Guest Historian Delivers Lecture on Race in France, US


Students and faculty gathered in the Robert A. Jones Conference Room on Thursday, Oct. 26, for a lecture titled “Race Matters in France,” given by historian Pap Ndiaye. Ndiaye works at Sciences-Po Paris, and is currently a visiting professor at Northwestern University as well as a professor at Middlebury’s French Summer School.

Event organizer and Associate Professor of French William Poulin-Deltour said he first met Ndiaye at the summer school.

“I think it’s important to look at other national contexts and transnational contexts and see how race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality are constructed,” said Poulin-Deltour, explaining his reasoning behind inviting Ndiaye to speak. The idea of American exceptionalism is one of the major topics Ndiaye discussed in his lecture.

“In doing this, we can move beyond this notion of American exceptionalism – that America is at the forefront of everything,” he said.

Ndiaye began his lecture with side-by-side pictures of a Black Lives Matter protest in the United States and one in France. He spoke about the fact that the movement is more marginal in France, as are other civil rights movements.

Ndiaye explains that black people in France need to create a new, uniting narrative and build a stronger community in order to more effectively organize and gain power.

“I was particularly interested in Ndiaye’s discussion of how to create a new narrative that would include French blacks, since, as of now, the narrative is missing,” said Erika Saunders ’18, who attended the conferenceSaunders said. “There is also a disconnect between French national history and French colonial history, which allows for the voices of those who come from French colonies to be swept under the rug.”

Ndiaye was careful in reminding attendees that, despite a history of black victories in the United States, racism is, of course, still an equally pressing issue here. Poulin-Deltour also spoke to this topic.

“I think, in doing a comparative approach with anything American, you have to be careful because you run the risk of, in this case, seeing France as being behind the United States,” Poulin-Deltour said. “We should look at France in a comparative lens, but not pat ourselves on the back and say things are great here, because I don’t think things are great here.”

Another important problem Ndiaye discussed, which can also be seen in the United States, is the delegitimizing of experiences of discrimination in France. He describes how there is a lack of quantitative data about black experiences in France because research on the subject is seen as threatening to the nation.

Additionally, the French government has declared itself as being color blind to different skin tones.

“In theory [the French government is] free of bias and discrimination,” said Sadie Housberg 21, an attendee of the conference.. But, in doing this, the government ignores the struggles of people facing discrimination based on their race.

“As [Ndiaye] said, race is imagined. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have real social and concrete effects on people who are racialized,” Poulin-Deltour said. “But if we can see that it’s imagined and it’s imagined differently elsewhere, I think that helps to de-essentialize the notion of racism. I think the minute that we know that things can be different, we know that we can change things.”

Ndiaye reminded attendees that changes need to happen in both the United States and France. Issues of racism and discrimination in the two countries share many similarities and are deeply interconnected.

“The issues in France discussed by Ndiaye are especially important to consider because they demonstrate the need for a worldwide discussion regarding race,” Saunders said. “Conferences such as Ndiaye’s are essential in opening such a conversation, and hopefully, Middlebury will continue to invite speakers from other countries to discuss similar issues.”

“Things on campus aren’t great right now, in terms of race… I planned [this conference] well before, for example, the Charles Murray incident, but it just so happens that [Ndiaye] came at a good moment,” Poulin-Deltour said. “We’re in the middle of things, and we can look at what’s going on and what’s really at stake… to take a break and look beyond ourselves and try to imagine beyond ourselves, I think is important.”