On Feb. 17, the French House hosted Dr. Mame-Fatou Niang, associate professor of French and Francophone studies at Carnegie Mellon University, for the first lecture of the French House’s Spring 2022 series titled “Rethinking Universalism in 21st Century France.” Dr. Niang is an author and filmmaker, and her recent research examines universalism — the belief that each human being has fundamental rights like equality and liberty, despite their differences — “à la française”, and the development of Afro-French identities.
Dr. Niang grew up in Lyon, where generations of her family have lived, but was constantly asked, “Where are you from?” as if she was from somewhere else. She pointed this out as one of her first experiences in pushing against the idea of French universalism.
“If color did not matter, why would people keep asking me that?” Dr. Niang asked. “What is it about me that signaled automatic otherness while the [French] Republic says Frenchness comes before everything else?”
According to Dr. Niang, the “gates have swung open” on the conversations about race, identity and citizenship in France in the last five years, especially after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. From the anti-racist protests around the world, including in France in the summer of 2020, came a wave of condemnation for critical studies in race and gender and attacks on academic freedom. Dr. Niang also pointed out that France has been resistant to conversations about race, or acknowledgment of race at all.
Language is a key barrier that Dr. Niang came across in her studies, since there is no word for “Blackness.” She pointed out that English words are often used to express concepts related to race that fail to anchor the problems and discussions about race in French. This lack of language to express concepts related to race has prevented the growth of ethnic or cultural studies as fields in France.
“Black studies in France is really at an embryonic stage compared to the US or other countries like Canada and the UK,” she said. “It’s an area of scholarly inquiry that focuses on the emergence of Black identity politics within the universalist tenets of French Republicanism. There is not one ethnic studies department to this day in France.”
Dr. Niang only discovered writers and renowned Black French scholars like Frantz Fanon, Aimé Cesaire, Maryse Condé and others at the age of 26 while here in the United States, when she came for her master’s degree at Brown University.
“I had never heard of any one of these canonical writers,” she said. “It was in the US that I discovered it was possible to be Black and French.”
As a scholar and researcher of race and ethnic studies, Dr. Niang has also faced consistent attacks, which she believes further shows the ignorance France has maintained in matters of race.
“I come from a country that claims to be blind to color, but as a public figure, I’m often asked to go back to Africa the minute I go beyond the two frames of public intervention that are available to me, the first one being silence, the second one being gratitude,” she said.
In France, racism is treated as a foreign issue, which further leads to the lack of conversation and acknowledgment of France’s colonial history and its consequences.
“[There is a] need to indigenize or to anchor approaches to ethnicity, race and Blackness in France,” she said. “Racism, especially anti-Blackness, is seen as a South African, a Brazilian or an American phenomenon, but when we talk about France, the country of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the country of universalism, you can’t talk about anything that is bad. Here, it gets sanitized.”
Dr. Niang also noted that one of the key barriers in anchoring the conversation about race in France is the “naturalized” silence of minorities throughout French history. When highlighting those issues, then, it becomes increasingly difficult for French people to accept that it is their problem too.
“[There is a] difficulty to accept what we are unveiling, the fact that we are highlighting elements whose invisibility has been naturalized,” she said. “The silence on slavery doesn’t make it disappear.”
Despite the many issues Dr. Niang herself has faced, whether it be racist attacks or calls for her silence in the name of national unity, she remains optimistic. She names the diversity of people she saw in solidarity with anti-racist protests, especially after the murder of Adama Traouré at the hands of the police, as one of the reasons she believes French universalism can fulfill its promise.
“This was the biggest movement [of the country] since the revolution of 1789,” she said. “I’m extremely optimistic because we’re dealing with a new generation that knows what they want, and is calmly answering to the old guard. We have to look beyond our own existence to what project we want for our kids. I don’t want my daughter to go through what I have gone through.”