Black Beauty, French Racism, and Obama’s International Impact

W. Hassan Marsh has an interesting article on about Chloe Mortaud, the new Miss France, who self-defines as Black, something unusual in France for people of biracial heritage (her father is white French, her mother is African American). I think “beauty queens” and “beauty pageants” are sexist phenomena whose time should be long gone, but Marsh accents some interesting points about the global impact of Obama’s election and some changes in symbolism across the globe that are well worth thinking about (photo credit).

The French media have started calling Ms. Mortaud, interestingly, “Miss Obama,” which also suggests the global impact of the Obama election. Marsh makes the following contentions about “blackness is in vogue”:

Blackness is fast moving to the center of the world’s psyche. For proof, look no further than last month’s crowning of a binational and biracial Miss France 2009. Chloe Mortaud’s selection as the face of French beauty and elegance has so few precedents that the French media have named her, perhaps cheaply, “Miss Obama.”

The first sentence is a huge exaggeration. (More accurate would be that there is a negative view of blackness at the center of too much of the “world’s psyche.”) Indeed, not everybody in France is happy with a black face representing classical “French beauty” (traditionally pasty white?):

Around the Web, some French commentators have complained that Mortaud is not pretty.

But Marsh sees the debate on her race and her calling herself Black as healthy and an advance for France:

The very discussion of Mortaud’s worthiness represents an advance in the way the French deal with race. The enduring myth of a colorblind France has obscured the relative invisibility of non-white French people in France’s public life. The French government does not keep statistics on race. The official position is that there are no differences among the races—therefore, there is no reason to keep an account of it. That means disparities among racial groups cannot be quantified. However, a trip to an impoverished banlieue (suburb) of Paris or Marseille, where “race riots” in neighborhoods inhabited by large numbers of African and Arab immigrants have made world headlines, shows a qualitative difference.

It is interesting that he means an advance for WHITE France in thinking Mortaud worthy, a point he seems to miss here. Note too that the white oppressors and discriminators substantially responsible for the impoverished suburbs remain implicit here, and are not explicitly mentioned. It is interesting how the sensitivities of whites gets privileged even it what is otherwise a good critical analysis.

He then argues that Obama has helped to make Blacks in France feel a certain new unity, and shared experience:

Thanks in part to the Obama effect, French blacks who have traditionally been divided by designations like Caribbean, African or mixed ancestry, have started to make claims on transnational “blackness,” a feeling of a mutual experience if not shared origin.

Marsh does seem to be right about the great international impact of Obama’s election, an impact very much worth watching. In Brazil, the largest African-origin population outside of Africa, there has been much public and private celebration. One Brazilian official, Edson Santos, the black minister of racial equality, accented the impact on many youth there:

I think it is important for young black Brazilians to know how the civil rights movement progressed in the U.S. and how it produced not just Obama, but blacks at the highest levels of American businesses. It is important that they have contact with this reality.

A young Brazilian agreed with him about the significance and possible impact of this new U.S. reality: “Obama has arrived and taken us to the next level, We black Brazilians need him as much as the Americans do.” The main reason for this is that black Brazilians, who make up at least half the Brazilian population, suffer widespread racial discrimination; they make up only 3 percent of college graduates and only eight percent of the 28 top government ministers. And the black Brazilian civil rights movement has only recently come of age. A black organizer who works with Brazil’s poor agreed that Obama symbolized the hopes of all people of African descent:

Obama represents what every black person in the world has been hoping for: that the fight of the dream for racial equality in North America can spread to the entire world.”


  1. Seattle in Texas

    flosup–unless I’m missing something, I did not read anywhere that it was implied Miss Mortaud was the first black miss France. It was stated: “…Chloe Mortaud, the new Miss France, who self-defines as Black…”. That statement is fundamentally different in many ways and is not racist as it does not objectify Miss Mortaud–she is presented as a human being who is noting how she identifies herself. And note that one of the quotes under critique says: “…French media have named her, perhaps cheaply, ‘Miss Obama.’”–not the author of the post. This post was focused upon the discussion of another article that threaded in other sources to discuss the impact President Obama winning the Presidency has had communities of African descent in France and other parts of the world, among other things.

    I’ve never been to France, but I do come from an area of the U.S. nation where it is claimed by folks of all color that racism is a thing of the past–what do you know? A place in the U.S. that has no racism! (A place similar to France in that respect, perhaps?) Couldn’t be further from the truth. My area loves its tokens, that’s for sure. And residential segregation largely dictates social interactions by class and race. They primarily use the middle-lower and lower class areas to boast about how integrated they are. The “safe” families of color, those who are in the higher income brackets can enter and reside in some of the white suburbs, etc. (though not always). How can we know if all people are happy up there, regardless of SES, if, generally speaking, they are not allowed to talk about their racialized experiences? I say “most generally” because they do celebrate positive aspects of different cultures, history, historical icons, etc., that have been either inspirational, influential to our area, or who come from our area. So in that sense, it appears that cultural relativism and placing high value on ethnic preservation is prevalent…depending on where you go. But many cultural and ethnic events actually do not have incredibly high turn outs of white folks….

    There are not laws saying race cannot be discussed. Rather it’s all implicit and covert. If fact, there are laws that forbid racial discrimination. But if you talk about race up there, then many will charge that you’re being racist by talking about race. You know who you can talk to and who you can’t, form your own inner circles, etc.

    And there are progressive groups up there too, but that does not mean “progressive” is even viewed the same way as other parts of the nation. My state is an Obama state to the point where during the primaries, he won every single county throughout the state. Then of course, he won our state during the presidential election. Yet I would not claim racism is no longer a problem in our state…it has serious issues of many sorts pertaining to various sorts of racial discrimination of different groups.

    I am thinking there may be similar dynamics in France. May I ask if you happen to know if the suicide rates are higher in France than homicide rates?

    In short, I don’t follow the claims you make above. And if France is a colorblind nation, as stated above, how can you know whether or not communities of color are happy or not? And if is true that France is a colorblind nation, then color-blind racism is being reinforced in your comment by denying there is any problems with racial inequality, demanding that those who are of color in your nation stay silent on their thoughts and/or experiences pertaining to racial inequality, and by demanding they keep silent with relation to being critical of their own nation in regards to any sort of structual racial inequality that may exist.

    And the last part of your comment–it sounds as though you need to do more research of your own nation before you make such a rude comment about the author of the post, as from what I gather, he has published more work than everybody who visits this site combined (as much as I do love to exaggerate…this may not be too much of a stretch). Try reading the post again and pay attention to the voices throughout–who is saying what and where…. And if you are still troubled by it, then…maybe try to explain again why it is so problematic, directing the criticsms where they are due.

    (I do have to close though with this though since you present your nation as flawless…which in comparison to the U.S. may actually seem in many ways–as much as I criticize the region I come from–perhaps the most precious gift it gave, was the right and duty to always be critical of my state and nation–thank you Washington State for that–even if you are terribly hypocritical in too many ways!!!) Be well.

  2. lechatnoir

    HUm… she was not neccessarely being rude French to english transation is not always fluid , my own won’t be any better.
    Chloe defined herself as Biracial. if you want those 3 videos where she said this ” biraciality is the door to the world, and I am international”.The other 3 black misses used the biracial argument as well .
    We have had 6 black misses so far 3 of them were full black . I am not explaining away this issue here but for the sake of the argument I had to point this out as well.

    You should not only to collect informations from reliable sources but to not use American racism as a sample to explain racism in the French context. I deal with many African americans, they assume, they think, they guess , and worst of all they block any constructive dialog with the local blacks.

    I think what annoys me the most in your article is that you clearly have this idea that our Parisian suburbs are THE face of black life in France. If you gotta write a piece like this then at least ask someone who knows.Nobody is in denial the first poster sure isn’t either but you choosed to dismiss her comment because it didn’t neccessarely meet your expectations. You quote a random new channel on the 2005 “riots” and you don’t do any research about criminality on the French soil.

    Ethnic stats do not exist because those have been outlawed from the start , this doesn’t mean we are not seeing discrimination. we can mesure it well and we mutate along with our society. We do not have an affirmative action that keeps slots open for black people (…) . We have never had black only neighborhoods(even though blacks are confined in certain postcodes) or ethno-specific outlets for that matter . Its a whole nother concept and thinking, we use completely different weapons to fight racism and to combat underexposure . We have different national organisms that are monitoring racism and record blatant discrimination nationwide. We are covering the entire republic and almost every single soci-economic and professions in the country.we are busy tracking those whites who are paying higher taxes so blacks won’t rotate across certain postcodes.

  3. Lafillemasquée

    Lechat noir- allow me to chime in the discussion and make a few comments regarding your post. First, I didn’t get the impression that the author was using American racism as a yardstick to measure French racism. Yes, these two types stem from different contexts and we need to keep that in mind. However, the core of racist ideologies are likely to share more similarities than differences no matter where you go.
    Secondly, you imply that the author should have asked somebody who knew about France. Do you necessarily need to be an insider of french culture or for that matter of any other culture to talk about it? If that is the case, then perhaps my quality as French will allow me to do so. We live in a society that pretends to be colorblind. Much of this has been inherited from the ” déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen” dating back from 1789, and which proclaims among other things that all individuals are born and remain equal in rights. This was 220 years ago…
    Based on these premices, as well as other things, stats based on ethnicity/national origin have been outlawed. You pretend that we can measure discrimination in France and I am very curious to know how this can be achieved with no numbers and statistics? Similarly, how do you assess the success/impact of any antidiscriminatory measure when in the first place there are no stats? I think that it is time that we face the problem more actively and we won’t be able to do so until we stop pretending that it is invisible (no stats).
    You also say that we ” have never had black only neighborhoods” which is true and later affirm in the same sentence that blacks are “confined in certain postcodes or ethni-specific outlets”. A little bit paradoxal, don’t you think? How would you call the spatial confinement of a certain minority in a given postcode, often based on socio-economic factors? the word that comes to mind to me is “ghetto” or as we nicely put it “banlieux”. Individuals don’t necessarily chose to live in these neighborhoods because they want to, but often times because they can’t afford to move elsewhere.
    This brings me to your mention of the 2005 riots, which weren’t just spur-of-the-moment revolts by a few angry young individuals but are symptomatic of a deeper problem that French society has with race and racism. Finally, you talk about national organisms that cover ” the entire republic”. I know of only a few organisms that have visibility and it would be presumptuous to assume that they cover the entire territory. Their efforts are notheworthy, although there is still a lot to be done. The legal as well as institutional apparatus remains quite weak when it comes to racism, and perhaps we could get a little inspiration here from our American counterparts.

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