Liberté, égalité, fraternité and a few ‘Nigger Heads’ please: linguistic bigotry in France

by Guilaine Kinouani

My sister once recounted the following story. She was in a boulangerie in Paris (where we lived) queuing up for her pain of the day when it became the turn of the White woman in front of her to be served. There is nothing unusual to report in this scene except perhaps that it was a fairly up-market yet typical Parisian bakery and that there happened to be a few more Black people than usual around. The (White) French woman proceeded to place her order when, all of a sudden, the whole boulangerie became engulfed in quietness as she was heard faintly mumbling in embarrassment a request for some tête d’africains (‘African Heads’). This order triggered intense perplexity in both the staff and surrounding clientele. So the lady attempted to elaborate. ‘Well, you know,’ she tried to explain, ‘I am after the heads of some… Senegalese, Malian or Congolese, Africans… you know?’

Her ‘you know’ was filled with self-consciousness and had hints of despair as she probably came to the realisation that all eyes had turned to her. By the time she had stopped speaking, the entire boulangerie was outraged and gasping for breath. Well, seemingly… but silently. It was like air had been extracted from the room. A Black man in the queue broke the tense silence and asked, ‘Madame, do you mean you want some tête de negre?’ (For those following in English: that would be ‘Nigger Heads’.) To which the White woman timidly replied with a scarlet face, ‘yes’. There was a collective sigh of both relief and disbelief as everyone understood what she was after, some mere ‘Nigger Heads’. And as though oxygen had instantly been released, things re-took their course as normal and everyone, both Black and White, went about the business of placing orders for croissants, flans and pains aux raisins or whatever succulent French specialities were on their shopping list. The everyday Parisian hoo-ha resumed in the boulangerie.

"une tête de nègre"

Une ‘tête de nègre’

For those who do not know, ‘Nigger Heads’ in French culinary lingo are a type of dark chocolate-dipped meringue, usually round in shape. I suspect, though, that for many people, particularly those outside of France, this fact will do little to provide any sort of acceptable resolution to the anecdote. Yet many everyday expressions in French may make the most virulent detractors of political correctness in the US or the UK pause and reflect. For example, in France, if you leave the company of others in a way that is perceived to be underhand or suspiciously quiet, you might be charged with partir comme un juif or partir à la juive (‘leaving like a Jew’) and, more generally, if you are accused of doing something en juif (‘the Jewish way’), you are seen to be behaving greedily or sneakily. Or again, any work which is of low or poor standard may be referred to as du travail d’arabe (‘Arab work’).

And, those who make many grammatical mistakes when expressing themselves or have a poor command of French, or of any other language for that matter, may be informed that they are sounding like they are speaking petit nègre (little nigger’). Le petit nègre originally referred to a type of French spoken at the start of the 20th century within some French colonies. Though it was seen as an overly simplified local adaptation of the French language, it became taught to some indigenous populations including many of those who joined the French colonial army. By extension, petit nègre was in time used to designate languages deemed underdeveloped. Nowadays, the expression is more generally used to describe those who speak in ways perceived to be unsophisticated, basic or grammatically incorrect.

Most incredibly, perhaps, the above examples are not rare or obsolete expressions. They are commonly used French idiomatic phrases often uttered with no regard for the prejudice and stereotypes they contain and propagate or for their impact on the groups they so obliviously denigrate. It offers me little comfort to know that other racialised groups are equally disparaged within the French language. There is no glory in dishing out racial bigotry in perfectly equal serving. Having been somewhat desensitised to the French language as a Black French woman, it was only when I left France that I became able to appreciate more fully the monstrosity and dysfunction of such linguistic bigotry – a dysfunction that sadly remains invisible to too many people in France, but a dysfunction that is apparent in the anecdote above.

From the White woman who may be seen to be awkwardly making a point on the inappropriateness of the name of the patisserie she sought to buy but who, in all probability, may simply have been self-conscious about using the word nègre under the watchful gaze of several Black people, and/or because my sister, a Black woman, was standing right behind her. To the fact that it was a Black man who rescued the White woman from her self-dug grave of shame, a Black man who in this process normalised the racism contained within the name for the meringue and who put a veil onto the racism that was becoming visible and rising to the surface. A Black man who restored the status quo by symbolically sacrificing his own dignity (and that of the other Black people in the boulangerie) so that the White woman and other White people could retain theirs. The indignation many people displayed in the boulangerie looks equally dysfunctional. It is, after all, an indignation that arose in those who were quick to see the offensiveness of the White woman’s language but which did not get disturbed when tête de nègre was uttered by the Black man. An indignation that may resurface in ferocious defence of the use of ‘Nigger Heads’ on the grounds of tradition, or respect for richness for the French language and for France’s culinary or artistic history.

That history which, of course, will not cover up the fact that actual mass beheading and dismembering of native and African populations was currency and customary in European colonies. (This was also the case in several parts of the world as a result of imperialism’s genocidal processes.) Similarly, the respect afforded to French idiomatic expressions will not be extended vis-à-vis the millions of Africans who died headless or dismembered providing cotton, rubber, and other natural resources to the insatiable ‘civilised’ world, or to those who are still suffering the sequels of Europe’s past so-called ‘humanitarian’ efforts that came with colonisation. That hallowed and respected history is a history that will curiously and conveniently be decontextualized – a history that will become ahistorical.

While numerous national campaigns aimed at limiting the ‘Americanisation’ of the French language and at eliminating the use of English words from French have received widespread political and public support, there have been no sustained political efforts to tackle the acceptable use of racist and anti-Semitic idioms. Indeed, many in France would even question that such idiomatic phrases were bigoted, offensive or hurtful. They would see calling chocolate-dipped meringues ‘chocolate-dipped meringues’ rather than ‘Nigger Heads’ as inconsequential at best and as an inconceivable aberration or an unfathomable attack on the French language at worst. In the same breath and whilst sipping on, no doubt, some of the finest wine known to mankind, they will passionately defend liberté, égalité, fraternité. Therein, I believe, in this grotesque picture lies much of the ‘French exception’: an exception I frankly wish more French people took exception to.

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photo(1)Guilaine is a French woman of African descent, an amateur writer, an independent trainer and a race, culture & equality consultant currently working toward a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology and accreditation as an integrative psychotherapist. Before this, she completed a degree in Cultural Studies and studied Counseling Psychology after obtaining a Masters in Transcultural Mental Health. She blogs at racereflections on the interface of psychology, mental health, social justice, inequalities and difference. Tweet her @KGuilaine

This article was edited by Sunili Govinnage

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3 replies

  1. Thank you for a very well drafted and clear article capturing exactly the issues at stake.
    Quite often I say “Liberte egalite fraternite” in France is not a reflection of what is actually happening in the country.

    A Black French woman who left France to live in London.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A lot of french usually make exception to this, but the problem is : exceptions always confirm the rule, without exception, there is no rule, only a statement…and sadly, it will takes decades until the exception became a statement.
    I love to watch the baker when I say : ” I want you balls… … your wonderfull ” ( tête de nègre is aka merveilleux -> wonderfull ) 😉

    Like

  3. This was made again painfully clear recently, with all the articles about Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s autobiography… The AFP release, copy-pasted by many outlets, titled “Zlatan’s [ghostwriter] admits to inventing all of the quotes in his book”, using the racist term. Without even any scare quotes – which some outlets added, showing like the woman in your story they’re perfectly aware of the problem. =.=

    Like

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