A Confederacy of Colorblinds: Charlie Hebdo and French Racism

“You lack context!”

That seems to be the cry of defense for the French, on this blog and across the internet, this week and last as more and more people question the role of Charlie Hebdo‘s satire and the general state of equality in French society and of course, a controversial article on this site, Je ne suis pas Charlie.

There seems to be lots of context that I lack, according to the comments (and rants) of enraged Frenchmen of all hues. Lack of French cultural context, which to certain degrees, is very true. Lack of an understanding of French comedy, which to certain degrees, is also very true. The French are relentless in their assessment of the American political gung-ho cowboy approach, often with fair criticisms. The French make no secret that with a few exceptions, most Americans are considered to be classless and proudly ignorant. And given that most French citizens travel in a way that many Americans do not, they are fair in their right to hold that informed opinion. But America has a pretty long history in dealing with racism and calling it by its name – and probably know it better when they see it, even if it’s in another country. Why is it that the French identity and humor needs mounds of contextualization to explain comics, which by the very nature of not being dependent upon words, needs very little explanation? Why can’t a country which for better or for worse, is renowned for its fight for racial equality, not qualified to remark on a France’s problem with race, even though the French don’t know what their country looks like?

anonymous Creole woman from Martinique, 1880s

anonymous Creole woman from Martinique, 1880s

French identity, with regards to race, has always full of contexts, asterisks and explanations; it is a democracy that one could forcefully argue still has colonies. It is a multi-racial society which has no statistics to tacitly prove this. A haven for African-Americans seeking political asylum in the 20th century, it also put an African-American woman in a phallic, banana skirt, half naked on stage, to dance and amuse French audiences.

The irony of it all.

French identity, tolerance and esteem has always depended upon proximities to White Frenchness; a minister of Louis XIV described the value of the Canadian Indians ripe for “civilization” as, “one must summon the inhabitants of the country to a life in common with the French, instruct them in the tenets of our religion and our customs, as to form with the inhabitants…one people….” It was the beginnings of the privilege of “French extraction”, a colorful mélange that tantalizes the French imagination and aesthetic, satisfying equal fetishes for thorough Frenchness and the thoroughly un-French exotique. The privileges and obsession with mixed race people (and creating them) functions as trophies of French assimilation; it is still a standard and mechanism of progress in French society. For all France’s history of race based slavery, colonization, subjugation, an obsession with all things Asian that is/was so strong that it named a style of furniture, sexual exoticism of women of color ( lest we not forget that Gauguin was a Frenchman and was the first to document a sexual tourist vacation), France is a country that purports to not see race. In it’s “colorblindness”, France has created a system by which cultural colloquialisms and beliefs are de-facto yet unstable statements of Frenchness that serve as proxies as Whiteness, given one’s proximity to Whiteness. Thus, one is French by how close one is to White ideals and embodiments.

“…job applicants with obviously North African or African names are far less likely to get called in for interviews than those with traditionally French names. A study funded by the Open Society Institute showed that black and North African youths were much more likely to be stopped by police in France’s equivalent of stop-and-frisk.”

Race functions as a silent truth in Parisian society because Paris is a part of a country which was a colonial power, a brutal colonial power and subjugated people on the basis of race, religion and origin. Anyone, (especially people of color), that have spent considerable time in France or lives there knows that the French are anything but colorblind. I don’t know many people in France or Paris of color that actually believe this.  Yet, the denial of the lived experiences of Asian, African and North Africans in France as facts and thus, a social reality, only makes the presence of race in French society all the more there. In a democracy, where the individual right to express oneself is one of the most treasured rights and very much the anchor for the supporters of Charlie Hebdo, that right is only extended and protected for those that show that they are sufficiently French. And France has a particular history of infringing upon this right when it infringes upon ideals of (White) Frenchness. The burqa, a full veil that many Muslim women wear as a religious obligation, is banned, as well as headscarves in schools. Violators of this law are subjected to fines and “citizenship instruction”, as to remind them of what being French is and what it looks like. And the particular ire between the Islam and Charlie Hebdo is rooted in a strong anti-Muslim sentiment that is also rooted in the colonial history of North Africa, particularly Algeria. French colonization in Algeria was so brutal and unsuccessful that Tocqueville described the process of colonizing the country as having “made Muslim society more barbaric than before the French arrived.” (below is one of the most famous clips from the very famous film, “The Battle of Algiers”, which neo-realistically told the story of Algerian independence.)

It was in the simplest of terms, a wholesale subjugation of people to make them French via the annihilation and denial of their Berber heritage. It was one of the most violent forms of French assimilation. And when Algeria finally won its freedom in 1962, it marked the third time that the French had lost a colonial war,  a wound made deeper by the fact that Algeria was France’s oldest major colony and the colony which characterized much its colonial identity. The French could barely tolerate the occupation from a fellow European power; they were downright belligerent at being felled by the bon sauvage. (pour mes amis français, un retourné, bon sauvage en français.) The French have never forgotten it, nor as Charlie Hebdo’s most recent article cover says, was all ever fully forgiven.

“In France, the Algerian is the nigger. That’s because of the relationship of France to Algeria for 130 years: A very complex relationship in which Algeria simply belonged to France and when an Algerian came to France, he was treated and is treated as a mule…” -conversations with James Baldwin 

To repeat, the French state(s) keep no official racial or ethnic statistics (or religious demographics), the populace and the government alike reasoning that there is no such reason to do this when all citizens of France are French, irrespective of their histories and colors. Many French people feel that to do so would encourage people to see differences and focus on them. You see, Americans, in their race obsessed society, have so many problems because they are encouraged to see race, the French say. The banlieues in Paris don’t burn like the projects in Detroit. And they don’t burn like Detroit because the French are civilized, they are a fully integrated country which does not see Algerians, the Cameroonians as being the survivors of a brutal colonial regime and agents of their own freedom from this, but as French. A vision of Frenchness imagined in a colorblind image. The Vietnamese are not political refugees from a country that is still recovering from the Indochina War (which led to the Vietnam War) and French colonialism – they are “just French” and should consider themselves such. Muslim and Arab identity in colonial North Africa wasn’t suppressed by the French banning Islamic law and practices – they’re are “just French” now and should act as such. Nevermind all that stuff that happened so long ago. More or less. Comme ci, comme ça.

 banlieues outside of Paris in 2005

banlieues outside of Paris in 2005

But the banlieues do burn and sometimes, quite literally. And they burn because many people of color feel cut out of the French process and French society. Jokes about being welfare queens aren’t funny when you are North African and Black and you can’t get a job, because your name does not sound French enough, because applicants are required to put their photographs on their employment applications, because you live in the outer métro zones and it is more expensive to get into the city and because the métro closes between 12:30AM and 1AM, the menial jobs that you might be hired for, are difficult to transport to and fro. Jokes about the Koran being shit aren’t quite as funny when you fully expressing your religion is illegal. Many supporters of Charlie Hebdo in the comments section of this site claim that the humor of the publication is to “take the piss out of someone”, which is true. But the power dynamics of French society  for those that don’t have agency and the recognition of their lived experiences with racism is such that taking the piss out of them also amounts to having it thrown into their face.

But, the French persist, Charlie Hebdo isn’t racist – it’s equal opportunity slander. The slander is all the same, because they are all French. Everyone is equally taken a part, skewed, given their fair share turn at the gaulois (Gallic) humor which is known for it’s love of humiliation. The comparison for most Americans would work like this: if British humor is known for “taking the piss” out of someone, French humor might make you drink it. And that’s the égalité of French humor and Frenchness – everyone’s made to drink their own piss. And this is what Charlie Hebdo does, the French say; a round of piss for everybody! Here’s an excellent guide, in English, written by a Frenchman, as to why Charlie Hebdo isn’t racist, allegedly.

black person on a leash

In this drawing of a Black person on a leash being walked by two White people, the author of the post says:

“Oh my god, two white people have a black person on a leech pictured as a dog!!!!”

Yep, how much more racist can it be huh?

Context maybe? I mean that could help right? Last year, the strong conservative right wing side of France was on the streets to protest against same-sex mariage [sic]. At the same time, a few modern slavery stories made the front pages as some rich traditionalist families got arrested actually having modern-days slaves, usually immigrants with their passeport[sic] confiscated, that they did not pay and had work 20 hours a day at their home, with no possiblities [sic] to go out.

So Charlie Hebdo drew this, saying that in order to be accepted as “normal” by those traditionalists, gay people had to AT LEAST be like them: a family has to be made of two parents and one slave, like they were doing.”

It is not (French) context that is needed; it is for the French to understand the context of how humor which is defacing can not be divorced from the power dynamics at work in an unequal society. It is a myth to believe that people struggling for the basic dignities in a democracy and those that are not, are equally humiliated by the display of their culture, religion or likeness being defiled. Those that represent and maintain the dominant powers must understand and consider how humiliating people that have historically been held to be inferior and discriminated against, is not actually satire. And when it is perpetuated by people that have been historically responsible for such delineations of inferiority, it’s not funny, because it is cheap and it is cheap because it trades on inhumanity – and a perpetuation of the histories which White French citizens claim to have happened “a long time ago.” When Black youth are rioting because they can not get jobs, it is not funny that a group of White men and women should decide that they will fight racism by more tropes and images of racism. Nor is it equal when the children of said White men and women can get the jobs that the children of Asian, African and North African immigrants or third generation citizens can’t get. Making fun of Jews in a country so hostile to them that many consider leaving for Israel, is irresponsible. As one Frenchwoman of African descent told me, “I am not Charlie and even if I wanted to be, France wouldn’t allow me to be Charlie.” (A personal remark: I felt unsafe bringing a small menorah to France to finish the observation of Chanukah, because of the casual anti-Semitism that I have personally witnessed during my time in Paris. And I am not even Jewish, though part of my family once was.)

A photo of the Charlie Hebdo staff working on the edition.

this is a photo instead of the Charlie Hebdo staff working on the edition


I understand that it is offensive to portray the Prophet Muhammad, and do so not in disrespect, but because of the event and the story.

I understand that it is offensive to portray the Prophet Muhammad, and do so not in disrespect, but because of the event and the story.

I don’t agree with the cover and find it in poor taste, still. Those however, are my personal opinions on the matter. What should be a fact in a democracy and a press running in such society is that making fun of, or troping the most vulnerable members of a society by exploiting what makes them vulnerable to the most ignorant and least tolerant members of your society is stupid and it is dangerous. The cover, a persistent “fuck you” to the sensibilities and laws of Muslims worldwide, persists in the (White) French right to, as a lawyer for Charlie Hebdo said, “blaspheme.” The American press, most of whom have decided that they are not Charlie, has been lukewarm to the cover.

As one Facebook commenter put it, “…The North Korean government recently called Obama a monkey. That’s not a good enough reason to draw him like a monkey on a magazine cover and say you are making fun of the North Koreans.”  The French entitlement to believe that this is fair, or even substantive political commentary worth defending is a part of  the colonial French laws of assimilation, which were and still pedal notions of equality based on one’s French language and Frenchness – and leave no space to discourse the real realities of living in a society which has bias, inequalities, disadvantages, misunderstandings and exploitation that race-based.

It is possibly to mourn the deaths of innocent lives and renounce what their work and their institution stood for. It is possible to not identify with “Je Suis Charlie” because it represents a cheap laughs that encourage a society with deeply undiscussed racial issues to continue in blindness, not because you support fundamentalists. The French have every right to continue to print and support Charlie Hebdo. But that comes with a responsibility and a price. And part of that, is that some people might not think drinking piss is actually very funny or an acquired taste. They might just think you’re drinking piss.



  1. I think you’re missing the point that your critics on your last article were making, which was that racism is a reality in France, but to claim that Charlie Hebdo is propagating it is disingenuous.

    I would argue that context is everything in satire. If you read satire at face value, you are missing the point that the satirist is trying to make, which is usually portraying the ridiculousness of the position they are satirizing. It would be the same thing as taking everything Colbert’s character says on his show seriously. Colbert often makes racist, sexist and homophobic statements on his show, but always with the purpose of showing how ludicrous the right-wing can be.

    I have not read Charlie Hebdo, and was shocked by some of the images floating around on the internet, but reading about the context of them immediately started to make sense to me what the purpose of the newspaper was (I suggest reading some of the comments in this article http://www.quora.com/What-was-the-context-of-Charlie-Hebdos-cartoon-depicting-Boko-Haram-sex-slaves-as-welfare-queens). I think your example of North Korea’s leader calling Obama a monkey, and a satirist posting a picture of Obama as a monkey is not a good example because it isn’t satire. It isn’t trying to prove a point. An example I could imagine (and I do apologize for my atrocious attempt at comedy) it working would be a picture of Obama as a monkey working on his iPad in his office while Kim Jong is seen rattling a cage in anger (much like a monkey see) in his famine torn country as he calls the US president a primate.

    The reason why everyone keeps pointing out that Charlie Hebdo were ‘equal opportunity offenders’ is because they are are trying to point out the context they were working from – that they weren’t racist, and their intentions were mainly to criticize the right and religious fundamentalists. They used the images that the right were using to make racist and sexist statements and subverted them to criticize them in return. I think your main problem is with the nature of satire, and that some topics should not be made fun of. And that is your personal taste and you shouldn’t have to enjoy it if it crosses a line with you. But the reason why shows like The Colbert Report and South Park are so popular (and why so few French people regard Charlie Hebdo as being racist) is beacsue they understand the intention of the creators, and understand that what they are doing is not laughing with religious extremists, rape-apologists, or racist bigots – but that they are laughing at them.

    1. I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt here and tell myself that you don’t intend to be patronizing here.

      Your entire response does the same type of work that all of the calls for “context” to the original Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie post do. You’re reading right past what the author is saying. Every call for context argues that to understand Charlie Hebdo one must situate it against the racism of the French Right. Then, and only then, can its satire truly be understood. Not so!

      A major point of the Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie article is that Charlie Hebdo has as its backdrop not just the racism and racist politics of the French Right, but French society at large and its profound racism. That racism pervades all aspects of society, including the political/ideological left. To say that because Charlie Hebdo is ostensibly (to who?) of the French Left it cannot be racist is naïve. A lack of racist intent does not erase racism. To suggest so denies the realities of black and brown French citizens who see racism across the country’s entire ideological spectrum and are calling BS. You’re telling them their eyes are lying and, more offensively, essentially calling them stupid for not “getting” the satire in Charlie Hebdo. (They, of course, as they live in France, are obviously aware of the source material from the political right to which Hebdo was responding.)

      Charlie Hebdo’s (overwhelmingly white) defenders stand on one hand, on the other are France’s citizens of color, and you’re insisting the defenders must absolutely be right, and the citizens of color must be wrong. If that ain’t white supremacy, then what on earth is?

      The author points out from the jump that she has spent time in France, studied French history, and has spoken to black and brown folks in France who confront racism regularly. Her explanation of the problems with Je Suis Charlie are stated eloquently, thoughtfully, and with a greater understanding of French society and history in its flawed, complex entirety than most Americans (and seemingly some French people too!). The original article deserves a better response than, “You just don’t get (French) satire.”

      1. Calls for context did not all define the word against the existence of the far right only. There is more acknowledgement of colonial legacy and its institutionalized racist consequences in France than you appear to be aware of. But, of course, free will permits the recasting of inconvenient information as a “defence” of the state of race relations in France and those who mention it as patronising apologists for colonialism.

        If the CH images are to be labelled racist and reflective of an institutionalised racism so be it. But that remains an opinion perhaps more rooted in a specific individual experience than in a clearly elaborated definition of what is racist as opposed to deeply offensive.

        Most troubling are assertions to the effect that intent is irrelevant. It must be wonderful to have a hitherto unelaborated definition of ‘racism’ that escapes the emotion that usually clouds its interpretation. Without one it is more difficult to adopt a near McCarthyist ‘racist under every bed’ approach and accord oneself the luxury of being able to speak on behalf of and interpret the life experience of every “black and brown” French citizen.

        Yet the debate is a little wider than that. When talking about the ‘responsibility’ and ‘price’ of freedom of expression it is as well to consider repression as a history of thin-edged wedges. The ‘price’ of ceding ground on freedom of speech should not be underestimated. Which does not mean minorities – or any citizen – should be content with inequality here in France. They should not. To push out that racist wedge means the law must be resorted to and applied equally.

        The anti-defamation, anti- racism and other hate crime legislation is robust in France but despite regularly testing is not resorted to enough. Although Charlie Hebdo have been prosecuted ~50 times over the last 20 odd years (and lost a quarter of those cases) it is surprising that Dieudonné did not choose to take them on for defamation. Neither did Madame Taubira choose to take on La Minute. Were those decisions made due to institutionalized racism or weak legislation? Perhaps it is racist to suggest, no, they were not.

        Or maybe the legal system here also falls in its entirety under the ‘institutionally racist’ cloak. Perhaps the blog above is so certain of its French legal knowledge and the hate crime cases brought before judges as to make this judgement. But perhaps not.

        Is it as material as you appear to suggest that some learning and experience in Paris sits behind the article? Possibly. Certainly it helps to be able to consider matters through foreign eyes away from at least the bias of nationality if not that of career interest. Yet if there is the implication that debaters have to present credentials, demarcate themselves racially or have read Fallon, Césaire etc to ‘understand’ France it is one that is a blinkered, self-serving and arrogant way of dismissing opposing views.

        Each of us is free to interpret history as it suits but preferably with balance, humility and reason. Invective, selective use of context and misinformation (photos are not, in fact, “required” on curriculum vitae in law or expected by custom) is poor debate.

  2. Thank you for this. This is an *excellent* follow-up to your Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie and rebuttal to all those calls for “context.” Assimilation is a marker of the history of European empire and colonialism and their legacies, but, as you argue, the French brand took a particularly pernicious form that makes it damn near impossible to interrogate France’s racist past, present, and future (to paraphrase you). Assimilation is an equally (if not more) important context in which to situate the events of last week (while still not condoning the violence). To all those calls for “context” I would also add to the rebuttal arsenal, Fanon’s canon, as he and his writings are as important a part of French history as Marianne, the tri-couleur, or the Resistance.

    1. Fanon is essential to understanding France. I intend to do more articles like this and will be referencing him there as well. It’s impossible to understand France today without understanding the psychology of French colonialism, particularly with regards to the Algerian community, as I find them to be so much of the brunt of racism and exclusion in modern France. Thank you so much for reading!

      1. Thank you for writing so thoughtfully! I found the Je ne suis pas Charlie post through a Facebook friend’s link, and I’m now following the blog.

  3. An excellent essay and response to critics of your last piece. As someone indicated on your last entry, I will point my students to this writing (I’m teaching comparative vertebrate anatomy, this semester, but I have no doubt that the issue will come up — last semester, in an intro bio class, we spent a lot of time discussing #blacklivesmatter).

    1. this is a wonderful read, thank you so much for adding this! You really have to take into account Algeria and the Battle of Algiers to truly understand post colonialism in France and in a sense, Charlie Hebdo. Thank you very much for adding this to the discourse.

  4. I was struck by the similarity in logic employed by defenders of the Chapel Hill murderer, Craig Stephen Hicks, to that used by defenders of Charley Hebdo. This from a February 12 New Yorker article: “It seems we are also supposed to be relieved by the fact that Hicks, who carried a gun to earlier confrontations with his neighbors, was not a religious fanatic. Are we then supposed to ignore the fact that he was an anti-religious fanatic, who was said to have taunted the women he later killed for dressing according to their traditions and beliefs? We are told that he was in favor of gay marriage, as if that negated his militant intolerance of others. He spent most of his time on Facebook heaping contempt on Christians, who are more numerous by far in Hicks’s neck of the woods than Muslims. And yet with law-enforcement sounding like Hicks-family spin doctors, we are being urged to consider this murderer as a figure of all-embracing American assimilation—a man who did not care who they were but hated them as he would hate anyone and everyone, equally and without fear or favor, for the way they parked.” Of course, CH defenders ignore is that Hicks is a logical outcome of Hebdo.

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