Essay French Word For Black

by Aude KonanFollow @AudeKonan

“I am fed up of fraternity without equality. What’s the point of fraternity if it doesn’t work with equality. What’s the point of fraternity if it’s just a joke in poor taste. Fraternity doesn’t work if we’re not equal.”

– Leonora Miano[1]

A new French study has revealed that racism is on the rise in France, with half of the French population admitting that they have a racial prejudice. Contrary to the popular belief that racists are old people who are right-wing, the study reveals that 65% of people under the age of 30 believe that there are too many immigrants in France. Numbers show that 8.8% of people living in France are migrants, and 57% of them are Europeans.

The study came as a big surprise in France.

France is not all white, but apparently French people haven’t realized it. People of Arabic, Romani, Asian descent and so on live here. But the only way to see them is to go out on the streets – because there are none present in the media.

If we are aware of the people of African and French West Indian descent living in France, why do the French media insist on acting like they don’t exist?

There are no accurate ethnic statistics in France, let alone statistics on how many black people are living here. The CRAN (Representative Council of Black Associations in France) revealed that in 2008 3.8% of French residents were of African and French West Indian descent. Researcher Michelle Tribalat believes that there were 6% in 2005. These numbers don’t make sense and don’t have much scientific grounding. French researchers are powerless because ethnic statistics are forbidden in France by the Constitution, since acknowledging differences based on race, religion or sex is discriminatory.

France has a deeply engrained racist culture. It is very common to pretend that racism doesn’t exist and, even if it does, that it’s not that bad. Yet, in the name of the freedom of speech, racial and religious prejudices invade the public space. And when anti-racism activists denounce it, they are accused of paranoia and censoring.

The media perpetuation of White status, power and culture has […] solidified the public’s widespread acceptance of the uncontrovertible normalcy and legitimacy of its own power […] There is already a presupposition that minority-ethnic groups are an anomaly.”

– John Downing and Charles Husband[2]

In other words, the lack of proper representation is an effect of the institutional power of white privilege.

Universalism and invisibility

When it comes to immigrants, French has a long history of forcing immigrants to assimilate. They are bleached, stripped of their identity and culture, in order to become “true French”.

Even so, they are not seen as “pure French”, aka White. The irony is that most White French are of European descent.

Black people are highly visible and yet invisible in the media. Over-exposed during political elections about immigration and weekly debates where pseudo-intellectuals and politicians complain about how there are “too many of them” or that “they commit more crimes”. They are pretty much invisible elsewhere, except when it comes to stereotypes.

Omar Sy is one of our most successful actors. After a career of more than 15 years, he won a César for his role in Untouchables, a film which has been criticized for its racial stereotypes. Despite the fact that he is an established actor working internationally, the French magazine Voici still finds a way to mock him for being a Black man with an afro. Aissa Maiga and Firmine Richard are pretty much the only two Black actresses working in France, but the roles are spare and often stereotyped.

To say that there is a lack of self-awareness among French media would be an understatement. The French magazine Elle, which claims to represent everyday French people while conveniently forgetting anyone who is not “true French”, only shows Black faces from time to time and yet is acclaimed for bringing more diversity to the media. In 2009, Elle published a feature about the Black women who are invisible in the media. In 2012, the same magazine celebrated the rise of Black fashion icons such as Solange and Janelle Monae, congratulating Black women for giving up streetwear, which is unfashionable, and adopting white fashion.

Of course, the magazine did what French media do best: bury the problem and hope that it won’t come up again.

But it will.

The rare Black figures in the white media seem to be mostly arguing for more inclusion, rather than creating Black-only spaces. However, asking for more inclusion from media that doesn’t see us as humans seems hopeless at best.

There are no discussions about race here, because people pretend racism doesn’t exist. There is a lack of words to communicate about this issue.

The French translation for the world “black” is “noir”. But calling someone “noir” is supposedly racist, so French people use the Anglicism “Black” to talk about Black people, even though black means the same thing as “noir”.

The lack of proper representation in TV shows contributes to the erasure of non-whites in the media. And when they do exist, it’s only to serve white characters or as stereotypes. It is deeply damaging for the Black French community, who, apart from the African-American media, has no image they can relate to[3].

Every ten years or so, a French film is released, with the goal of portraying the real lives of Black French people[4]. The characters always go through awful struggles and live in what filmmakers believe is Black people’s natural environment: “les cites”.[5] These films are full of good intentions but completely lack any kind of relatability, because they are made by people who are not Black, and not even working class. In 2000, it was La Squale. In 2001, Fatou la Malienne. In 2014, Bande de Filles (Girlhood).

Almost none of the actors in these films have gone on to have an acting career.

There is a saying that things move in France 15 years later than they do in English-speaking countries. Well, things are changing now. Step by step.

Pap Ndiaye is one of the very rare French historians writing about Black French. His ground-breaking book La Condition Noire urges Black French to organise themselves, something that African Americans and Black Britons have done for a while now.

A very little known fact is that in the 70’s, Black French activists started a movement, called “La Coordination des femmes noires” or MODEFEM. However, the movement didn’t last long. Now there’s a new wave of activists using different platforms to raise awareness on these issues, such as Rokhaya Diallo. The writer, journalist and filmmaker is a member of the European Network Against Racism and has founded the Les Indivisibles, which aims to promote more diversity on TV. However, she is often relentlessly criticized for being too “extreme and separatist” when she advocates for safe spaces for Black French people and more intersectionality in French feminism groups.

Economiss, Kiyemiss and Mrs Roots are Black womanists and activists who openly talk about the racial and sexual discriminations they’ve been through, and how being Black and a feminist in France can be suffocating[6]. They aim to create a movement to give Black French women a voice they’ve never heard. Amandine Gay has realized a documentary on this subject, called Ouvrir la Voix (aka Speak Up), which will be released later this year.

Is the long awaited and needed discussion about race finally happening in France? As a Black French woman who has been vocal about these issues for years, I’m glad that other women dare to speak. No, I’m not crazy or paranoid. And yes, a change is coming. Hopefully, it will last.

We exist. And France can’t continue denying our existence and humanity.

[1]Je ne veux plus qu’on m’aime Qu’on me sourie

[2]Downing, John and Husband, Charles. Representing “Race”: Racisms, Ethnicities and Media (2005). Sage Publications.

[3]Etre invisible comme une femme noire en France

[4] un vrai déficit » d’acteurs noirs dans le cinéma français

[5] The French equivalent of council estates in the UK, or the projects in the States.

[6]Les afroféministes sortent du rang et envahissent

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Aude Konan is a London-based French-Ivorian who writes on gender, race, sociology and culture. Her work has been published in Live Mag UK, Afriscope and Amina, among others. She has been writing short stories, poems and novels for more than a decade, and has signed a book deal with French publisher Dagan to publish her second novel later this year. Find more about her here:

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One day a student approached me after class and asked, “What should I call students who are of Asian descent? Is it OK to just say Asian, or should I say what group they belong to?” He continued, “What if I make a mistake and call a Chinese student Japanese? I don’t want to appear racist.”

On the campus where I teach, as well as in community organizations that I belong to, people often approach me with such questions.

In most cases, the questions are posed by white people wondering what they should call African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Pacific islanders, and others. They are generally sensitive to not wanting to be offensive and genuinely want to know what people prefer to be called. The response I usually give is, “Just ask them.” If done in a respectful way, it is usually fine. Racial terminology is daunting even to those of us who research and write about it.

I am old enough to remember when blacks were called “colored,” especially in the South, roughly from the 19th century to the middle of the 20th. I also remember the use of the word “Negro,” which, for older black folks such as my mother, who grew up in Louisiana, was certainly an improvement over the “N-word.” And I well recall the 1970s when the Black Power movement was in its heyday and the slogan “Black is beautiful” came into popular use, at least among the younger generation of black student activists and scholars. The word “African-American” became common in the 1980s, and today we hear the term “people of color” being used.

Who exactly does the term “people of color” refer to? Is it a throwback to the word “colored,” and is it used solely to describe African-Americans?

“People of color” is a term primarily used in the United States and Canada to describe any person who is not white. It does not solely refer to African-Americans; rather, it encompasses all non-white groups and emphasizes the common experiences of systemic racism, which is an important point I discuss in more detail below.

Where does it come from? The Oxford English Dictionary says that it derived from a term used in the French colonial era in the Caribbean and in LaLouisianne in North America. It traditionally referred to gens de couleur libres, or people of mixed African and European ancestry who were freed from slavery or born into freedom. In the late 20th century, the term “person of color” was adopted as a preferable replacement to “non-white.” Unfortunately, the contrast pits all people who have a “color” against people who do not have a color or who possess “whiteness.” However, the word “minority” has also come to have a negative meaning attached to it, especially in places like California, Texas, New York City, and Florida where people of color are not a numerical minority anymore.

So in the United States in 2016 our language still reflects the continuing racialization hierarchy—with white at the top. The use of “people of color” may be less offensive to some than, say, specifying one’s country of origin (Mexican-American, African-American, and so on). Some people that I have asked say they prefer the use of country-of-origin terms because they provide a connection between one’s ancestral country and where they live now. So a question from me is, if we replaced “white” with “European-American” or “Iranian-American,” for example, could we then do away with the word “white” as well?

Getting back to the issue at hand, the term “people of color” may have an important role precisely because it includes a vast array of different racial or ethnic groups. These groups have the potential to form solidarities with each other for collective political and social action on behalf of many disenfranchised or marginalized people. This terminology is useful in social justice, and in civil rights and human rights contexts. For example, in relationship to the current Black Lives Matter movement here in the United States, many students-of-color groups on university and college campuses support the movement’s efforts.

How widely accepted is the use of the term “people of color” in everyday language? In an NPR blog post titled “The Journey From ‘Colored’ to ‘Minorities’ to ‘People of Color,’” author Kee Malesky discusses the evolution of these terms and observes that “people of color” has gone mainstream. This term may have originated in political circles or social justice arenas, but it has spread to academia and is being accepted in academic writing and in speech.

But it is important to recognize that while “people of color” reaffirms non-whiteness, many people don’t like the term because they feel “it lumps all of us together.” Those who are white or Caucasian (“Caucasian” is itself a problematic word—which I will discuss in an upcoming blog post) are still the standard by which all others are labeled, at least for now.

At this cultural moment in the U.S., we still live in a racialized social and cultural hierarchy, and our language continues to reflect our ongoing attempts to grapple with that reality.

Language / Biology / Identity / Race

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