Virginie Despentes is a French writer. In this open letter, read aloud over the radio, she denounces the denial of racism and explains why “being white” constitutes a privilege. I’ve translated it for you.
In France we are not racist, but I do not remember ever having seen a black government minister. Yet I am fifty years old, and I have seen governments. In France we are not racist, but the prison population of blacks and Arabs is over-represented. In France we are not racist, but for the past twenty-five years in which I have been publishing books I have answered the questions of a black journalist only once. I was photographed only once by a woman of Algerian origin. In France we are not racist, but the last time I was refused service on a café terrace, I was with an Arab. The last time I was asked to show my identity papers, I was with an Arab. The last time the person I was waiting for almost missed the train was because she was stopped by the police in the train station, she was black.
In France we are not racist, but during the lockdown those who we saw being tasered because they failed to have the mandatory document that allowed us to go out were racialized women in disadvantaged neighborhoods. White people, meanwhile, could be seen jogging and going to the market in the seventh arrondissement. In France we are not racist, but when we learned that the COVID-19 death rate in Seine Saint Denis was 60 times higher than the national average, not only did we not give a damn but we allowed ourselves to say between us “It’s because they confine themselves badly.”
I can already hear the clamor of the tweeters, affronted as they are every time someone speaks up to say something that does not correspond to the official propaganda: “What horror, but why so much violence?“
As if violence is not what happened on the night of July 19, 2016. As if violence was not the imprisoned brothers of Assa Traoré. This Tuesday, I’m going for the first time in my life to a political rally of more than 80,000 people organized by a non-white collective. This crowd is not violent. For me, Assa Traoré is Antigone. But this Antigone does not allow herself to be buried alive after having dared to say no. Antigone is no longer alone. She raised an army. The crowd chants: Justice for Adama!
Adama Traoré (19 July 1992 – 19 July 2016) was a French-Malian man who died in custody after being restrained and apprehended by police on his 24th birthday. His death triggered protests against police brutality in France. Assa is his sister.
These young people know what they’re saying when they say that if you are black or Arab in France, the police scares you. They are telling the truth. They tell the truth and they demand justice.
I am white. I leave my house every day without taking my identity papers with me. For people like me, it’s our credit card that we go back for when we’ve forgotten it. The city tells me I’m at home here. A woman like me moves around this city without even noticing where the police are. And I know that if there are three of them sitting on my back until I suffocate – for the sole reason that I tried to dodge a routine check – we’ll make a huge scandal out of it. I was born white as others are born men. I cannot forget that I am a woman, but I can forget that I am white. That’s what it’s like being white. Think about it, or not think about it, depending on your mood. In France we are not racist, but I do not know a single black or Arab who has this choice.
You can hear an audio version of this in French read by Augustin Trapenard on France Inter radio:
You left out a lot of very important parts.
Salut, Faiza. Yes, it’s true that I did shorten the text for expediency. Which parts are you referring to?
I understand (and France Inter left out some parts too in the transcript).
I was thinking of when she mentions how people of Seine Saint Denis that we blame for not confining well enough were actually our essential workers and that Seine Saint Denis is where there’s the least amount of doctors per inhabitant. I think it gives some important context for people who are reading this and aren’t french.
Also that the people cheers Assa Traore because it’s a just cause, not because she is charismatic.
More importantly, that “Shame is the bare minimum”.
Also : “I was born white, like other are born men”, which has even more of an impact knowing her feminist work.
What you said is entirely true – “were actually our essential workers and that Seine Saint Denis is where there’s the least amount of doctors per inhabitant. I think it gives some important context for people who are reading this and aren’t French”. I agree with you.
“I was born white, like others are born men”. Yup, I put that in.
But I’ll tell you something, Faiza. When Despentes wrote – “I do not remember ever having seen a black government minister”, that’s not entirely true. What about Christine Taubira, Rama Yade and Roger Bambuk?
And “I have answered the questions of a black journalist only once.” It’s true that Harry Roselmack seemed to be the only black journalist that I’ve ever seen (on television.) As for franco-maghrébin journalists, my favorites are Ali Baddou and Sonia Mabrouk (je l’adore !) Another favorite journalist of mine in Algeria is Kamel Daoud.
““I was born white, like others are born men”. Yup, I put that in.” Oh, sorry, my bad !
“But I’ll tell you something, Faiza. When Despentes wrote – “I do not remember ever having seen a black government minister”, that’s not entirely true. What about Christine Taubira, Rama Yade and Roger Bambuk?”
> That was exactly my thought when I heard that. I was so confused. Rama Yade and Roger Bambuck were secrétaires d’état, but Christiane Taubira was indeed a minister. She maybe wanted to emphasise that arab and black men have even less access to higher education than racialized women? I don’t know.
I really love Virginie Despentes but it’s not the first time I’ve noticed some insconsistencies in what she says.
I can’t help but think that Harry Roselmack is tf1’s black token but honestly I don’t even care because eventhough it definitely wasn’t tf1’s goal, it will probably set a precedent for other young aspiring black journalists and it’s nice that they can feel a bit more represented (eventhough it’s still far from enough). I love Ali Badou and Sonia Mabrouk too. I also remember Rachid Arhab, from back in the days.
Kamel Daoud’s imput on the hirak was really valuable (i’m a french algerian myself and thought it was incredibly accurate).
The dignified manner of the Algerian people during the hirak was and is truly admirable. Not to mention the courage. A model to us all.