Racism in a Country Without Race

Hassina Mechaï over at the Verso blog:

It’s a truism that France is not the USA. But, it is also true that France is no exception to the racist inflammation whose fever presently boils over. We will have to examine this fever which irrupts and erupts over the body of a French society which is defined, a priori, as being without race.

In France, it is possible to be supremely racist, all the while affirming, hand on heart, that race does not exist. Race does not exist and yet, racism possesses weight, it injures and it kills. How so? What mystery and sleight-of-hand allows for both these statements which, in theory, seem impossible to combine? How can one suffer racism if the category of race, a mental and social categorisation which creates a division in the hierarchy of humanity, has not been attached to you, despite yourself? For these reasons, racism gets a bad press in France. It is erased from fundamental texts, condemned to the museum of history’s horrors.

Let’s break what is ‘unthought’ down into pieces and words that make sense. To words that capture the ‘unthinkable’ too. What is a ‘people’? If we stick to etymology, we arrive at the Latin idea of the populus. It’s simple – too simple. In Greek, the terminology is more complex, better able to discharge the notion of ‘belonging’ contained in the Latin. Firstly, we have the demos, the political unit of people; then the genos, those of common origin by birth. Finally, we have the ethnos: a people who have culture and customs in common. Otherwise known as the three ways of belonging to a social body: citizenship, nationality, identity. In France, everything is unified under the universal principle of citizenship. But here, in the French case, there is a hypothesis that needs unpicking: a slip has been made in order to encode in the ethnos all of the unequal theories and fantasies which were attached to the genos, a group claiming shared descent.

More here.