The R Word

Although this is not the way I think of us predominantly we are not only a multicultural family, we are also a biracial one. As I wrote in a previous post, this is something Minette picked up early on.

One thing that strikes me when it comes to race is how differently the word is used here and in France. In the USA there is no reluctance to use it regardless of one’s political leaning. I would even say that, the more an American is concerned about racism, the more often they use the word “race”.

Not so in France, where it is generally thought that only racist people lacking some basic self-awareness still use the word when talking about human beings — in French “race” also means “breed”. In my native country “race” is a strongly negatively connoted word that echos a past of prejudice and discrimination. Today’s consensus in French society is that race is not a scientific concept, that there is no such thing as human races because of the multiple crossings that have occurred over generations.

Whether that’s entirely indisputable or merely politically correct, I don’t know for sure. I am more interested in understanding why the word has lost currency in France and not in the USA. My guess about France is that the shift happened because of the Holocaust and how my country was involved in it. It took a couple of decades for the absolute horror of it to fully sink in but, once it happened, some words could not be used as they had been before, because of what their previous use had lead to.

“Race” is one of these stained words in France. To the point that it was removed from our Constitution last July. The first article of the Constitution previously stated that citizens are equal before the law “regardless of race, origin, or religion.” It now says: “regardless of sex, origin, or religion.” In the same way, racial statistics are prohibited in France (and in other European countries) because of how they were used in Nazi Germany.

Here in the USA race questions in the forms I have to fill out from time to time for me or Minette always give me pause. I don’t like checking the white/Caucasian box for me. I positively dislike checking the mixed race box for Minette. I resent the administrative labeling as intrusive and insensitive. I sometimes perceive it as a way to isolate her, to take her away from us. When I think about it I am ready to admit that there is no such intention but it is my primary reaction as a French woman anyway.

I know that, today, American racial statistics are essentially meant to gather information that helps identify and address racism and discrimination. I know that refusing to ask the race question can often be a form of hypocrisy. In our imperfect world proclaimed color-blindness is hardly solving anything.

So here I am, in between again. For all my misgivings about the R word I believe the conversation about racism is much more vibrant in the USA than it is in France. And the way we use or refuse to use certain words is certainly not foreign to that. Somehow many Americans have moved on to a modern use of the word “race”, focused on its cultural dimension. Well, I think it makes more sense overall.

One Reply to “The R Word”

  1. A very thoughtful analysis of a word that evokes so many emotions. As an American, born here when prejudice was in shameful, full view against African Americans (disgraceful, deplorable descriptions were much more often heard).
    World War Two did something to awaken some of the benighted Whites, but left many untouched. As we all know that those who thrive on hate and exist to spread it (see Trump) have a frightening foothold in America. It is a national disgrace. But we should, as individuals, do whatever we can to remedy this dreadful reality.

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