22 August 2013

Mythbusters: All French People are Caucasian

We're going to get serious here today, and perhaps even a little scholarly, because this is a misconception that's been bothering my for a while now. I'm hoping it will open up a good discussion.

Disclaimer: Let me just start by saying that race is an entirely social construction. It only exists as far as society has defined it, and each society likes to divide people a little differently. Feel free to educate me in the comments if you disagree with anything, or find it offensive. I'm still learning too :).

Remember in your high school French textbook how all of the people pictured were white with brown eyes, and the women often had mustaches? Ok. Maybe your French textbooks were advanced and more culturally sensitive, but mine sure weren't. I visited France for the first time at the age of 15, expecting the people to look a certain way, which is completely normal for a kid who's only ever seen the French portrayed like that.

Wrong. I was so wrong. Demographically, France might have been like that during the renaissance, but it's certainly not now.



Unfortunately, I was not alone in this misconception. Quite a few people knew that I was dating Monsieur Right while I was studying here, but they hadn't seen any pictures yet. The most common first reactions upon seeing his photo?

"Oh... He's not white. I thought French people were white."
"Huh. When you told me he was French, I was expecting him to be a short, white guy."
"Wow. He's so tan!"

Everyone, whether they were liberal, conservative, or communist, seemed genuinely surprised - because that's not how the French are portrayed in America. Now I realize none of these people meant any harm, and they weren't intentionally being racist. Globally, their reactions were positive, and I received a lot of support. However, I do feel their responses accurately portray the average American's view of the "French".




Today, I'd like to offer a different image.

Unfortunately, this becomes really complicated when one realizes that even the definition a "Frenchman" is by no means clear cut. One of the first sociology classes that I took at the university here was about how the French people are currently going through an identity crisis. Very few people want to admit they're French and identify more closely with their country of origin. Mind you the definition of "country of origin" is very loose.

To make the story short, France had several large waves of immigrants after the World Wars, during the depression in Portugal, and again in the 1960's when Algeria won their independence. France also had many African colonies who's citizens migrated to France over the last few centuries. Those families have now been here for several generations, but are still very poorly integrated with the rest of society. Despite being legal citizens, they don't consider themselves French.

For example, you might meet a guy in France who says he's Italian, despite the fact that he has spent his entire life in France. He doesn't speak Italian and certainly isn't a citizen. He's never stepped foot in Italy, and his family hasn't lived there for at least three generations. But he's Italian. He doesn't feel "French" and doesn't identify himself as a French person. And you can bet that when soccer season comes around, he will be supporting Italy.

To sum it up, France's citizens come from all over the world, with different origins, and different traditions. You just might have trouble getting them to actually admit they're French.

So why don't you hear about all this racial diversity in France very often? 

Partially, because there are no official statistics based on race (self-identified or otherwise) in France. It's illegal to collect statistics referring to racial or ethnic origins.

But also, because for some reason, the media really enjoys representing different countries/ethnic groups in the form of caricatures. Why complicate things by recognizing that every French person is different, when you can make things easy on yourself and portray them as brunettes, with mustaches, wearing striped t-shirts and smoking a cigarette while carrying a baguette?


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The floor is yours ladies. Thoughts?

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