Introduction: Race, France, Histories Sue Peabody and Tyler Stovall



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Introduction: Race, France, Histories

Sue Peabody and Tyler Stovall


Recently one of us was approached by a colleague to discuss a roadblock encountered in a faculty committee formed to encourage racial diversity on campus. Members of the committee, all of whom could be described as "progressive" in their politics, had reached an impasse in the wording of the statement they were crafting on diversity. Two members were arguing to alter the now almost sacred litany of identity categories -- gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, ability, age, and so on – to exclude the category "race" because, they argued, it has no scientific basis. Other committee members argued that it was important to preserve the overt specification of race because, regardless of its scientific merit, the word had a social and political meaning.

Disputes over the meaning of the word race are both scholarly and political. Used first as a legal and practical category of discrimination in American history, race has also served as a rallying point for the Civil Rights, anti-imperialist, and anti-apartheid movements, becoming enshrined in American affirmative action policies. Now, just as genetic research has destabilized the claims to scientific legitimacy, so a conservative political movement in the United States threatens to undermine affirmative action policies aimed at redressing racial discrimination. Attacked from both sides, the legitimacy of racial discourse appears to be significantly undermined. Yet, as nearly any person of color will affirm, discrimination and fear based upon physical markers of difference continue to thrive in everyday American praxis.

Racial thinking in France has a parallel and yet, unique, history. Many Americans have the impression that the French suffer no – or at least minimal -- racial bias. This reflects certain moments in French history: French fur trappers' alliances with Native American women as compared with Puritan disdain for miscegenation; French imperial citizenship policies versus those of the British; the reception of U.S. African American soldiers during World War II or American performers of the jazz age. Yet as historical research has shown, under certain conditions the French have relied upon racial barriers to preserve a notion of national purity. And the problem of racial disharmony worsens, if anything, as France continues to adjust to a post-imperial order.

Indeed, the plasticity of race becomes clearest when the concept is traced over a long temporal trajectory. Over the three centuries detailed in the essays included here, the French nation itself was very much in flux, along with the meaning of race. In the centuries leading up to the Revolution of 1789, France was not entirely integrated into "France" yet, linguistically or culturally. Until the eighteenth century, religion was a far more important marker of inclusion or exclusion than national or racial boundaries, culminating in Louis XIV's revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. With relatively few foreigners, particularly non-Europeans (for example, there were no more than about 4,000 blacks living among the 25 million French at the time of the Revolution), human diversity was generally imagined more in terms of various "nations," rather than as races For many French people in the 18th and 19th century, questions of race centered around the distinction between Franks and Gauls dating back to the origins of French national identity. This was a key theme of Jacques Barzun’s The French Race (1932). Questions of social class also frequently assumed a racialized character, as an analysis of Arthur de Gobineau’s Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (1884) makes clear. Moreover, the French peasants were often deemed savages and uncivilized by Parisians and other city dwellers, at times blurring the distinctions between countryside and colonies.

The transformation of France's most economically productive colony, Saint Domingue, into independent Haiti, Napoleonic expansion in Europe, and lurches between monarchical and republican governmental forms assured that, during the first half of the nineteenth century, racial and minority issues intrigued the intelligentsia, but apparently drew little popular attention within the hexagon. National education led to a greater homogenization of French culture within, while the new imperial impulse of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries ensured more points of contact between, and redefinitions of, "French" and "other." Anti-semitism, present to greater and lesser degrees since the Crusades, erupted violently in the late nineteenth century as well, gradually assuming a more racialized character in the years between the Dreyfus Affair and the Holocaust. After WWII, the vast immigration of colonial nationals created a hitherto un-experienced degree of cultural and ethnic pluralism, from which French society is today still reeling.

If the social, political, and geographical contexts within which racial thinking emerged have changed, so too has the concept of race itself. As anyone who has every attempted to study the origins, permutations, and practical experiences of race has discovered, the idea of race -- at first so apparently omnipresent and obvious -- is actually quite supple. Race appears as a means to subordinate a conquered or enslaved people; race is used as an exclusionary tool to limit access to privilege (though so too are other categories, including religion, language, class, etc.); race is re-appropriated culturally as principle of resistance to denigration, as in the early twentieth century nègritude movement; and race exists as a scientific discourse with an internal intellectual genealogy, quite independent of -- though also intersecting with -- social relations. With a subject as plastic as race, approaches to analyzing it are quite varied.

This book has been assembled with the intention of contributing to the historiographies of both race and modern France. The current historical literature dealing with questions of race is of course enormous and quite sophisticated. Most of it, especially that written in English, tends to focus on the history of the United States, and to a lesser extent on colonial societies in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Although some anthropologists and literary scholars have begun to devote significant attention to the problems of post-colonial Europe, few historians have as yet systematically addressed questions of race there. France in particular offers a useful point of comparison for those whose experience with questions of race has been primarily American. It resembles the United States not only in its level of socio-economic development, but also in possessing a strong universalist tradition in its politics and culture, as well as persistent contradictions between republican ideology and racially discriminatory practices. Yet the question of race in France also differs significantly from its American manifestations, in particular with regard to the size of nonwhite populations and the role played by overseas empire. The French case thus provides an excellent reference for all those interested in developing a trans-national, global perspective on the history of race.

For example, French racism is often contrasted with that of the English, the Germans and U.S. as being less "hard" or biological. That is, French racism is based upon conformity or assimilation to French cultural norms and thus is not "racism" at all. But, as some black citizens of Guadeloupe argued in a recent public debate on French and American racisms, this insistence upon conformity to metropolitan norms carries with it humiliations and annihilation of cultural heritages, thus causing similar psychological damage to its citizens that the "harder" racisms instill abroad. The French universal curriculum for secondary students makes no mention of slavery or race, thereby appearing irrelevant to the lives of some of the poorest residents of former French colonies. To many of these black French citizens, the American "multicultural" model of education appears enviable.

The portrait of French racial thinking that emerges from the essays in this book is much more nuanced. In general, they reject any opposition between biological and cultural racism, insisting, as Fogarty and Osborne have put it, that “French racial attitudes in general were and remain based upon a mixture of biological and cultural factors”. (247). There is also a strong emphasis on the concept of racial hierarchies, contrasting with the implicit bipolarism that still shapes much American thinking on questions of race. From Pierre Boulle’s discussion of racial categorization in the 17th century to Michael Vann’s consideration of such hierarchies in colonial Indochina two centuries later, French assessments of foreign are guaged according to a universal of perfection that is Frenchness. In addition, the role of politics assumes center stage in many of these essays, so that racial thinking appears not just a matter of prejudice and ignorance, but rather a question of ideology. In particular, the contradiction between Republican universalism and racial particularism has prompted a reconsideration of the history of both ideas in France.

The most striking characteristic of French racial thinking, and the one that most distinguishes it from the American example, is the relationship between the metropole and the colonies. Whereas relatively little of the historical literature on race in the United States deals with questions of empire, virtually all of the essays in this collection address either life in the French colonies or the experience of peoples of colonial origin in metropolitan France. A clear lesson of this book, therefore, is that one cannot understand questions of race in France without taking the colonial experience into consideration.

Yet we have chosen not to regard this book as a study in colonial history, or a comparative history of race in France and its colonies, rejecting the erroneous position that they constitute two distinct units. Instead, following the lead of Gary Wilder, we regard metropole and empire as one unit composed of continually interacting parts, and consider race one of the most important of those interactions. The central role of colonial history in French racial thinking underscores the importance of considering race in global as well as national terms. Just as the history of French colonialism is both national and global, so does the study of race in France involve both the traditions of the hexagon and interchanges between the French and peoples throughout the world.

At the same time, this book is an important resource for those interested in the history of modern France. Many scholars in France have been curiously resistant to any discussion of race as a factor in national life, instead emphasizing the universalist character of French identity as a result of the Revolution. When William Cohen’s landmark study The French Encounter with Africans appeared in French translation, for example, it was sharply attacked for applying American racial categories to France. Although some French historians have begun exploring the nation’s history of immigration, they have usually ignored racial questions in their studies. The fact that racial tension has been a major issue in French public life during the last twenty years has failed to shake this widespread attachment to a color-blind perspective. This volume argues, on the contrary, that race has been a significant factor in French life over the past three centuries; it is not something that suddenly happened in France with the rise of the "second-generation immigrants" of the 1980s. Moreover, we suggest that an analysis of race can help illuminate broader aspects of French history, such as the nature of universalism and citizenship, questions of gender and difference, and the role of cities in national life.

The essays in this collection have been assembled for the variety of their approaches as well as their range -- chronological and geographical – of subject. The book is divided into four parts. Part One, “Race: the Evolution of an Idea,” explores the origins of the concept of race in French thought, and the ways in which that idea changed over time. The essays in this section all deal with early modern France, reflecting the tendency of French historiography to look toward the Enlightenment and the development overseas exploration and trade as the locus classicus of the origins of race as an idea. Part Two, “Representations of the Other,”addresses the various ways in which French writers, artists, and business people conceived of and portrayed those groups seen as racially distinct from the French themselves. Ranging from the Revolutionary period to the contemporary era, the essays in this section look at representations of racial difference, as well as that based upon religion and gender, to cast new light upon French conceptions of their own national identity. Part Three, “Colonial and Global Perspectives, picks up on a theme already established earlier, the international dimensions of French racial thinking, and investigates it in greater detail. Common to all the essays in this section is an analysis of the ways in which French ideas about race were either shaped by overseas encounters, or in turn helped shape racial perspectives in other parts of the world. The essays consider both relations between the French metropole and empire, as well as interactions between France and the United States. In Part Four, “Race and the Postcolonial City," the book concentrates on the urban experience, which has often been in France (as elsewhere) central to racial encounters. The four papers in this final section consider the impact of peoples of color on life in Paris and Marseilles during the late 19th and 20th centuries. They consider both French discourses about race and the experiences of nonwhites, demonstrating how questions of racial difference have contributed to the shaping of the French city in the modern era.

Despite the fact that each essay was composed in relatively isolation from the others, readers will discover certain continuities in the casting, props, and staging of the modern racial dramas. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century racial theorists, including Bougainvilliers, Buffon, Grégoire, and Broca help to establish some continuity between essays by Boulle, Olds, Sepinwall and Blanckaert. Blanckaert focuses sustained attention on the eighteenth and nineteenth century anthropological theory about racial hybridism, or miscegenation, while Fogarty and Osborne briefly touch upon this theme as it applied to disease immunity, studied by colonial doctors in the field. Dana Hale’s essay on racial imagery and commercial trademarks provides an interesting context for Auslander and Holt’s discussion of representations of blacks in collectible objects. Blaise Diagne, who makes a cameo appearance in Fogarty and Osborne, is the central subject of Alice Conklin's study. Franz Fanon's theories of racial politics are the subject of two quite different perspectives by Wilder and McEnnerney. Thus, though each essay stands alone, all are enriched by being read alongside one another.

As stimulating and wide-ranging as these essays are, the collection is by no means exhaustive. Some of the gaps in the collection suggest many promising avenues for future research. For example, the process by which France's internal unification and homogenization in the nineteenth century interacted with overseas imperialism has not been sufficiently studied. Nor has the treatment of French religious minorities over the centuries (Jews, Protestants, Muslims) been analyzed comparatively with regard to ideas about race. Finally, one glimpses the importance of military service in claims to racial equality in France, as in the United States; much more can be learned by analyzing the relationship between military induction, race, citizenship and gender.

No doubt readers will discover for themselves many more themes and omissions in the collection. We hope that, by providing a model of French history that critically examines the tradition of French universalism, as well as one which approaches the metropole and the colonies not as separate entities but rather as parts of a unified political and cultural formation, this collection will help spur other historical investigations of the place of race and racial difference in French life.







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