The poster caught my eye, so I crossed the street to take a closer look. An outsized young girl sits on top of a yellow bus that looked like a school bus, but the well-dressed grown-ups waiting to board the bus puzzled me. It was an advertising for an upcoming play called Noire. I made note of the theater and the dates.
Later that day at the Alliance Française in Paris, a class exercise had each student taking turns describing persons in pictures projected on a screen, in French, of course. Elle a des cheveux blonde, il port des lunettes, she has blonde hair, he wears glasses, and so on. The pictures were of people with different characteristics that reflect the origins of the French people -- Northern European, African, Asian, and mixed ancestry as well.
A fellow student raised his hand. Based on appearance and his name -- Israel (pron. Is-ra-el) -- my initial assumption was that he was Latin American, but this middle-aged businessman from Pakistan was learning French because he had recently gotten a job transfer to Paris.
“How do you describe a person’s skin color?” Israel asked.
The teacher’s face immediately telegraphed disapproval. Her response, in French, “here, in France, it is considered racist (pronounced rah-sist), to refer to someone’s skin color or to talk about someone’s race.”
Before going to France I had read articles and listened to podcasts about this very subject. I raised my hand.
“Madmoiselle, I understand that the word noir is not used with reference to people of African origin. Can you speak about that.”
“Oui, the preferred word is les blacks.”
Click here to listen to the podcast, Rough Translation, We Don’t Say That. addressing this very topic.
Our teacher adds that in France it is illegal to ask people about their race or religion. (Let me clarify that it is illegal for the French Government to ask).
Noire, Tania de Montaigne's One-Woman Show
Back home that afternoon, I visited the website for Theatre du Rond-Point and was thrilled to learn that Noire was a one-woman show about Claudette Colvin, who was little-known in the civil rights movement in the United States. The play is based on the novel Black, written by Tania de Montaigne, who also wrote and performed Noire. She is a distinguished French journalist, writer, and actor whom I had the pleasure of meeting briefly after the performance.
Claudette Colvin, was 15-years old when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. This was several months before Rosa Park did the same. Claudette, a pregnant teenager, was in the back of the bus in one of the seats usually occupied by blacks, when a white woman boarded a crowded bus. When Claudette refused to give up her seat for this woman, she was arrested and became one of several plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit, Browder v. Gayle, that challenged bus segregation. The United States District Court and an Appellate Court’s ruling held that segregated busing violated the United States Constitution. The US Supreme Court rejected the appeal of these decisions and a court order was issued integrating the buses in Montgomery. Days later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called for an end of the Montgomery bus boycott, more than a year after it had started.
Noire was a beautifully rendered and moving production with familiar African-American music and projected still photos and video images. My research on Claudette Colvin before seeing the play proved most helpful and I was pleased to learn that my French was good enough to follow Tania de Montaigne's powerful storytelling on stage. Seeing Noire was one of the highlights of my five weeks in Paris.
Even if you don’t speak French, you will understand enough watching the promo video. Click here.
Like the United States, France struggles with the issue of racism and racial discrimination, and I could not begin to tackle this topic so I'm providing references to several articles and a some relevant quotes.
“Unlike many other West European countries, and very much unlike English-speaking immigrant societies such as the United States, Canada or Australia, France has intentionally avoided implementing “race-conscious” policies. There are no public policies in France that target benefits or confer recognition on groups defined as races. For many Frenchmen, the very term race sends a shiver running down their spines, since it tends to recall the atrocities of Nazi Germany and the complicity of France’s Vichy regime in deporting Jews to concentration camps. Race is such a taboo term that a 1978 law specifically banned the collection and computerized storage of race-based data without the express consent of the interviewees or a waiver by a state committee. France therefore collects no census or other data on the race (or ethnicity) of its citizens.
Political leaders are nonetheless aware that race and ethnicity matter. To counter problems of ethnic disadvantage, they have constructed policies aimed at geographical areas or at social classes that disproportionately contain large number of minorities.”
You can read the entire Brookings article Race Policy in France (a bit dated since it was published in 2001) here.
I also highly recommend Can The French Talk About Race? an article in The New Yorker, click here.
La Condition Noire
In a television interview, in English, French historian and Associate Professor at the Ecole des hautes etudes en sciences sociales in Paris, Pap Ndiaye, discusses the issue of diversity and representation in France. He is the author of ‘La condition noire: essai sur une minorité française’(The Black Condition. An essay of a French minority. Ndiaye, was born in France of a ‘French’ mother and a father who came to France from Senegal.
“The black condition in France is a way to feel French, while being considered as not French. If you are black,” says Ndiaye, “most people in Paris ask you all the time, where do you come from. As a way to tell you, you must be from somewhere else. You must be not French.” Blog post and video of his interview (in English) available here.
La Condition Americaine
Like our French brothers and sisters, this is an experience that many of us in this country live every day. When asked where I’m from I say California. I usually add that I’ve lived in California for three plus decades and I’m originally from Texas.
I’m asked again, where are am I REALLY from, where were my parents born? The answer is still the same, Texas. And, of course, I’ve also been told to go back to where I came from on numerous occasions. I love Texas, but have no plans to move back, California is my home.
One afternoon in Paris, we take an uber (no Lyft in France) and get to chatting with the driver, who asks where we are from. His face lights up when we say San Francisco Bay Area.
“I lived in Oakland several years.”
He also shares that he is originally from Senegal and much of his family is there, but he has lived in France 30+ years. I ask him about his experiences as a black man in both the United States and France.
He pauses for a moment and says, “I feel like the French are a bit more two-faced, more hypocritical in their views about race. In the United States . . . there, you know how people feel about you.”
And it is becoming more and more the case for so many Americans in our own country.