Arts, Culture & Media

Why the English word 'black' became the new 'noir' in France

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Dancer Link Berthomieux says that when French people use the English word "black," "It’s a trendy way to say 'noir.'"

 

 

 

Credit:

Lea Dasenka

Words describing race and skin color vary wildly across languages. 

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Even within languages. In the UK for example, “Asian” usually refers to South Asians. In the US, it’s more likely to refer to East Asians. 

So what about the word “black”?  It is used, to a greater or lesser extent, across the English-speaking world.

But it’s also used in France — the English word, that is, alongside the French word for black, "noir." Emma Jacobs, a reporter then based in Paris, told me about this a few months ago. And so we put together a podcast on this. 

Jacobs traces the word’s history in France — which is itself a history of attitudes toward race and racial identity that are far different from those in the United States. 

This is a hair salon in Paris called Beauté Black ("Black Beauty").

Credit:

Emma Jacobs

Both countries are idealistic, rooted in 18th-century revolutions and grand principles. But while many in the US value racial and ethnic difference, France sees itself as a color-blind society that rejects the race-based policies of its colonial past. So, using the word noir is almost un-French. 

Which has left some black French residents questioning continued racism in France and looking to the United States for black role models: Michael Jackson, Carl Lewis, Barack and Michelle Obama. The English word black is inspirational. 

That picture is muddied by the rise of Donald Trump and the resurgence of American nativism. The nuances of black in France may again be changing. 

Purdue University sociology professor Jean Beaman says French minority communities wonder whether they will ever see "a French Barack Obama without the same identity politics that we have in the United States."

Credit:

Purdue University

Podcast Contents

00:05 Trump does "black"

2:10 What Emma found at "Le Black Movie Summer."

4:33 "It's considered very rude to use 'noir.'"  

France's Marcel Desailly and Lilian Thuram celebrating at the 1998 World Cup.

Credit:

Reuters/Charles Platiau

5:50 France's new post-World War II color-blind society.

7:15 The arrival of American hip-hop.

8:55 Carl Lewis and Michael Jackson, American icons in France.

10:00 "The Warriors" and the "Black Boys"

12:05 Black, Blanc, Beur and the 1998 World Cup.

16:10 Simultaneously visible and invisible.

18:05 France has come to overemphasize religion. 

18:40 French Black Lives Matter.

19:35 The problem of taking the US as an inspiration.

21:05 How does Trump change this?

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