Colorblindness and Anti-Discrimination in France

By  Dru Spiller

“Colorblindness” is the effective removal of minority identity for the purpose of official equality. Its use in Western European countries, who try to produce an anti-racist culture, creates benefits for disadvantaged people of color but it can also produce stereotypical and racialized representation of people of color in the media.

European anti-discrimination laws and the principles behind their creation serve as the basis for the concept of colorblindness. World War II is often credited for the development of the European model of human rights and equality. This European concept of equality is also traced by Bruno de Witte in his essay “From a Common Principle of Equality to European Antidiscrimination Law” (2010); and by Daniel Sabbagh in his essay, “The Collection of Ethnoracial Statistics: Developments in the French Controversy” (2008). Both consider the aftermath of World War II and genocide in tracing the origin of, current cultural manifestation of color blindness. It was during the transition and reconstruction period following the war, as countries tried to make sense of the resulting chaos, that antidiscrimination became a high priority for the newly created intergovernmental organizations. In an effort to prevent another Holocaust, anti-discrimination began to play a very central role in individual state policies and eventually the European Union’s treatment of minorities.

The European Court of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 14) both contain language designed to protect against discrimination of sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age, or sexual orientation. This same language is also translated into the national or state level by many European countries, including France, which has articles in their constitutions that are meant to ensure equality and prohibit discrimination. Although these state policies were created with the intent of producing a more tolerant society, the language calls for equality by forbidding the designation of “minority” characteristics as a separate entity. As a result, discrimination-against and concerns unique to minorities are often ignored in order to maintain the façade of cohesion and equality.

Although many have estimated that the black population in France is the largest colored minority in Europe, the French policy of anti-discrimination and color blindness means that there is no numerical count of the black population because a census identifying race is illegal. This means there are no statistics to lean on when addressing the proper ratio of diversity in politics and media to accurately represent the ethnic make-up of France. Instead of creating laws that deal with the history and culture of racism stemming from neo-colonialism and, antisemitism, and how it affects the way people think and act, France has covered the issue by making any act of racial designation illegal. Not only are hate crimes illegal, but also any policy or action that has taken place because of race, creed, religion, or so on is unlawful. The issue, then, becomes how people of color, as supposed “minorities”, can prove and seek to address disparate treatment and how the non-minority citizens of the country can understand and address the embedded racism when many aspects of the conversation are banned.

When anti-discrimination laws are designed only to produce a “colorblind” discourse, they become ineffective pieces of legislature that allow countries to appear post-racial. In this way, antidiscrimination laws produce a colorblind discourse that affects the ways in which people of color are seen. In his work on administrative violence and transgender politics, Dean Spade uses Critical Race Theory to explore anti-discrimination law and colorblindness as harmful factors resulting in the “neoliberal politics of denying that unequal conditions exist, portraying any unequal conditions that do exist as natural or neutral” (Spade 2011: 28). Within French media this idea translates into the racialized stereotypes of minorities.

Media becomes the medium through which most people begin to understand the “other” citizens that they are not in regular contact with because of various economic and social reasons. When minorities cannot fully assimilate into a preconceived French identity, which is nearly impossible for Muslim and darker skinned immigrants, they are portrayed in ways that conform to the larger society’s stereotypes. Because the images of the racialized other in media roles conform to your stereotypes your biases are no longer considered discriminatory but an assessment of their natural condition.

The lack of diverse minority representation in the French media contributes to the ignorance and ostracization from French society surrounding minority populations.  By attempting to create equality through anti-discrimination laws the country has created a system of colorblindness that delegitimizes the issues that minorities face from racism, ostracization, integration, and representation in favor of a more cohesive and seemingly equal nation. It is this system that allows French media to perpetuate the ideals of a society that supports their dominant view of French identity based on whiteness and that lack accurate representation of the non-white ethnic communities or portrays them in ways that contribute to immigrant stereotypes.