Race, The Forbidden Word in French
Updated: Dec 10, 2019
Back in the days when all that mattered to me was playing outside or figuring out new ways to kill my Sims, I remember my mum telling me about a book that I should read. I never did, or not that I can remember. One day though, while walking around Brussels, I found the book just for a euro. I didn’t hesitate and took it home with me. The book is called Le racisme expliqué à ma fille (Racism explained to my daughter) by Tahar Ben Jelloun.
I would suggest the book to anyone interested in a short explanation of what racism entails. It is less than 60 pages long but is really worth a read. Written as an educational book for children, it gives an overview of a few key concepts and provides a little bit of insight as to why people can have racist tendencies. What interested me the most in the book though, and the reason I started reading it in the first place, was to see what definition was used for the word race.
Tahar Ben Jelloun, a French author, argues in his book that there is only one race and that’s it. Human races, plural, do not exist. The term race should not be used to describe the diversity among humans, because it does not have any scientific basis. It has been used to exaggerate the effects of visible differences, meaning physical differences. Jelloun even goes as far as to state that we should stop using the word race altogether, and replace it with the words genre humain, or human race in English.
Race is definitely an interesting and disputed term when applied to humans. In the French dictionary Larousse, race is defined as a classification of the human species according to morphological or cultural criteria, despite no scientific basis and whose usage is at the core of racist practices. They go further and state that development in genetics research has contributed to rejecting any attempt to racially classify humans. In simpler terms, they argue that the human species does not have different races, and thus cannot be classified as such.
I think it is fair to say that most French-speaking people have heard some variance of this definition. I know I have. From very early on, I was told that there were no races, only one human race and that I shouldn’t use the term to refer to an ethnic group. In France, the censure of the word went so far that it was removed from the French Constitution in 2013. What was not my surprise then, when I emigrated to the United Kingdom, to hear English-speaking people around me use the word race to describe people of different descents or with different cultural practices.
I had heard people use the term in Belgium as well, obviously, but it was always frown upon, always referred to as offensive and politically incorrect. In the United Kingdom though, the word was widely used and seemed to be common practice. Something was different there, I was sure of it. A few years later, I thus decided to check out the British definition. The Oxford Dictionary defines race as “each of the major divisions of humankind, having distinct physical characteristics”... Wait, what?
This striking difference between the two definitions for a word that is literally the same in both languages raised many questions in my mind. Was it because race was understood differently in the French-speaking world and in the English-speaking world? Did race actually mean the same thing in both languages? Was it an example of those false friends, such as actually versus actuellement? Or was the usage of the word influenced by external factors? If so, what were they? Was it cultural? Political? Motivated by historical reasons? It made me curious.
Finding an answer to these questions was harder than I imagined. I thought people before me must have asked themselves the same question. Apparently I was wrong, or I was typing the wrong keywords on Google. I first ended up on a forum conversation about which terms to use to describe an ethnic group in French. Many people rightly pointed out that in French, referring to someone by their skin colour or their ethnicity is considered more offensive or less politically correct than in English. I think a lot of my fellow French speakers would agree. They did not go much into why that was the case though, so I pushed my research a bit further.
Going through other blogs and websites made me discover that the word race as understood today had been taken from the French language (and from the Italian word razza) by the English. Right. That answered one question at least, in the sense that race is the same word in both languages. So what had happened for the usage of the term race to describe and classify populations based on physical traits to be common and accepted in one language but not in the other? An article in the Guardian indirectly addresses the question and mentions “a longer continental European discomfort with evoking race”, which I would agree with. The concluding remark of this article rang particularly true to me though, that “not talking about race won't make them go away”. I was not convinced with the rest of the article though, as I felt I was reading a very one-sided story.
I asked myself, why are we so scared of using the word race in French?
I did not find a direct answer per say, but tapping into my research skills helped me develop a basic understanding of what happened. More time and energy should definitely be dedicated to this topic, but in the meantime, here’s what I found out.
In the episode “‘Black’ is a French word too” of the podcast The World in Words, reporter Emma Jacobs tries to understand why the English word 'black' became the new 'noir' in France. Although slightly different from my own topic of interest, the discussion gave an interesting overview on the usage of the term race in France. She explained that during colonial times, France used the rhetoric of race to justify and organize French colonies. It was argued that populations from Africa and Southeast Asia were inferior to the European race, and as such needed to be educated and guided in their development efforts. Further down the line, World War II exploded in Europe. The occupation of France by the Nazi power meant that the French state had to collect ethnic information about her population in order to identify and deport inferior races, particularly the Jews.
After the end of the war, and faced with a wave of independence movements among most of its colonies, the French government had to create a new social rhetoric to appease its very fragmented population. It was thus believed that France, and Western Europe in general, had entered a new period of colour blindness. Skin colour, it was argued by the State, did not matter, did not even exist. This movement further confirmed the rationale that the less is said about race, the better. Since then, no statistical data has been collected on the ethnicity of the French population. This decision was a big mistake for sure.
This rhetoric, however noble in intention, fails to address serious societal issues in the French society - which is still applicable today. Racial tensions have not disappeared with the removal of the term race. On the contrary, it has made research on the subject harder than ever. I actually do not think the term race should be removed from conversation. Pretending that the problem does not exist is not going to fix it. What we need is a new discourse, a new understanding of what race means. So yes, we cannot define race by visible physical traits alone. And yes, no race is superior to another as it was (is) understood, no race is more intelligent or better than another. But that does not mean that we shouldn’t try to understand differences between population groups.
Race should not describe by biological traits alone, but encompass social and cultural characteristics too. A race could be applied to linguistics groups, to religious groups, to national or even political groups. It could be used in many research, so why ignore it? Because of racism? Those studies could actually fight it.
In the end, I do not agree with the British definition of race. But I think removing the term altogether from our vocabulary is doing even more harm to the fight against racism and discrimination.