(Photo by: memespp.com)
It’s true that a new year does bring a new start. January was a really big turning moment for me when I was studying abroad. It was when I really started to get comfortable, and might I say, excel, in French. It was in January that I noticed my conversations with Tatie no longer had 5 minute pauses in between each sentence, during which I would fervently look up words in the dictionary that we kept next to the table. This was the time when I was finally able to hold a somewhat adult conversation that showcased how I did have a higher intellect than a 5 year old. The January that I spent in Paris was also the time that the American primary presidential elections were taking place. From January to March, all the major French news channels were covering what was happening on the other side of the Atlantic. Who was running? Who did the Americans think had a chance of becoming the next Chef d’état? It was during this coverage that the world first came across Barack Obama.
(President Obama. Photo by en.wikipedia.org)
The French heavily covered this relatively unknown senator from Illinois, particularly his family history. Since my French was at a more advanced level at this point, I was able to answer some of Tatie’s many questions on the American political system. But one night, she had a question that was very difficult to answer for linguistic and cultural reasons. She asked me about race. The French reporters were pulling their information about the presidential candidates mostly from the American news stories. So they kept translating that Barack Obama would be the first black president if he won. But, then they would show a story about his childhood and photos of him and his white mother. After a few nights of watching these news stories, Tatie turned to me and asked why Americans refer to Mr. Obama as black when he clearly had a white mother. It was a valid question. From the eyes of a French person, this person is not of one race, but of two.
(One of the photos that started this whole new conversation topic. Photo by www.metabunk.org)
I thought back to all my French lessons in college but not one of them covered race. How do you explain the social construct of race and its context in American history in French? With no real knowledge of what expressions or vocabulary to use, I trudged through what would be the next forty minutes of explaining the one drop rule. For those of you that are a little rusty, the one drop rule was a discriminatory law that denied rights to people who weren’t 100% Caucasian. Essentially, if you had one drop of any other race’s blood than Caucasian in your body, you were no longer white and could be denied freedom, the right to vote, property, jobs, etc… The far cultural reach of the one drop rule appears to be why Americans do not use the term bi-racial. Instead, bi-racial individuals are culturally coerced to choose one race over another. But how do you explain than in a 2nd language? Just as I was getting comfortable with this new, advanced French, here I was back at the beginning again. Tatie had other questions now that her curiosity was piqued. I did my best to answer them, but I can assure you that I didn’t do well. It’s not something that any French class covers and I’m positive that I wasn’t accurately or even adequately expressing myself and the subject at hand.
(When you’re feeling stuck in a conversation. Photo by www.pimsleurapproach.com)
My time among the French, I can tell you that they like to discuss race. Or maybe more accurately, they like to discuss Americans’ view of race. In some ways, French views are very different, in some ways they’re the same and in some ways they’re worse (by American standards). France has had a different history with race than the USA which is why you’ll find French people are interested in discussing it with an American. And with some of the current news stories, I’m positive it will come up in conversation. I know in the USA that most people feel uncomfortable discussing race but it most likely will come up at some point in a conversation. Since French textbooks aren’t going to cover race anytime soon, you’ll need to do your own research. Start by reading recent American news stories on French news sources such as Le Parisien or Le Monde. This will give you a glimpse into vocabulary and expressions. If you want to go the extra mile, look on Amazon France for books on American history. Download the Kindle app to your smart phone and you can get it on your phone for a read whenever you have a few minutes. To get you started, here’s some key words for a discussion on race in French:
La race – race
Le racisme – racism (I’m not sure why race is feminine but racism is masculine.)
L’esclavage (masc) – slavery
L’esclave (neutral) – slave
Un noir/ une noire- a black man/woman
Un amérindien / une amérindienne – a Native American man / woman
Un chinois/ une chinoise – a Chinese man / woman
The word “bi-racial” doesn’t exist in French. A word that is more commonly used is métis (masc) / métisse (fem), meaning mix.
(A beautiful bi-racial little girl. Photo by minnesotamiranda.com)
Another thing that has appeared in recent French language use is the word un black. This used to describe a black male, typically American. I’m not sure why it’s used but I think it’s strange. I’ve never used and you don’t have to either. If you want to talk about someone who is from Mexico/ Central America or other parts of Latin America, do not use the term hispanique which refers to someone from Spain. Just describe where they are from (ex: mexicain/mexicaine or vénézuélien/enne).
The French love to discuss the news and this is a topic that has been a key point in recent US news stories. Knowing a few key words as well as the fact that you may be asked to speak on this delicate topic as a delegate for your country are ways to prepare yourself for this conversation. Remember, you never have to talk about anything that you aren’t comfortable with but at least now you can recognize when you may want to leave the room.