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Popular podcast asks France if it really is ‘colour blind’

Rokhaya Diallo and Grace Ly begin each episode of their popular French podcast by posing the same question to their guests: how do you identify yourself in terms of race, if at all?

“For example, I’m black and Grace is Asian,” Diallo says. “What about you?”

In the UK or US, such a question would be banal. But in France, where talking about race remains taboo, it is a radical move that underscores how its society is quietly evolving under the influence of younger people who are more open to discussing identity than earlier generations.

France likes to cast itself as colour-blind. The law grants everyone equal rights. The state only recognises citizens and does not consider their racial, religious or sexual identities.

It is illegal for companies or the government to collect ethnic or religious data, although exceptions exist for academic researchers, and efforts to promote diversity via affirmative action are also off limits.

‘Kiffe ta Race’ podcast hosts Rokhaya Diallo, left, and Grace Ly. ‘In France, people like us have experiences that everyone tells you do not exist,’ says Diallo © Marie Rouge

In practice, this translates into an aversion to public conversations about race or religion, and suspicion of communautarisme, or identity politics, which is seen by critics as a dangerous US import that undermines social cohesion. But some sociologists note that this approach also prevents France from tackling racial and religious discrimination.

With their podcast Kiffe ta Race — which literally translates as “love your race” but is also a familiar expression meaning “having a blast”— Diallo, an activist and journalist, and Ly, an author, wanted to create a space for people who experience discrimination in France to speak openly about it.

“We’re so conditioned in France not to talk about race that the word itself has been put off limits,” Ly said in an interview. “We wanted to jump right into it.”

The podcast is part of a broader reckoning under way in France about race as critics of the “colour-blind” model grow more vocal. While academic studies have shown that France is less racist now than in decades past, evidence has also accumulated that minorities face discrimination in the labour and housing markets, and are more often targeted by police.

A landmark 2017 report found that young men perceived to be Arab or black were 20 times more likely to be stopped for an identity check than the rest of the population, while job applicants with African or Arab-sounding names were less likely to be hired by big companies, according to a 2020 government study.

Nevertheless, many in the political class looked on with confusion last year as the Black Lives Matter protests spread to Paris, and President Emmanuel Macron urged crowds not to topple colonial-era statues as in other countries. His education ministers have since campaigned against “le woke-ism”, arguing France should not import divisive ideas from abroad, nor be overly influenced by US social movements.

Macron has also voiced concern that France was undoing earlier progress on equality. “Society is focusing more and more on race,” he told Elle magazine in July. “We had freed ourselves of this approach and now we are again defining people by their race and by doing so we are sticking them in a box.”

The success of Kiffe ta Race, which is often among France’s top 20 most-listened podcasts, has shown that some do want to more closely consider such issues. Despite its heavy subject matter, Diallo and Ly’s show is conversational, personal and often funny. 

Longitudinal index of tolerance chart showing how French people have grown less racist

In the first episode, titled “Where are you from?”, Diallo and Ly, both born in France to immigrant parents, told how they came to realise how others saw them. 

Diallo said that the higher she went in the academic world the more often she would be asked where she was from, on the assumption that as she was black she must be from another country. “I didn’t understand it at first and found it strange,” she said.

“In France, people like us have experiences that everyone tells you do not exist. It makes you feel alone.”

The podcast also features guests with interesting stories, such as a mixed-race dancer at the Paris Opera who has advocated for an end to blackface or a television producer who has struggled to cast non-white actors. The journalist Nadiya Lazzouni dissected the French obsession with the veil worn by some Muslim women, including herself.

Eric Fassin, a University of Paris sociologist who came on the show to talk about whiteness and the concept of privilege, said the podcast was “disruptive” because of how it allowed people to speak “in the first person” about their race and experiences. 

“There’s still this idea here that the word ‘race’ is associated with racism, so getting rid of any talk of race is the best way to combat racism,” he said. “This is a fallacy. It’s just that some people don’t want to think about it, and they’re in positions of power to control public discourse.” 

In a sign of how far this dogma can go, lawmakers in 2018 tried to remove the word ‘race’ from the first article of the French constitution that says the republic “shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion”.

Nonna Mayer, an academic who co-authors the annual government-backed Barometer of Racism study, said the campaign to change the constitution showed the oddness of France’s equality debate. “It’s not as if removing the word would eradicate racism,” she said. 

At a taping of Kiffe ta Race held at a cultural centre north of Paris in July, an audience member asked the podcasters whether French society could ever be truly egalitarian. “It can feel slow, but things are changing,” replied Diallo. 

Ly added: “The system of racism used to be able to silence its victims, but now they have a voice.”

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