The Design of French Structural Racism


This interview is an excerpt of the conversation with Nacira Guénif-Souilamas recorded on April 11, 2016, in University of Paris VIII (Saint-Denis) for The Funambulist’s podcast, Archipelago. Nacira is an anthropologist and sociologist, author and editor of four books examining structural racism in France. Such a specific system of legal targeting, administrative discrimination, urbanistic discrimination, stigmatizing imaginaries, etc. is the topic of this conversation.

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: Let’s speak about structural racism in France. If we begin by introducing the context in which we’re speaking about it, can I ask you to tell us about how much this racism has the particularity of being territorialized in the city with the very particular territories that the banlieues, the suburbs of Paris and of other cities in France, embody?

NACIRA GUÉNIF-SOUILAMAS: Like many scholars or activists, I do speak about structural racism and I’m always facing this astonishment from my interlocutors. They don’t understand why I put racism at the level of the state, rather than at the level of individuals who are not morally entitled to what they do. As if racism was only a moral issue. So, it’s very hard to have some sense of how invasive and pervasive structural racism has become. The denial is probably the best illustration of its reality. The more structural racism is being denied in France, the more it says something about the extent to which it has completely invaded and structured all kinds of territorialized relations. This is also why, sometimes, people have the feeling that racism is not something that is so widespread, because they don’t know anything about the suburbs. They never go to suburban housing projects, “les banlieues” as we call them, or “les cités.” So, of course they never encounter it, unless if it’s on the TV, which means that it is something that is completely out of their world and out of their sight. I think that one way to understand how effective structural racism has become in France is to understand that it has led to some sort of mapping of not only differences, but of asymmetries and otherness… so much so that space has become a tool of othering. You know who you’re talking to just by noticing where people come from: when people come from certain lines of suburban trains, you would guess that they come from spaces that are completely segregated and racialized.

LL: If we go back in time, maybe we can also see that this structural racism is directly inherited from colonialism. What we’re seeing today is in the direct flowing of two centuries of colonial policies by France, and the persons that are stigmatized by those policies, the people who live in those specific neighborhoods, are largely coming from the former colonial empire, and we may add that many from the Caribbean have ancestors who were victims of slavery.

NGS: Some of the different quarters of suburban, working-class neighborhoods could be seen as reservations. They have boundaries. You know when you’re trespassing the boundary. You’re recalled to that and you can sense that from the way people look at you, or from how all kinds of rules of social interactions suddenly change. You can have some of that at the University of Paris VIII because it’s in Saint-Denis, so it’s in the middle of a suburban, working-class area. So, there is something of the pattern or the design of the reservation that you could notice. But you have to come with the proper tools because, otherwise, you could just use the class issue, the low-income lens. That is not enough: what is really at stake now in these suburbs is the fact that people did not choose to live there. They were compelled to go there. They were assigned houses or apartments that were in these neighborhoods. And, these neighborhoods, from one decade to another, became completely racialized. Also, very interestingly, there is differentiation among the racialized. You have buildings where you get only Black people, buildings where you could only get Arab people… buildings where you could get people that come from the DOM TOM [overseas territories], these former colonies that were included in French sovereignty, where French slavery took place and was finally abolished in mid-nineteenth century. But, these territories became only sort of “equal.” These are places where you could still encounter colonization and colonial relations. The people who come from these islands are also people who are really facing something that has to do with the continuation of the perception of them as inferior and not equal citizens. People who come from the Caribbean, for example, or La Réunion have been French citizens for more than half a century. But, they still are not considered as equal citizens. So, on the one hand, the coloniality of the French suburbs has something to do with internal colonization; on the other hand, it has to do with what could be called the “process of othering” in order to build, to construct, to invent the internal enemy. This is mainly how these suburbs are viewed and sometimes ruled, even by local-level elected people.

LL: Islamophobia in particular constitutes not only a form of racism that thinks of itself as legitimate, but that you even call “virtuous racism.” We’re seeing politicians, journalists, or intellectuals — even very far on the left side of the political spectrum — who would say Islamophobia is not a form of racism because it’s a critique of religion. Could you explain this notion of “virtuous racism” to us?

NGS: I think that it takes place precisely in this kind of frame and time when France feels threatened by all kinds of things. Frenchness is at stake, and it has to be saved by any means. For that purpose, all kinds of pundits, or people who consider themselves entitled to express the voice of the majority — who is this majority that they’re talking about? — pointing at the culprit… considering that the culprit should be named, described, and questioned, even as a citizen because, often, this kind of racism is against French citizens. It’s something that has become completely usual. I mean, there are no eyebrows being raised. Nobody would be surprised by that. Everybody would consider that it has its own legitimacy, as you said. It’s all about saving France, French identity, and the so-called values of French society from its internal enemy: saving France from what has been more and more called an “invasion” not only from the Muslims, but also from the Blacks and the Arabs that live in France and come from former colonies. I think that what is really at the bottom of all of this is that, for a lot of French, it is absolutely unbearable to consider that the formerly colonized could become an equal. So, any means to prevent that from happening is considered to be legitimate and virtuous. It’s really a matter of expressing some sort of very deep and old tie to the nation. Racism can be an expression of patriotism and, therefore, can be considered virtuous. Any means — ranging from criminalizing veiled women all the way to questioning people who want to become activists with relation to their racialization, who become called “communitarist,” which means that they develop an anti-white racism — any means is good and considered legitimate. Racism has become a major tool that cannot be questioned. Since it has become structural, here are two reasons why racism shouldn’t be addressed and tackled beyond words and all kinds of communication around it: first, racism is a proper and virtuous means to save France, second, structural racism is not possible because France is an egalitarian republic.

LL: [chuckles] It doesn’t have race.

NGS: [jokes] No, it doesn’t have race.

LL: They solved racism…

NGS: ahead of time. Like, even before it could happen. This public conversation would always go back to the French Revolution, explaining that being French is a political identity. It has nothing to do with any kind of ties, any kind of belonging. Of course, it always erases or obscures the fact that this was meant only for men and, then, for citizens that were on the mainland. The colonial empire was never a part of this definition of the political identity. What happens when, suddenly, people who were subjects of the empire, who were natives, who were “indigènes” — what happens when those people become French because they were born in France, because they are naturalized? They have ended up claiming equal rights since 1983, when there was this first march by children of immigrants claiming equality and fighting racism. This claim has been made time and time again, and it still raises some sort of misunderstanding. French society feels as if these immigrants want to completely destabilize the institutions of the French republic.

LL: This issue is about design and racism. I was particularly eager to interpret design in all its possible meanings, including the design of structures, but also the design of narratives that sustain the structures. You briefly mentioned women who wear hijab earlier. This is something we already examined in the third issue about clothing politics. Right now, we’re observing yet another surge against women wearing hijab through, in the end, a relatively clumsy narrative. We can see when people lose their calm, as current minister of women’s rights, family, and children who declared them as “political opponents.” She said this while using absolutely scandalous racist words. But, beyond those, some of us might have missed the scandalous racist ideas: the fact is that they are, for her, political opponents and they must be “saved against their own will.” Although this idea can find echoes in other Western countries, it seems that it is nothing quite like what we’re seeing in France.

NGS: No, this is really one of the French exceptions. There are many of them, but this is one that completely shapes the state of mind and the state of politics in France. You could say that, in a way, the veil has become some sort of an ultimate boundary in public space in France. The mere appearance of a veil brings with it all kinds of representations, narratives… all kinds of obsessions that do not quite have to do with the freedom of women, actually. It has more to do with the state of order. How do you preserve order in French society? How do you manage the republican conception of what freedom is, what liberty is, what freedom of speech is, what freedom of thought and belief is? The veil has become this token and decoy that, now and again, is supposed to express and epitomize all of that, not just in one word, but in one person. So, you could experience times when women who wear the veil are physically assaulted because they appear or seem to be some sort of an insult to what France means. A denial of what France fancies itself to be as it entertains the idea that it is still a country where a lot of people are very progressive.

I think this is something that has been totally missed in the way the architecture is being conceived in France. I was thinking about that because of your first question. All of the housing projects were built in the spirit of bringing progress to the low income families, to the working class, and even, in the beginning, to immigrants that would have the chance to have a house in this kind of housing project. But, what everybody missed was that the progress was already vanishing, just as the Frenchness, actually. They are not possible anymore in the way that they were conceived before. The space speaks for that. It witnesses this double vanishing. This might have come from the fact that, at some point, new immigrants that were visibly challenging white Frenchness were also the ones that were missing the progress of a universal promise. They were the ones that would not benefit from it because they were out of jobs in the first place. So, now they are considered to be responsible for both — not only the vanishing of white Frenchness, but also for the vanishing of progress. They are often blamed because they are poorly paid, and so they are a challenge for the core labor market. At the same time, they are considered to be the ones that have completely destroyed the environment in which they live. These buildings were not meant at all to last… this was obvious from the beginning that it was not the purpose of these kinds of buildings: it was just to make sure that people would be housed. But, they end up being considered responsible for the decay of all these suburban areas and the fact that they did not survive time. They are the proper decoy in order to not question the state and the way the state was deceptive in so many ways. The state was not able to address many questions that have been raised now for the past half century, so, not only the immigrants, but also the racialized minorities become responsible for that.

LL: A particular aspect of your work that really shows the intricacies of this system of white supremacy in France, in particular when it comes to the design of a particular racist imaginary, consists in distinguishing what I may call “figures of acceptability” or “exemplarity” within marginalized, racialized populations in a sort of claim from the state that it does not conduct racist policies. It’s a bit like the “my best friend is Black” excuse at the scale of the state! In this regard, you have attributed names to these figures like “la beurette,” for Arab women, which might be hard to translate into English actually.

NGS: Yes, it’s a vernacular expression that is not translatable. But, the accurate way to name it in English would be “the young, French Arab woman,” which is supposed to express her eagerness to be integrated into French society and readiness to do whatever it takes to be integrated. So, “la beurette” has become a stereotype of youth, especially female youth, which misses the point about structural racism and intends to save herself on her own from her group, from her family, because she’s strongly requested to do so. It’s a strong demand from the state that they, the youth, make the demonstration, that they prove integration is possible. In other figures constructed by the State in its perception of its racialized citizens, you also have “the Arab boy,” who is this Orientalized character that can be criminalized for his behavior being violent, being a rapist, compelling women to veil themselves because he’s a sexual predator. This figure has become absolutely central. Some time ago, I realized that it was not just speaking to French society, but it was also speaking to other European societies. I realized that the past moral panic in Germany could be analyzed in terms of “the Arab boy” — What is he doing here? How come he could become so present, and invade our society so easily, so much so that he imposes on “our women” his behavior and sexual violence? So, this is really something that has become much more illustrative of situations that take place in many Western countries. Another figure would be “the veiled woman,” who is supposed to be the explanation and the expression of alienation and survival, coming from the past, as if she was completely an anachronism of a past that cannot end, and that imposes itself on today’s world. Whereas, we perfectly know that women who veil, especially when young, are individuals like many others: they are complex, they have multiple belongings and identities, and they may “tinker” in order to make themselves fit in with their own views and expectations. There is a way to completely erase that, to flatten all these experiences in order to have them available for this narrative of a civilization under threat and destruction because of its internal, religious, racial, ethnic minorities.

LL: I think that there was also “the secular Muslim,” that we could also call “the gentle Imam” who is always invited on TV to apologize in the name of Islam, Muslims, etc.?

NGS: Yes, exactly. This is typically the kind of subject who is not sovereign. He or she has no ability whatsoever to express anything personal. They are on duty, and they do the lip-service. Or, to put it in my own words which are a little more critical, I would say they become again those natives that work with the colonial power. They serve this power. And, sometimes, this power outsources to them all kinds of public statements or policies that they don’t want to deal with. For the past ten years, we have had many examples of women who were appointed as ministers, for example, just because they were Arab or Black. The purpose was not to include, in the elite, people who have a very high level of conscience, and are able to change things and bring to the table questions that are not addressed; these women were not expected to do that. For instance, the reform of the labor policy that is currently being debated is being promoted by a woman who is called Myriam El Khomri. She is of Moroccan descent, and was blamed for putting forward this law. But, we all know that it’s the government that decided that she would be the promoter of the law. Maybe they had some sense that it would be very badly received in the wider society, but nobody pays notice to the fact that the law is completely blamed by using the Arab name of this minister. El Khomri, for example, is a word that has never been used as often as the past month. Interestingly, in Arabic, “el khomri” means “brown.” Nobody has mentioned that. There is a colonial resonance of the fact that this woman bears a name that means “brown,” and was put forward and sent to the front in order to sell this law that nobody wants.

LL: I think it says a lot, as well, in these reactions of how much the old-school left movements are still in large majority white and male. The way this minister, in particular, has been singled out and become the object of slogans is extremely problematic as well. To talk precisely of those movements of resistance to finish this conversation and to maybe end up on an encouraging note, could you describe a little bit for us the many things that are being organized right now, that are led by people who are actually stigmatized by this structural racism we’ve been talking about?

NGS: Yes, the impetus for all these movements is the fact that everybody agrees on the issue of structural racism and how it has to be addressed. One major outcome of this is the fact that you have mobilization from racialized people on their own. They don’t want to be part of any kind of state agency. They want to be autonomous. They have this very accurate sense of building coalition in order to push forward their own agenda. I was part of one of these movements myself, the MAFED, that organized the March for Dignity and Against Racism [see The Funambulist 3]. This is a declaration of independence; that is to say, these are sovereign subjects. They don’t want to be bought or sold by any kind of master, because white men in the government consider that they own these women. So, it’s also about saying, “you don’t own anything.” Like many others, this movement fights against state violence, the police violence, the murders of young men who are mostly Arab or Black and have been killed for the past 40 years by the police and, most of the time, the police officers don’t get convicted. So, it’s also about pushing forward issues that are usually considered to be completely unwelcomed and exaggerated, as if the minorities who encounter stop-and-search on a daily basis for instance were indeed exaggerating. So, there is this will and this collective notion that something can be put forward. It’s also about every time that there’s a racist statement, to point at it and to say, this is not something that we will accept anymore. We’ll make statements, write in the newspapers, demonstrate, and file lawsuits against what is happening. I think this will take a long time but there is some hope in the change of not only position, but also the change of lexicon. Today, the fact that it’s about saying that racialization has become a structural process, is something that might end up touching and reaching out to people that experience it on a daily basis, but so far remain silent. So, it’s about reclaiming not only a voice, but also the space from where to express this voice.

Transcript by Amrit Trewn (2016) / Find the rest of this conversation online in “The Design of French Structural Racism.”