Jennifer Yee

A Visitor in the Land of the Enlightenment
Part 8: Race and Dictionaries

At a dinner party not long ago I took part in a general discussion which included a young Frenchwoman of Tunisian origin, who was completing a Ph.D. in Sociology. At some point in the discussion the word "race" was used in reference to human differences, and she rounded on the culprit and stated that the word had no meaning - in fact, she said that the word "did not exist" - and that there were no "races". Yet very shortly afterwards, obviously pursuing a thought process triggered by this part of the discussion, she asked me what my "background" was (let it be said straight away that I am asked this question in various forms rather often and that I find it perfectly legitimate and inoffensive). I gave her my standard Level one Variant 2 answer, "I'm half Chinese" (Variant 1 is "I'm Australian" and Levels 2 and 3 are longer) and to my amazement she took on a very pedagogical air - no doubt this is one of the hazards of doing a Ph.D. - and launched into a long analysis of the biological divisions of humanity that, she said, fell roughly into three "groups": black, white and yellow. She placed herself firmly in the second category, and in doing so she was, though she didn't know it, in perfect accord with the majority of nineteenth-century theoreticians of race (of whom I happened to have some knowledge as a result of studies for my own Ph.D.). When politely questioned after giving her lesson, she persisted in saying that 1) there were no "races" and 2) the word should be removed from the dictionaries.

This is not the right place for a philosophical discussion about the difference between words and things; you can probably see that there is a problem here already. But the specific problem of the word "race" is one that the "white" Ph.D. candidate mentioned (actually a lovely pale copper colour, with masses of spiralling red hair) is not the only one to have trouble negotiating; it is a problem I have seen people come up against again and again in France... elsewhere also, you might say: yes, but there is a specifically French form of political correctness here that I would like to point out.

During last May's oral exams, one student chose to speak about racism, and after expressing many worthy sentiments he ended, as a resounding conclusion, with the statement that dictionaries should not be allowed to include the word "race". I gave him a good mark, purely on the basis of his English, and in the short ensuing chat he asked where I was from... I gave him my Level 2 Combined answer ("I'm half Chinese, half German, and of Australian nationality") and asked how he would describe what made me look exotic. He said I was of "mixed ethnic background". I explained that in both English and French "ethnic" referred to cultural and linguistic differences, and that "ethnically" I was Australian. So what made me look different? He said I looked perfectly normal. What about my parents, I asked? He said they were from different "backgrounds" ("origines"). However much I pushed, he refused obstinately to say the word... the dreaded "R" word...

These are both examples of linguistic difficulties, but the problem actually goes further. In a conversation class (when, as usual, I was trying to speak as little as possible, and so not playing the interrogator for once), a girl chose to speak about racism in the United States. She gave many examples and, along with the rest of the class, expressed suitable horror at the history of past U.S. apartheid and current inequalities. But as a final example of racism she said that even these days people applying for a job in the States had to fill in a form stating what race they were. Other class members commented that they had learnt that this was also the case in Britain; and they all bemoaned how awful it was that such racism should still exist. Gagged and bound by my own desire not to speak too much, I asked if anyone had heard of "positive discrimination" or "affirmative action". Ah yes, now I mentioned it, one girl said: the idea of helping black people get jobs through a system of quotas. What did the others think, I asked: was this a case of racism? Yes, they said, it was. All of them, including a black girl from Martinique, agreed. Asking someone what "race" they are perceived or perceive themselves to belong to is racist because there are no "races" and the word itself, they said, either should be banned or "does not exist". The girl from Martinique said that everyone was the same and should be treated in the same way.

And that just about puts the finger on it: in France, everyone is the same. Remember the bit about liberty, equality and fraternity? Remember the bit about the rights of "Man"? (L'Homme, of course, still includes women.) L'Homme is equal and shall be treated equally. The fact that unemployment rates among young French citizens with two immigrant parents is over 40% is not relevant; the State, and all official discourse, must treat them as if they were the same as any other French citizen. It would be racist to help someone if that help were given on the grounds of the person's "race". Of course it's very simplistic to say that French society is based on a "universalist" and idealistic model whereas the English-speaking cultures tend more towards a "multicultural" and pragmatic attitude. This seems particularly trite when one throws American-style extremist liberalism into the balance, since that could quite easily be seen as a "universalist" and idealistic form of thought also. But it is striking how often the model fits for the way so many French people seem to think. For my students, anyone speaking about "race" or problems associated with it is a supporter of Le Pen, and it is not enough to insulate the word with quotation marks or a hushed tone: the word should be removed from conversation and from dictionaries. One day, they told me, one day we won't need it anymore because there will be no differences.

(I'm still not sure whether they meant that one day everyone would look like me, or that one day no one would notice the differences anymore...?)

Jennifer Yee