Accueil du site > Des mots importants > Post-colonial > Can We Speak of A Postcolonial Racism ?

Can We Speak of A Postcolonial Racism ?


par Pierre Tevanian, Saïd Bouamama
12 août 2015

To the question of whether or not we can speak of a postcolonial racism, we ask another : How can we not ? How can we speak of contemporary forms of racism without referring to their primary genealogies : systems of slavery and colonialism ? How can we possibly negate the fact that a deep racism exists, which can be traced back to the French colonial Empire’s institutions, practices, discourse, and forms of representation ? How can we negate it when, for example, opinion polls clearly indicate a strong and durable form of scorn or targeted rejection with respect to immigrants from the former colonized countries ?

Over the past several decades, two phenomena have emerged, as shown in various surveys [1] : 1) the most recent immigrants are always the most denigrated, the most feared, and the most scorned, but time slowly dissipates this fear and this scorn ; 2) immigrants from the former colonies, especially from Africa, are the exception to this rule. In other words, one can distinguish between a xenophobic stigma that only exists in its worst forms for new arrivals, and a racist stigma that is a crystallization of more deeply rooted prejudice. As a result, the racism toward the second category does not—or hardly—dissipate with the renewal of generations and their rootedness in France. Though immigrants from Italy, Poland, Armenia, and Portugal were the object of despicable discourse and often quite brutal discrimination upon their arrival in France, discrimination similar in form and in violence to what today’s postcolonial immigrants undergo, this was not the case for their children, and even less so for their grand-children. [2] The same cannot be said for the children of North African or sub-Saharan African immigrants, who are the only ones to be condemned to the absurd—but politically eloquent—appellation of “second or third-generation immigrants” and the accompanying forms of discrimination.

If, as Albert Memmi describes it, racism is “a generalized and definitive valorization of real or imaginary differences, which benefits the accuser to the detriment of the victim, in order to legitimize aggression and privilege” [3], then there is a specific kind of racism that has been constructed in order to legitimize colonial aggression and privilege. “Cultural differences” (especially with respect to Muslims) were essentialized and naturalized ; a “moral” form of exclusion was justified based on these differences ; the “native” was theorized and created as a “body of exception” and framed by specific legislation (formalized, for example, in Algeria by the sénatus-consulte of July 14, 1865). [4] This culturalist racism did indeed get passed down from generation to generation, including in the era following independence—and this without much change, as is the case with any system of representation that goes unchecked by criticism or deconstruction. It is difficult to deny that representations of the “Black”, the “immigrant”, the “Muslim”, the “beur” or the “beurette” continue to enjoy widespread circulatation in contemporary French society and not without consequences. [5] “Cultural” difference remains overvalued in French society (“they” are different from “us”) while ignoring other differences relating to class or “personality” (“they” are all the same, and “we” all share the same “national identity”). Nor can it be denied that this two-fold operation of differentiation and amalgamation results in patently inferiorizing representations (in the best case, “they” are seen as backward or deficient, and in the worst for the danger they represent, while “we” embody “reason”, the “universal”, and “modernity”). [6] Finally, there is no question that this devalorizing discourse serves to legitimate a situation of domination, of relegation, and of systemic social exclusion within the contemporary postcolonial space.

Systemic and Institutional Discrimination

After decades of denial and blindness to the fact, the extreme level of racist discrimination is finally beginning to be recognized. Moreover, many are ready to admit that this discrimination more specifically affects the descendents of “formerly colonized” peoples. However, despite the existence of several studies highlighting the systemic character of these forms of discrimination, discrimination is still mostly seen as isolated acts of “misunderstanding the other” or a “withdrawal into oneself”. [7] The victims themselves are even at times blamed for their lack of “integration” or their “cultural” backwardnes. In all cases, the existence of the social process of the production of discrimination is entirely denied. But this process has been put in place by the institutions of the Republic itself, even legalized in despite of the official principle of non-discrimination, which is ritually reiterated while being flouted on a daily basis. [8] The systemic and institutional character of discrimination is nevertheless patent, and makes for a palpable analogy with the colonial relationship : “Beyond the series of analogies that one can find in these two phenomena—historical analogies (immigration is often the daughter of direct or indirect colonization) and structural analogies (in today’s order of relationships of domination, immigration takes the place that colonization once occupied)—, immigration has, in a certain sense, been built as a system, much like one used to say that ‘colonization is a system’ (to borrow Sartre’s expression).” [9] Postcolonial racism is thus not simply a holdover from the past. Rather, it is an ever-evolving, systemic facet of our society. Representational forms inherited from the past continually get reformulated and renewed to fit contemporary interests. Indeed, it is our society that continues to produce “natives” in the political sense of the term : “sub-citizens”, “subjects” who are not, legally speaking, foreigners, but who, nevertheless, are not treated as real French.

In his work The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Karl Marx studied this interaction between the past and the present, and the role that the inherited social imaginary plays. People decipher their lived reality through this imaginary ; they determine the borders between “us” and “them” ; they use it as the foundation of their present actions. Specifically, it was through this colonial imaginary that postcolonial immigrants were first seen in the 1960s and 1970s, and it was this imaginary that legitimized the economic, social, and political marginalization of these immigrants. Starting at the bottom in the most difficult and tiring jobs of the economic world, denial of social needs unrelated to directly productive needs, reduction of man to imple unit of labor (and therefore neglect of family life), the injunction to be discreet and apolitical. The spread of unemployment and of job precariousness beginning in the 1980s took place against the backdrop of an order of domination in which immigrants were seen as dominated among the dominated : thus did French people from colonized backgrounds inherit the place in society that their parents had once occupied.

Culturalist, Output-Oriented, Depoliticized “Causal Attributions”

The colonial imaginary is related to manner in which real situations of inequality are understood. The colonizer does not negate inequalities produced by the colonial system, but their origins are repressed and attributed to biological or cultural explanations. [10] For example, the lack of ardor in the colonized’s work is not explained in terms of the colonial social relationship that imposes exhausting working conditions on the colonized while simultaneously denying personal initiative or any kind of pleasure from her/his her labor, but rather attributed to the inherent indolence of the “African” or the incorrigible lack of discipline in the “North African”. [11] One sees this same mechanism of decontextualization, depoliticization, and ethnicization today : discrimination is no longer seen as the root of marginalization, of “rage”, or of the “whatever” attitude typical of so many young people from colonial background of colonization, but as a deficiency in the youths themselves—a lack of “direction” or parental guidance, a “cultural” inability or incompatibility, a lack of familiarity with the “values of the Republic” or with “modernity” itself… [12] In November 2005, some even went so far as to inverse the causes and effects, by explaining that these youth had difficulty finding jobs because of their “asocial behavior”, products after all of their “parents’ polygamy” !

The thematic of “integration”, which remains dominant in policies targeting immigrants and their children, can be inscribed in this culturalist, output-oriented, and depoliticized register. The call for integration, in fact, reduces those to which it refers to an irreducible “cultural difference” and a perpetual position of exteriority with respect to the “national community” : the idea that they must integrate themselves or be integrated assumes that they are not already—naturalization proceedings, with their “integration questionnaire” are one of the practical iterations of this logic. Historically, it was under the aegis of the colonial system that the equality of citizens was subverted in support of a culturalist definition of the nation. In this framework, the colonized could only enjoy the privileges of citizenship if they gave up their “statut personnel” [civil status]. [13]

Integrationism, Another Form of Racism ?

The word integration also requires those targeted to be reserved, discreet, in a word, invisible. Éric Savarèse has shown how the colonial gaze made the colonized invisible, or made him or her a simple mirror in which “France” could contemplate its own “civilizing” genius ; for his part, Abdelmalek Sayad has shown that this “invisibilization” has been reproduced in the sphere of immigration where the immigrant is reduced to a position d’obligés [indebted position] vis-à-vis the host society. [14] The situation is the same today for young French with backgrounds of colonization : they, too, are “invisible” and are also told not to be “ostentatious”, to be polite and discreet, even though they face quotidian encounters filled with scorn and social injustice. All efforts to be seen are taken as a threat, as indication of their “refusal to integrate”, as a “rejection of the Republic”.

At the risk of being shocking, we can say that integration, such as it is generally conceived, spoken of, and politically translated for the public, is less often an alternative to racism than a sublimated form or instrument of legitimization for this racism. If racism is the denial of equality, then integration is the credo that evacuates the issue of egalitarianism. Indeed, while being “integrated” and “included”, having “one’s place” are considered better than being purely and simply excluded, these terms do not specify which place is being designated. A waiter has “his place”. He may well be included and integrated while also being subordinated, scorned, and exploited. The fact is that, in many contexts, speaking of “integration problems” is essentially a way to avoid having to articulate words like domination, discrimination, and inequality. The similarities between the use of the word “integration” in the colonial system and then again in the postcolonial system are striking : in both cases, beyond the numerous contextual differences, the word is working in the same way, namely, as pushback against demands for liberty and equality. Indeed, the word “integration” was never used as frequently as when the colonized demanded equal rights, self-determination, and independence—and then again, several decades later, beginning in 1983, when their descendants “marched for Equality”. [15]

“Integrate, Suppress, Promote, Emancipate”

The postcolonial system also reproduces divisions and compartmentalizations among individuals from the colonial system : masses to integrate, masses to suppress, an elite to promote, and women to “emancipate”.

Masses to integrate. The “culturally handicapped”, the “resistant”, the “maladjustment of Islam to modernity” and “secularism”, the lack of “efforts to integrate” : all of these clichés are the product of a “mythical portrait of the colonized”, which Albert Memmi. Analyzed so convincinly in his book The Clonizer and the Colonized. [16] One finds the motifs of “backwardness” and “slowness”, and their opposite : the French State’s “civilizing” mission.

Masses to suppress. Rejection and revolt on the part of the youth from the banlieues faced with inequality, particularly those of colonial immigrant backgrounds, are considered illegitimate. Because these acts are seen within a strictly culturalist prism, no other possible meaning, value, or social and political legitimacy can be assigned. [17] Youth demanding social justice are only seen according to their “refusal to integrate” and their familial and/or cultural and/or religious affiliations. They are considered “anomic”—or worse : the bearers of norms and values that pose a threat to the social order.

From the rodeos [reckless joyriding] in the Minguettes project of 1981 to the riots of November 2005, the systematic (and almost exclusively and excessively “hard”) recourse to the surveillance and repression of protest movements is another point in common with the colonial model. More generally, all dissident, deviant, or simply “misplaced” behavior on the part of the youth from backgrounds of colonization is met with moral judgment that recalls the outrage, the generalizations, and the content of the colonials’ grievances pertaining to the colonized. The “mythical portrait of the postcolonized person” in large part reproduces the “mythical portrait of the colonized”, the structure and development of which Albert Memmi studied in his time. [18] Today, as in the colonial era, we speak of “territories” to “conquer” or “reconquer”, “uncivilized spaces”, “wild children” and “barbarians”, a “lack of education”, the necessity of “adapting” our penal legislation to “new”, radically “different” populations who once lived “outside of all rationality.” [19]

Beyond words, political and police practices (though, happily, to a lesser extent) act according to a script that was in large part written during the colonial context : from the implementation of a curfew to “pre-emptive war”, or repeated police inspections or inopportune dispersions in building lobbies, from the penalization of parents for the crimes of their children to the ways of dealing with political contestation (defamation, criminalization, calls upon religious authorities to pacify a riot or keep the public from political protest), officials have installed methods of control that undermine a good number of fundamental principles (the presumption of innocence, the principle of individual responsibility, the principle of secularism, etc.). These are seen as anomalies within the French legal tradition. But if one recalls that other French tradition, the nation’s shadows where exceptionalism and techniques of power were invented and experimented—we are of course speaking of the colonies—then the current “security-related deviations” lose much of their newness and exoticism.

An elite to promote. Be it to show off the “French model of integration” (to show the failing masses that “you can pull yourself up”, and that each individual is ultimately responsible for his or her unhappiness), or to work as an “intermediary” with the other “youths” under the pretext of cultural proximity, or to occupy ethnicized posts under the pretext of certain specifications, an ideological injunction to disloyalty is being declined at many levels. This situation is similar to Frantz Fanon’s conception of the “evolved”, of the “Black skin” and “White mask”. [20]

Women to “emancipate”, in spite of themselves, and against their families. The debates surrounding the law on the wearing of religious signs have brought to the fore the persistence of colonial representations of a “violent heterosexuality” between the “Arab” or “Muslim boy” and the submissive woman or girl. The very fact that those concerned went unheard, that they were asked to unveil themselves under threat of punishment, exclusion, and academic expulsion—in other words : to “force them to be free”—recalls the colonial conception of emancipation. [21]

The Stakes of Nomination

To conclude, and in response to recurring objections, we must clarify two issues. First, to say that a “postcolonial racism” exists does not amount to saying that racism is the only element of French contemporary society, that colonization is the only source of racism, or that countries that did not have colonial Empires do not have their own forms of racism with their own historic foundations. Clearly, other forms of racism exist in France, which is to say, other forms of irreducible stigmatization and xenophobia : Anti-Jewish and Anti-Gypsy racism, for example—or even radical forms of social scorn with regard to “poor Whites”, which amounts, in a way, to a “class racism”.

While it might be necessary to recall the past and present oppression of Blacks, Arabs, and Muslims when it is being absolutized or put into competition with that of other groups, it would be absurd and dishonest to suspect or accuse—as is often done—these groups of “colonial-centrism”, of “competing with other victims” or of “trivializing the Shoah”. It would be irresponsible to call someone anti-Semitic for devoting him or herself to the analysis and struggle against specific racism targeted at colonized and postcolonized persons. On this point, let us cite Sigmund Freud, who argued that dedicating oneself to the numerous neuroses that are born from sexual repression is not tantamount to negating the existence of other troubles and causes. In the same way, emphasizing the colonial origins of some forms of racism is not tantamount to negating the existence of other forms of racism and discrimination rooted in other historic moments and other social processes. We do not see colonization everywhere any more than Freud saw sex everywhere—even if we do see it at work in places where others do not want to see it, like Freud saw sexual pulsion where many did not want to see it.

Neither is speaking of “postcolonial racism” a way to suggest that descendants of colonized persons experience the same situation, in every aspect, as their ancestors. Here, the meaning of the prefix “post” is clear : it marks both a change of era and a filiation, an inheritance, a “family resemblance”. Here again, it is worth making the distinction. However, it is often a bit beside the point, especially when it is brought up in order to “give a lesson” to militant movements that are often completely aware of the differences between colonial and postcolonial situations—and who say so loud and clear. Such was the case for the Mouvement des Indigènes de la République. In spite of the numerous clarifications they provided [22], a number of scholars and politicians criticized them on a regular basis for calling themselves indigènes [natives] or for qualifying some speech and some legal, administrative, and police documents as “colonial”. [23] The Code de l’Indigénat has been abolished, they sagely explain. The problem with these kinds of demands for seriousness and historical rigor, besides the fact that they take their audience for a bunch of imbeciles, is that they misunderstand the specificity of political discourse, or rather, of certain forms of political discourse (the petition, the tract, the banner, the slogan, etc.), which imply, since the beginning of time and regardless of the struggle (workers, feminists, homosexuals, etc.), a certain use of the shortcut and hyperbole. It is also that they misunderstand the heuristic power that the “anger of the oppressed” can wield. [24]

These calls to order also feels like a “double standard”, for one rarely hears the scholar or the politician offering the same lessons or friendly advice to militant feminists when they—and rightly so—call our society patriarchal. However, the same goes for the discriminatory laws giving women the status of minors and the Code de l’Indigénat. Equality between men and women is now enacted by law, just like the principle of non-discrimination in function of “race, ethnicity, or religion”—and they share the same relative-effectiveness… Nor does one find the same worries and hypercorrections when over-exploited illegal immigrants are compared to slaves, when philosophers, sociologists, and left-wing militants speak of academic or social apartheid, or when wage-earners, benefiting from some acquired social status or relative access to consumer goods, continue to sing about themselves as the “damned of the earth” or “slaves of hunger”…

More deeply, the hostile, wary, and condescending reactions to the different movements and demands of 2005, among which figured the demands of the Indigènes de la République, pose crucial questions regarding the power to name and its legitimacy. The power to name is performative, which is to say that it affects realities ; it shapes what is said and what is, as a result, relegated to the “un-said” and even to the un-sayable. It constructs social reality in a determined manner and imposes grids for reading, concrete cause and effect explanations that trickle down through public policies. Knowing who is authorized to name whom is not irrelevant. It is not irrelevant to see new terms emerge, be they for self-designation or hetero-designation. It is in this way, rather than in the professional mode of emphasizing the differences between colonial and postcolonial natives, that historians and sociologists ought to understand recent movements that, in part, understand themselves in terms of the colonial past. As Abdelmalek Sayad recalls : “This is a known thing : derision is the weapon of the weak ; it is a passive arm, a protective and preventive arm. This technique is well-known by dominated peoples, and is used with relative frequency in situations of domination […]. Black American sociology and colonial sociology teach that, as a general rule, one form of revolt, and undoubtedly the primary form of revolt against stigmatization […], consists in reclaiming the stigma, which then becomes an emblem of it.” [25]


This text is taken from Pascal Blanchard (ed), Colonial culture in France since the revolution, Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 2014

To read the French version.


[1] Yvan Gastaut, L’Immigration et l’opinion en France sous la Ve République (Paris : Seuil, 1999).

[2] Gérard Noiriel, Le Creuset français (Paris : Seuil, 1988) and La Tyrannie du national (Paris : Calmann-Lévy, 1991).

[3] Albert Memmi, Le Racisme (Paris : Gallimard, 1999), 184.

[4] Mohamed Barkat, Le Corps d’exception. Les artifices du pouvoir colonial et la destruction de la vie (Paris : Éditions Amsterdam, 2005).

[5] Nicolas Bancel and Pascal Blanchard, De l’indigène à l’immigré (Paris : Gallimard, 1998).

[6] Pierre Tévanian, “Le corps d’exception et des métamorphoses”, in Quasimodo, no. 9 (Summer 2005).

[7] Véronique de Rudder, ed., L’Inégalité raciste (Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, 2000).

[8] Christine Delphy, “Un mouvement, quel mouvement ?”,

[9] Abdelmalek Sayad, L’Immigration ou les paradoxes de l’altérité. L’illusion du proviso ire (Paris : Raisons d’agir, 2006), 173.

[10] See Carole Reynaud Paligot, La République raciale, 1860-1930. Paradigme racial et idéologie républicaine (Paris : Presses Universitaires de France, 2006).

[11] Albert Memmi, The colonizer and the colonized, translated by Howard Greenfield (Boston : Beacon Press, 1991 [1957]).

[12] See Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy : Aspects of Working-Class Life (London and New York : Penguin, 2009).

[13] Barkat, Le Corps d’exception.

[14] Éric Savarèse, Histoire coloniale et immigration (Paris : Séguier, 2000) and Sayad, L’Immigration ou les paradoxes de l’altérité.

[15] Saïd Bouamama, 10 ans de marches des beurs (Paris : Desclée de Brouwer, 1994).

[16] Memmi, The colonizer and the colonized, 80-89.

[17] François Athané, “Ne laissons pas punir les pauvres”,

[18] Memmi, The colonizer and the colonized.

[19] Pierre Tévanian, Le Ministère de la peur. Réflexions sur le nouvel ordre sécuritaire (Paris : L’Esprit frappeur, 2004).

[20] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, translated by Richard Philcox (New York : Grove Press, 2008 [1952]).

[21] Nacira Guénif-Souilamas and Éric Macé, Les Féministes et le garçon arabe (Paris : L’Aube, 2004) and Christine Delphy, “Antisexisme ou antiracisme : un faux dilemme”, Nouvelles Questions feminists 25.1 (January 2006), 59-83.

[22] See Alix Héricord, Sadri Khiari, and Laurent Lévy, “Indigènes de la République : réponses à quelques objections”,

[23] Jean-Pierre Chrétien, “Certitudes et quiproquos du débat colonial”, Esprit, no. 322 (February 2006), 174-186 and the Special issue of Hérodote, no. 120, devoted to “La question coloniale” (February 2006).

[24] Colette Guillaumin, Sexe, race et pratique du pouvoir (Paris : Éditions des Femmes, 1992).

[25] Abdelmalek Sayad, “Le mode de génération des générations immigrées”, Migrants-Formation, n° 98 (septembre 1994), 12.