Colonial Hangover à la française
“Mom, why is my skin the colour of milk chocolate”? According to her, I was in kindergarten when I asked her that. This was my own Fanonian moment: I had realised that the colour of my skin, which was different (browner) than the vast majority of the kids around me, meant something. But what?
I was born in France of Moroccan parents, and the legacies of the French Empire have affected my life in many ways. Of course, this wasn’t always bad or harmful: as a kid, I got to spend part of my summer holidays visiting family in Morocco, which was fun. I also grew up in a peaceful middle-class suburb and my parents (an engineer and a senior scientist) were members of the so-called professional-managerial class, which meant that my class position kept me shielded from much racialised state violence. Yet, despite my petit-bourgeois upbringing, I can confidently say that colonial legacies have profoundly shaped my being and existence, including how I think, speak (in French), behave in public, possibly even my cultural tastes… Let me explain.
The classrooms, cafés, sports clubs, restaurants, bars and workplaces where I spent time were almost exclusively ‘white spaces’, and fairly early on I developed an awareness of how my non-whiteness was perceived by the people around me. I also figured that, because of how my identity was construed, fitting in would actually require some action on my part, and I developed (more or less conscious) strategies for that. One such strategy consisted in adopting and approximating as much as I could what are commonly construed as white (and bourgeois) norms for speech and behaviour, in order to try and become ‘as white’ as possible. Critical race theorists, building on the work of black intellectuals like WEB Du Bois, James Baldwin and Toni Morisson, call this seeking validation, approval, and affirmation in the ‘white gaze’.
For me, this meant doing a bunch of different things. It meant smiling a lot, and being extra polite (as far as I can remember, I always felt that I had to be much politer than my friends). It also meant speaking in the most articulate French (laughing hilariously at the North African accent is a national sport in France), and being really good at French history. It is a bit sad to say, but for a while this also involved denigrating my Moroccan cultural heritage, either explicitly (by awkwardly turning it into a matter of derision), or in the subtler form of showing no interest in learning anything about it. I profoundly disliked being talked to in Arabic by my mom in public, and made absolutely no effort to learn the language (to this day I only speak Moroccan Darija poorly, and do not know how to read or write it). I made sure to be vocal about the fact that I wasn’t Muslim. I also tried to physically look as different as possible from the (French) racialised stereotype of the Arab/Muslim youth, which shaped my sense of aesthetics. The list could go on…
Of course, the tragedy of all that is that it was ultimately bound to fail. Whiteness is a highly malleable category (who is considered white has changed a lot across time and space, including in France), but it is not something that can be ‘achieved’ somehow unilaterally by those racialised as non-white. While seeking approval in the white gaze did help me to fit in (at the cost of internalising processes of racial and postcolonial domination, and making me somehow complicit in my own oppression), I could however never manage to be fully white. In fact, I was constantly questioned about my allegiances: ‘do you feel more French or Moroccan?’ is probably the question I’ve been asked the most from my childhood to my early adult life.
I suspect that the above will sound extremely familiar to many postcolonial subjects, and one may argue that I could have experienced very similar things had I grown up in other former imperial centres. But there might be something distinctively French about this colonial hangover, and how it is experienced and internalised by postcolonial subjects in France: France is almost completely race-blind. Scholars of race and racism such as Aurélien Mondon, Aaron Winter, and Enzo Traverso attribute this to the abstract and mythical form of universalism upon which the French Republic is predicated. France does not ‘see’ race because doing so would allegedly threaten the universalist nature of the French Republic. This leads to the paradoxical situation where, in France, race is everywhere (in the sense that the legacies of inequality and racism left by colonialism and slavery profoundly shape almost every aspect of everyday life), and yet race can’t be seen and can’t be uttered.
In other words, colonial hangover à la française, presents itself to racialised individuals and communities in the self-contradictory form of pervasive-racism-in-denial, which almost entirely (and deliberately) forecloses any conversation about race. Former French president Sarkozy neatly encapsulated this when he said: “La France, tu l’aimes ou tu la quittes” (France, love it or leave it). One of the many afterlives of the French Empire is that this extraordinarily violent statement is largely perceived as self-evident by the average white French. I myself have been told many versions of it. And every single time, I wanted to reply (but rarely did) with the simple yet powerful words of the late Ambalavaner Sivanandan: “We are here, because you were there.”
 Although my class position certainly did not protect me from a good amount of racism and its lot of dehumanising experiences, which I won’t talk about here.
 This realisation was, in itself, a rather harrowing experience: if I was so deeply moulded by race and empire, where were my individuality, personal preferences, and life choices?
 I was terribly frustrated with my (curly) hair texture: why couldn’t I also get one of those cool spiky hairstyles?
 Ironically, I did become white enough that many of my acquaintances felt completely comfortable saying horribly racist stuff (towards Blacks, Arabs, Muslims, Asians, and Roma people) around me. The idea that, as a person racialised as non-white, it’d be particularly shocked by these comments wouldn’t even cross their mind.
 This is now slowly changing thanks to the admirable activism of Black organisations around issues of police brutality in France.
Baldwin, J. (1961) Nobody Knows My Name, New York: Penguin Books
Fanon, F. (1952) Black Skin, White Masks, New York: Grove Press
Mondon, A. & A. Winter (2020) Reactionary Democracy: How Racism and the populist Far Right became Mainstream, London: Verso
Morrison, T. (1970) The Bluest Eye, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston
Sivanandan, A. (1990) Communities of Resistance: Writings on Black Struggles for Socialism, London: Verso
Traverso, E. (2019) The New Faces of Fascism, London: Verso
Ilias Alami is a political economist at Maastricht University. His research and teaching interests are in the areas of the political economy of money and finance, theories of the state, and the articulations between race/class/coloniality. He is the author of Money Power and Financial Capital in Emerging Markets (Routledge 2019) and is currently co-writing a book on state capitalism.
Follow him @IliasAlami