Show us your history, we will tell you about racism

Rym Khadhraoui

“France is not guilty for wanting to share its culture with the people of Africa, Asia and North America” claimed the former French Prime Minister – and winner of Les Républicains’s November 2016 primary election - François Fillon about colonization at a campaign rally in west France this August. “The industrial revolution was certainly ― in terms of economically ― that was when we started to grow,” stated Donald Trump that same month, remembering an economy that was built on slavery without mentioning it.

Facing history and its ghosts is one of the main challenge of western democracies like the U.S. and France. Especially when it comes with generations of racial minorities struggling with oppression and identity crisis, decade after decade. The experiences of police violence, biased representation in the media focusing only on certain issues (youth criminality, radical Islam…), stigmatization, lack of economic opportunities, constitutes a various range of dots connecting African-Americans and French from former colonies. All of these challenges have deep historical roots. Yet, while the issues of minority oppression are similar, societal behavior - the institutions and the people - toward it have taken two divergent paths that sometimes cross, where the action of civil society organizations and human rights advocates take place. While debates about racism are longstanding in the U.S., in France “race” remains a taboo, as the country proudly claims to be colorblind. Between those two ideological systems on two sides of the Atlantic, what is the role of those who fight for a more equal society?

While filling out the application form for pursuing an LL.M. at Duke Law School, I paused in front of the Race/Ethnicity box. This is exactly the kind of question that would put most of colorblind-educated French students in an awkward position. Isn’t “race” a bad word? And what should I put? I’m French, but I’m not white. I was born in North Africa, my parents are Tunisian and Algerian, but this doesn’t fit the “African-American/Black” box. I ended up not ticking anything. Growing up in France with North African origins is all about not ticking boxes: in a society where we are all supposed to fit in the alleged universal colorblind frame, some could be seen as too French to be Arab and too Arab to be fully French. It took me time to understand the implications of my ethnicity as a French citizen -- its links with colonization. In doing so, I have found insight from perhaps less predictable sources: the African-Americans civil rights movement.

Citizen movements fighting racism in both countries started very differently. In the U.S., legalized racial segregation provoked in the sixties the emergence of social movements and strong voices within the black community. In France, children of immigrants decided to march for “equality and against racism” in 1983 first to protest against police violence targeting North African men, and also to raise public awareness about their living conditions. After this protest, the first large community-based mobilization against racism in the country led to the establishment of a powerful association, “SOS Racism,” which was created and supported by the Socialist Party in power at the time. An organization born far from the communities paying the price of racism, but close to the French official institutions. This association became famous with a campaign called “Don’t Touch My Buddy” (“touche pas à mon pote”) aiming to target interpersonal racism, especially in schools, without tackling systemic racial discriminations.

Intersection 1: Avenue du Président Wilson & Rue du Landy, La Plaine Saint Denis, 8 July 2013. The Parisian neighborhood of Saint-Denis has a relatively large population of North African descent. Photo credit John Perivolaris via Flickr.

When in the U.S., the civil rights movement was mobilizing for an end to legalized segregation and the recognition of political and civil rights, in France racism was understood as a morally wrong individual behavior, never as a historic oppression on people’s rights. The goal of associations like SOS Racism was to teach people to not say racist insults, without looking at the systemic roots of racism stemming from colonization. In 2016, SOS Racism is not the leading organization fighting racism anymore, new associations and actors from the community targeted by systemic racism have emerged.

Both movements in the U.S. and in France evolved by applying an intersectional analysis of racial issues, leading to include gender equality and socio-economic rights in their agendas. As Opal Tometi, co-founder of Black Lives Matter (BLM) put it, "is not a civil rights movement, it’s a human rights one.” BLM is also about health, employment, zoning and embracing diversity. Similarly, the recent and rising Association against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) has formed to protect French Muslims against violations of all their rights, be it in the work place or on the street. It has described itself as “an association that defends human rights.” In both contexts, civil rights/social movements have turned to human rights to promote their social justice agenda.

Earlier in November 2016, the French Embassy in the US organized a talk aiming to “discuss the differences in construction of identity in France and the United States.” Scholars from both countries discussed the different approaches to race and racism of the two countries, starting from the question: when will France have its Barack Obama? The French historian Benjamin Stora argued that because the two historical links of those countries with their racial minorities ended more than a century apart (the last decolonized country from France was Djibouti in 1977), the questions around post-colonial immigrant racism emerged later in France than in the US with respect to African-Americans. Yet, while slavery per se came to an end much earlier than French decolonization, the implications of this oppressive system have persisted in U.S. society even after the last facially-racial discriminatory measures were abolished. For all their differences, both countries have to deal with these unresolved legacies. As a French-North African human rights lawyer studying in the U.S. for the year, I plan to analyze the fights against racism in both France and the U.S., where they overlap and where they diverge, to understand and enhance the links between both communities seeking to further justice, dignity and equality.