Who's Afraid of Antiracism?

tags: France, colonialism, racism, French history, critical race theory

Chelsea Stieber is an associate professor of French and francophone studies at the Catholic University of America. She is the author of Haiti’s Paper War: Post-Independence Writing, Civil War, and the Making of the Republic, 1804–1954 (NYU Press, 2020). She is currently an ACLS Fellow working on a new project on Caribbean fascism.

Antiracism is not a threat to the state. It seeks to rectify and repair, not terrorize and destroy. Yet you wouldn’t know that if you looked at what the Macron administration in France has been doing over the past six months. In the midst of summer 2020’s protests against racial injustice and police violence, Macron likened social-science researchers—those investigating race, or discussing racism—to miners choosing to excavate a vein, whose opening could “only be secessionist. It is coming back to break the Republic in two.”1

Why does antiracism so threaten Macron, and his version of the French Republic? Put otherwise: When a state accuses racial-justice activists of threatening the values of the republic, what does that say about the state and about those republican values? And, most importantly—for France—can antiracism and French universalism be reconciled?2

Answering this last question would require a different approach, one that acknowledges that the grand narrative of French universalism as just that: a narrative, a story that gets told. It would require an approach that demands the re-sounding of the many other stories that French universalism has silenced.3

The three books under consideration here offer an approach—a practice—for unsettling France’s universalist narrative. Modern-day Guadeloupe, a French overseas department that has recently been in the news following the revelation of the French government’s authorization of the poisonous chlordecone pesticide there, is the setting for Maryse Condé’s novel La Belle Créole. The main character’s personal crises—his past unresolved trauma and his present predicament—mirror Guadeloupe’s late-20th-century (post)colonial ecosystem, economy, politics, and society.

Meanwhile, Françoise Vergès’s The Wombs of Women: Race, Capital, Feminism tells a silenced story of French republican violence: the forced abortions and sterilizations of poor women in the French overseas department of La Réunion. Vergès recounts a story of French republican racialized violence that occurred in the recent past and reveals its connection to the longer French history of slavery and colonialism.

Finally, Jean Casimir’s The Haitians: A Decolonial History is a history and a methodological treatise, grounded in understanding France’s universalist project as inextricably entwined in its racist, colonial history of conquest and civilization. Casimir’s decolonial reading “capsizes” the self-affirming colonial narrative of French universalism (“its inexhaustible discourse of self-adulation”) to tell a story of the Haitian people. Casimir’s story reinterprets Haiti’s postcolonial history to resurface ways of being, knowing, and existing outside of dominant Western conceptual categories.

Taken together, these books make clear the multiplicity of other lived experiences—of lived consequences—of France’s universalist republican ideal. Each work grapples with the consequences of living with a self-fulfilling, self-congratulatory narrative of French universalism: consequences that are apparent on the bodies of nonwhite French former subjects and citizens, and of Black women most of all.

Citing the French republican universalist ideal, Macron has deemed antiracism an anti-republican danger to the state. But why does France appear uniquely threatened by the idea of antiracism?

The pretzel logic goes like this: France’s universalist republican ideal is color-blind and does not acknowledge racial, religious, or ethnic identification. If there is no place for race in the republic, racism cannot exist. These assumed propositions allow Republic officials to syllogistically conclude the following: those who assert the existence of race-related problems in France are, dangerously, creating division where there is none. Thus, according to such officials, asserting the existence of racism is an attack on “the values of the republic.” By this logic, antiracism and French republicanism are at best incompatible, and at worst locked in a zero-sum battle in which the fate of the nation hangs in the balance.

Read entire article at Public Books

comments powered by Disqus