Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, but for whom?

I have sat on this article for a while now. I wrote it initially in April, 2015, while I was on my flight back to the US from Europe. But with the recent attacks on Paris, I felt compelled to dig it out and share it.

I had the good fortune of being nominated by CITRIS to participate in the Sage BioNetwork’s Paris Assembly, a convening of thought leaders around issues of open education, open knowledge and open science. This convening was in part sponsored by the city of Paris.

Because of my interest in Computer Science Education, I was put into an education focused working group. Our task was to imagine the university of the future. We were told that UNESCO, which is headquartered in Paris, is working on an idea for a UNESCO university. A university designed to espouse all the best ideals that the United Nation believes in. So on we went, the university should have support for multiple languages, the university should have this, should have that and so we posited.

At one point, either through the sheer euphoria that the discussion and presentations engendered, our French host finally interjected and gave us a more pressing issue they would like us to solve for, which is the low participation rates of African immigrants, in particular, migrant families in the Parisian education system. Ah! Now we were cooking with gas.

The hideous and horrific attacks of Charlie Hebdo had shook France out of her apathy with regards to her failure to successfully embrace her African and Muslim populations into her body politic. For whatever reason, the French government practiced a strict policy of assimilation. Perhaps this was seen as a means to prevent against the antisemitism that flourished in France in the past.

Perhaps the thinking was that if there were neither Jew nor Gentile, Black nor White, but everyone’s identity was rooted in the French identity, then liberté, ́egalité, fraternité would flourish for all. But the prototype of the French identity they came up with was one that was secular and basically said,

“Assimilate into our society and all our beliefs. The French way of life is the only way of life that we will embrace. We are not interested in integration, nor the co-creation of a French union that supports and respects all the cultural expressions of all peoples.”

As a result, communities who resisted this doctrine of assimilation found themselves on the outs. Their cultural practices were ridiculed or even attacked. This environment eventually contributed to the cultural milieu that gave rise to radicalism. The author Teju Cole sums this line of inquiry up aptly in this article for the New Yorker after the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

“This weeks events took place against the backdrop of Frances ugly colonial history, its sizable Muslim population, and the suppression, in the name of secularism, of some Islamic cultural expressions, such as the hijab. Blacks have hardly had it easier in Charlie Hebdo: one of the magazines cartoons depicts the Minister of Justice Christiane Taubira, who is of Guianese origin, as a monkey (naturally, the defense is that a violently racist image was being used to satirize racism); another portrays Obama with the black-Sambo imagery familiar from Jim Crow-era illustrations.”- Teju Cole

My hope for France is that her historically marginalized citizens are still open to integration, and if so, that she will start towards a culture of integration and co-creation of her society.

As much as I enjoyed Paris, even I could no longer ignore or pretend I could not see her intolerance to persons that looked like me. As is my habit when I travel, I often seek to bring back to my son a toy that is culturally representative of the land I had just visited. So I went in search for such a thing. I figured I would look into the local non-tourist neighborhood shops.

I came face to face with the unexpected appalling figure of a “Black Sambo,” casually inhabiting a toy box with Asterix and Obelix. This was in a hardware store in the 7 arrondissement, a few stones throw from UNESCO headquarters! It felt like a hot slap across the face, the insensitivity of it all, and more importantly, the quotidian way this racially oppressive symbol was just there. Just there. Just there as if to say,

“Would you like a dose of racism with that roll of tape?” “No.” “Well, perhaps tomorrow then, bonjour!”

It is hard to feel respected in a society that seems more and more interested in stripping you, of your humanity. If such feelings linger, persistently, day and night, night and day, then they may eventually be the fodder that fattens radicalization.

Paris may see herself as the beacon of liberté, ́egalité, and fraternité, unfortunately this trip, I was reminded that that slogan may not fully encompass all of her citizens.


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