Racist. That’s a word we use to qualify someone who expresses hostility against someone else because of his race. Having now lived in France for 3 years, I couldn’t help but notice the difference in how people handle racist actions.
I’m from Mauritius, an island bubbling with different sorts of religions and cultures. You go from Chinese to Indian to African with a pinch of French and a spoonful of English. And as much as most of us wouldn’t admit, with its multicultural baggage, came the underlying shadow of racism. People from different cultures aren’t racist to one another. However, they sure aren’t shy to comment openly during family meetings, knowing all people present most likely come from the same culture. In one particular culture there is a word for mixed-race people in their language that means “half-brain shit”.
People often try to explain their refusal of mixed-race marriages with the importance of protecting one’s culture. This should normally not be seen as racism, since I suppose, the willingness to protect one’s culture can’t be assimilated to the hate of another. But I couldn’t help but notice that cultures, especially cultures coming from asia, are more hostile to a mixed marriage with a dark skinned person than with a white skinned person. My knowledge is mostly based on 18 years of living among a deeply set Asian community. And I’ve that despite the argument of wanting to protect one’s culture, many easily forsake that “seek to purity” once a fairer skin person comes into the scenario.
I’ve always been treated as a “lesser” being because I wasn’t white enough. It wasn’t bold, it wasn’t that noticeable, but it was there. In the voice tones, in the body language, in the change in expressions, in the “Oh look! She’s so beautiful and fair skinned” or the “Don’t stay too long in the sun you’ll get darker”. And the killer, on the eve of my flight to Paris, seeing the look light up in the eyes of a member of my family as she said “You’ll get fairer!”.
Between us, I wish she’d be more excited about my law degree instead of my skin colour.
This obsession of the fair skin has ironically creeped under mine as I flew to Paris. I was scared people would be like those in Mauritius, that it would be worse since, France is essentially seen as a “white” country. Much to my surprise, I didn’t have to deal with racism much in three years. Not racism in the Mauritian sense I suppose, thus this article.
I was so affected by the importance of my skin back at home that I was really sensitive whenever someone in France referred to me as “black”. I remember getting really angry when a friend of mine pointed out that I was “black” and to my surprise, no one reacted. Turns out, being called “black” doesn’t have the same pejorative connotation it has back in Mauritius. Here, in France, people who aren’t “white” are for, most of them, considered as “black” and I believe that it comes more from cultural ignorance than actual hatred. It took me a while to understand it but then again, it was for the sake of my social life. I often joke and tell my friends to refer me as “brown”. But when I think of it, I realise that I, myself, have given weight to the term “black” and have adopted it the way Mauritians do. I remember people cringing at that term back at home and I realised that deep down, I didn’t want to be labelled so. However, on the contrary of how it is in Mauritius, it wasn’t because I wouldn’t want to be actually black, but because it put me in the basket of the foreigners. I’m very well aware I am one, but when you start living in a society, you want to adapt to it. And you don’t want to be seen as different. And when society classifies people into two simple categories such as “black” and “white”, you tend to want to integrate yourself and not be labelled as the former.
I couldn’t escape my skin, I couldn’t escape who I was. I didn’t want to be one of those Mauritians who only hang out with Mauritians and I didn’t want to be one of those Mauritians who completely deny their origins. I was stuck. Did it really make me racist? I don’t think so, but some people would argue against that.
Now, I’m not saying that there aren’t racists in France, much like, there aren’t racists anywhere else. I’m saying, that “Racism” is a complex term. For some, it is about hating someone’s skin colour. For others, it also includes one’s religion. And additionally, in some countries, it also includes one’s culture. Fifty years ago, african american and white catholics shared the same religion, however, there was racism. Hating someone else because of his religion is religion intolerance and not racism. In the dictionary, racism, in its term itself, is the hate of someone because of his race. Today it has not only become the hate of a person’s race, but also of his culture and religion. It is perfectly understandable since there isn’t any word in English for people who hate others because of their religion or culture. And the aspects of culture and religion do have deep ties with race. However, words have power. And racism is a powerful word. If we keep using this word as an umbrella term for things outside of race, people will start labelling others using a term that is so generalised that it will lose its essence and specificity and in the end, its real meaning.
Racism is our enemy. It makes everyone, including me, feel vulnerable and prisoners of our own skin. It is this thing that puts a stamp on your forehead to show that you’re different and should be treated differently. A lot of people transfer their hate of one’s race through slightly less politically radical ways : such as the hate for immigrants, using shadow arguments such as the unstable economy or social security. Others use their hate for one’s religion : such as islamophobic people who act as if the Bible is less radical and believe that all terrorists are islamic.
But here comes my point. Hating one’s religion because of a reason other than race, doesn’t make you a racist. It makes you intolerant but not a racist. ‘Intolerance’ is not a lesser word than racist, in my opinion, it is as bad, but far from the same. Hate of one’s religion comes from a deep misunderstanding of that religion or a clear lack of knowledge of it. Racism is different. It is colour, the hate of colour, the simplification of human worth based on his colour. It is the notion of being human itself that is flawed. And this essential flaw is not as easily fixed as a misinterpretation of a religion.
As I said before, racism is our enemy. But in order to be sure of who is your enemy, you have to be sure of what makes him one.