Why Black people in France are still invisible

by Aude Konan

“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.

Noirs de FranceBlack 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

All work published on Media Diversified is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Media Diversified. For further information, please see our reposting guidelines.


 

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: www.audekonan.com

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14 replies

  1. 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.

    Also know as the ostrich approach. If we don’t know a problem exists, because we have made it illegal to find it out, it disappears.

    Like

  2. This article summerizes very well every aspect of the cultural gap between France and the US in matters of racism. In that sense, it is very interesting from a french point of vue, and really bad from an american point of vue. Indeed, it is one-sided in the arguments but also the choice and analisis of the exemples.
    The definition of racism in France isn’t he same as in the US. The words “race” and “noir” are banned not because the French want to destroy an identity, but to counter the form of racism that want to deny some people the French nationality because of their skin colour. French people firmly believe that race has no relevance at all in defining who you are, thus even back French people don’t mention it ever. “White and proud” is as ridiculous as “Black and proud” for a French person.
    I don’t deny that racism exist in France : some people are intolerant of aspects of other cultures even if they don’t affect them in any way. But this is not a majority. Yes, a lot of French people admit having race bias, but please, who doesn’t ? I trust a lot more the people who are capable of admiting it. It doesn’t mean that they think it is a good thing. And don’t confuse the Blacks and the immigrants please. A lot of French people might think that there are too many immigrants, but this has nothing to do with race. Actually, you are the one that is being racist here.
    The crapy magazines and movies you mentionned are not representative of the french medias and art (thanks god). I agree that the representation of black people is not as common as it should be, but still it is there and it is a lot less stereotypical than in the US.
    Yes, the medias show some frenchy black people, but note that a lot of black people are like this in France. Don’t expect every black person in the world to correspond to your American black culture. Accept the idea that African Americans are a cultural group (if not several) just as the French (read French cultural group, not French nationals), and that black people can relate to one and not the other. Cultural groups have nothing to do with races. You can be white and like streatwear, it is not “appropriating another culture” : if you relate to it, it is yours. This is how the French think. Neither are French-fashioned black women a bad representation of black people. This sort of rejection, whoever it is directed to, is very racist to the French.
    Yet, once again, I admit that some people have trouble making the difference between integrating people and forcing them to live by their standards. Some standards are mendatory to be able to live by the basic values of France, but others are not, and some people can’t see the line. Though integration is way more achieved in France than in the US. It shocked me how racial groups were a thing in the US, and how racist people could be when praising their own group. How can you claim to be a melting pot when everyone sticks with its own ? I saw racist bullying at school for the first time in the US, as well as police shooting children down because of their skin colour. But you guys are living the dream, uh ?

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    • You cannot compare france with the us. It has more to do with being european native and non european., non christian. While african americans live in the usa since 1600, arabs, africans, asians a recent newcomers post ww2.
      The same situation is in germany where you do not see any non german in the corporate sphere, and there was only one turkish party leader of the green party and a viatnemese secretary of state adopted by middle class germans.

      Like

  3. value and recognize your own worth and no one else’s apathy toward you matters. grow and pair and then own a pair. your “oppresors” CAN’T bestowe value upon you.

    Like

  4. A great article ! As a Frenchman but also as an African. I can confirm that there is a deep problem relating to the word “race”. In my country, in my France may be the worst thing you can do because it reminds people the atrocities they committed during the slavery era.

    Nevertheless, it’s important Frenchman recognize that there is white people, there is black people and even more. You can’t force people to forget/ignore who they really are: The cultural assimilation is a times a brutal process. And when it forced, it’s ineffective and strengthen the
    That’s why, I think, we, the Frenchman shall recognize the diversity before talking about Equalty (with a big E). This first step is paramount to avoid more socials issues.

    Like

  5. Great article! It really made me realize my ignorance on the topic of race relations outside of the US. I realize of course that racism is not an issue exclusive to America (as it definitely did not originate here), but when it’s literally against the law to acknowledge racial differences — as well intended as that may have been — we know there are some very deep rooted issues.

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    • There are issues yes. I live in France and my darling if from Benin (I’m Italian). I remember one occasion when I was with and brothers in the local “home depot” shop for her apartment. After all the stuff was paid they asked me to push the cart out of the shop and load all in the car. I asked why… The answer was “because a white guy is less likely to be checked when exiting the shop”.
      This brought many many years ago when my Italians parents immigrated in Switzerland and were treated close to thieves. It’s so sad humankind is so close minded in 2015.

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    • France changed a lot since the 19th century, and mostly because of the racial attutudes promoted by anglos and americans.
      In 1800 there even.could have been a mixed race emperor from haiti, who could have become emperor of france. Thomas Dumas was more powerful than napoleon when they reached egypt.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Stop with the lies, mixed race people and black people are not the same, there was never a ‘one drop rule’ in French culture so you aren’t even addressing racism against black people. On top of that didn’t the French at the time they lost Haiti, take the most slaves out of any European nation? The French are the most Liberal yet openly racist out of all Western European nations. Le Pen came close to winning the presidential election in 2002, he ran the French National Front a racist party in the UK that helped to form the neo-Nazi Skinhead culture. The hypocritical ‘liberal’ French then had a voted against the National Front in the second ballot, so they don’t look too racist.

        And what was this about if the Anglos changed the French’s mind: ‘My decision to destroy the authority of the blacks in Saint Dominque (Haiti) is not so much based on considerations of commerce and money, as on the need to block for ever the march of the blacks in the world’ a quote from Napoleon Bonaparte. Blacks not mulattoes.

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  6. Reblogged this on Mrs. Roots and commented:
    I already mention how much I love the word of Media Diversified. Few months ago, I interviewed one of their journalist (check out on the blog !) and wrote a critic on their great and refreshing essay “Complicit No More”. I couldn’t be more happy to see my name on their website.

    Maybe I will find the courage to write for them, one day… 🙂 Meanwhile, you should definitely read them !

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