, in the Netherlands, the word 'ras' (translation: race) is often used for animals, to distinguish between different dogs and horse breeds. I think this then makes people uncomfortable discussing race in the context of humans. Despite this, European people of color have been discussing race for decades, and that is why historical research is important. For example, to see how Dutch people of color addressed racism in ways that were specific to the Netherlands in the 1980s: that was part of the conversation during the Dutch demonstrations for Black Lives Matter in June 2020. Therefore, I am optimistic that serious attention to race issues is improving.

I think it is worth mentioning that it is politically important to talk about race in Europe while using the term 'race'. Very often when people talk about immigration, they are talking about race. Terminologies such as 'third-generation immigrant' are employed, which can be a bit nonsensical. Calling someone a 'third-generation immigrant': why does the word ‘immigrant’ stick to that person? By separating race from migration, we underscore that people of color belong in Europe, to Europeanness.

By separating race from migration, we underscore that people of color belong in Europe, to Europeanness.

I was reading your research on Grindr and migrant experiences there. Could you tell us more about that? Similarly, can you elaborate on your new research?

Of course. My Grindr research was based on the period from 2015 to 2018 and looked at how immigrants, who were coming into the greater Copenhagen area, used this app and similar technologies. For many, it was a tool to build networks. As a historian, I saw this very much as an extension of a longer way in which queer migrants use alternative media to build new networks that might be useful before migration or upon arrival. The study was definitely a move from the 60s, 70s, but as a historian I definitely see the long connection.

In terms of current research, I am working with Omar Achfay from the Institute for History. Together we are tackling ‘Queer Migration History’ from different angles. Both of our projects use a mixture of oral histories, archival sources, discourse analysis from public debates, etc. Therefore, I'd like to turn this into a call for papers for new research, worldwide, that deviates from both mine and Omar's Euro/Dutch focus. We hope to host a seminar in Leiden for scholars interested in Queer migration history with many lenses.

You are also the chair of Leiden’s LGBT+ Network. May you tell us a little bit about how you got involved and what your day-to-day in the network looks like?

Sure. The LGBT+ network is one of several LGBT-related groups on campus. I see myself as a channel of communication between the different groups, including Leiden Pride, LUMC Pride, LUC LGBTQ, COC Leiden, and new student groups that pop up organically. At times, I do feel like I provide this umbrella for them. Now that lockdowns are easing up, the social element of these networks can return. I think a big purpose of these networks is to bring people together in a space of community.

What are potential blind spots for us as LDE Centre GMD and migration scholars, in general, we should be mindful about? How can we be of support to you in LIMS?

Well, LIMS (Leiden Interdisciplinary Migration Seminars) is an interdisciplinary research group that hosts regular seminars. In the last decade, LIMS has brought together migration researchers from various disciplines and faculties around the university to discuss their research. Recently, however, we have been discussing the use of the word 'migration' in LIMS and how there are researchers who are working on issues of race, of diversity in the Netherlands, and not necessarily about migration. Having them in this group erroneously determines that race equals migration and vice versa. Anouk de Koning and I, among others, are arranging critical race seminars alongside LIMS. Adding in LDE GMD, we hope for a synergy, by promoting all of our research and discussions.

In terms of the blind spots, well, I don't necessarily want to call it a blind spot but think it’s important that the migration and the diversity aspects can sometimes be seen as separate in the Centre. Since I use a historical context, migration and diversity are indeed often connected. For example, if we are talking about the 70s and racism, it’s often related to the fact that there were about 300,000 Afro-Surinamese people who migrated to the Netherlands. So, in that case, of course, migration is related to race and diversity. But issues of diversity and race in Europe today are not always about issues of migration and vice versa.