• The Star Staff

In rare surge of online unity, Iranians call for halt to executions

By Norimitsu Onishi

Growing up in France, Maboula Soumahoro never thought of herself as Black.

At home, her immigrant parents stressed the culture of the Dioula, a Muslim ethnic group from Ivory Coast in West Africa. In her neighborhood, she identified herself as Ivorian to other children of African immigrants.

It was only as a teenager — years after the discovery of Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, “The Cosby Show” and hip-hop made her “dream of being cool like African Americans” — that she began feeling a racial affinity with her friends, she said.

“We were all children of immigrants from Guadeloupe, Martinique, Africa, and we are all a little bit unlike our parents,” recalled Soumahoro, 44, an expert on race who lived in the United States for a decade. “We were French in our new way and we weren’t white French. It was different in our homes, but we found one another regardless, and that’s when you become Black.”

Besides fueling heated debates over racism, the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis has underscored the emergence of a new way of thinking about race in the public discourse in France, a nation where discussion of race and religion has traditionally been muted in favor of elevating a colorblind ideal that all people share the same universal rights.

That ideal has often fallen short in reality, especially as French society has become more diverse and discrimination remains entrenched, leading some to wonder whether the universalist model has run its course.

Today it is being challenged perhaps most vociferously by the many Black French who have gone through a racial awakening in recent decades — helped by the pop culture of the United States, its thinkers, and even its Paris-based diplomats who spotted and encouraged young Black French leaders a decade ago.

To its opponents, Black and white, the challenge to the universalist tradition is perceived as part of the broader “Americanization” of French society. This challenge risks fragmenting France, they say, and poses a threat far more central to the modern republic’s founding principles than familiar complaints about the encroachment of McDonald’s or Hollywood blockbusters.

Even those Black French who have been inspired by the United States also consider America to be a deeply flawed and violently racist society. In France, people of different backgrounds mix far more freely, and while Black people occupy fewer high-profile positions than in the United States, like all French citizens they enjoy universal access to education, health care and other services.

“When I consider both countries, I’m not saying that one country is better than the other,” said Soumahoro, who has taught African American studies at Columbia University and now teaches at the Université de Tours. “For me, they’re two racist societies that manage racism in their own way.”

Most of France’s new thinkers on race are the children of immigrants from the former colonial empire. Growing up in households with a strong sense of their separate ethnic identities, they gradually began to develop a shared sense of racial consciousness in their neighborhoods and schools.

Pap Ndiaye — a historian who led efforts to establish Black studies as an academic discipline in France with the 2008 publication of his book “La Condition Noire,” or “The Black Condition” — said he grew aware of his race only after studying in the United States in the 1990s.

“It’s an experience that all Black French go through when they go to the United States,” said Ndiaye, 54, who teaches at Sciences Po. “It’s the experience of a country where skin color is reflected upon and where it is not hidden behind a colorblind discourse.”

The son of a Senegalese father and a Frenchwoman, Ndiaye is a “métis” in the French context, or of mixed race, though he identifies himself as a Black man.

His views of the world and himself were a radical challenge to the French state. Rooted in the Enlightenment and the Revolution, France’s universalism has long held that each person enjoys fundamental rights like equality and liberty. In keeping with the belief that no group should be given preference, it remains illegal to collect data on race for the census and for almost all other official purposes.

But the unequal treatment of women in France and of nonwhite people throughout its colonies belied that universalist ideal.

“Universality could work easily enough when there weren’t too many immigrants or when they were white Catholics,” said Gérard Araud, France’s former ambassador to the United States.

“But faced with Islam on one side and Black Africans on the other, this model has evidently reached its limits. And so the debate is that on one side is this universalism, which is a beautiful ideal, but on the other is how to say at the same time that, yes, it’s not working.”

Tania de Montaigne, a French author who has written about race, said that Black French will fully integrate only through the rule of law and citizenship. Emphasizing a racial identity, she said, would make Black French perpetual outsiders in a society where the overwhelming majority aspires to a colorblind universalism.

“They say that there’s something, wherever you are in the world, whatever language you speak, whatever your history, this Black nature endures,” said de Montaigne, 44, whose parents immigrated from Martinique and the Democratic Republic of Congo. “But that’s exactly how you make it impossible to become a citizen, because there will always be something in me that will never be included in society.”

For younger Black people in France, their awareness of race partly grew out of the work of the older generation. Binetou Sylla, 31, a co-author of “Le Dérangeur,” a book about race in France, said she vividly remembers buying the first edition of Ndiaye’s “The Black Condition,” which helped established Black studies in France, and “had devoured” it.

Another co-author, Rhoda Tchokokam, 29, grew up in Cameroon before immigrating to France at the age of 17. While her racial awareness emerged in France, it evolved in the United States, where she went to study for two years, watched all of Spike Lee’s movies and discovered the works of Toni Morrison and Black feminists like Angela Davis and Audre Lorde.

“When I started meeting Black people in France, I started broadening my outlook a little,” Tchokokam said. “I still didn’t think of myself as Black because that’s a long process, where today I define myself as Black politically. Back then, I started becoming aware and when I arrived in the United States, it’s in fact there that I was able to put it in words.”

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