By April Springer, Emma Gerber, and Willow Palmer


When you roam the halls of SciencesPo Toulouse, there are always posters adorning the walls, making students aware of certain social injustices. These posters show statistics on sexual violence, the experiences of Gazans, and the rapid increase of climate change. However, you will also notice that there is a large subject that is missing from these posters – racial discrimination. During my time in Toulouse, I became curious about the lack of information on racism in France. Why does no one speak about the racial discrimination that exists here? Is it possible that racism does not exist in France at all? I posed these questions to the administrators of the Dickinson program, and they all responded in the same way – French people believe that it is less racist to not speak about racism and ignore the differences between races in general. In comparison with the United States, that idea is a little bit shocking. So, how does this practice manifest in France? And why does it exist?

First, there is not a word in French that is commonly used to describe someone’s skin color, such as race in English. Actually, the word race, as it is translated in French, is used to describe species of animals. For example, when you see a dog in the street, you can ask the dog’s owner what type of dog they have by using the word race. Even though you can use the word race to describe skin color, it is not frequently utilized. Without the words to properly express themselves, it is impossible for someone to describe the discrimination that they face. Furthermore, the census in France does not contain any data on racial demographics. In fact, including information on racial demographics in the census has been illegal in France since 1978. Therefore, there is no information available on some of the most important facts of French society. For instance, how do police treat people of color in France? What are the differences between the effects of COVID 19 on communities of color versus white people? And most importantly, how can anyone identify racism in France if no one has the data to understand how it affects people? Even though this idea is challenging to understand from an American point of view, not speaking about race is largely accepted in France. In fact, many anti-racist organizations are in support of laws against racial demographic information in the census. The French organization SOS Racisme argues that the addition of statistics on race could increase the amount of racism that actually occurs.

All in all, it is clear that the attitude of French people is for the most part “color blind.” In order to protect people from a racist society, French people evidently try to ignore race altogether. Even though this phenomenon has good intentions, it comes with large consequences: it is very difficult to demonstrate that there is any institutional racism in France, and even more challenging to act against racism in France if it is taboo to speak about. This form of racial erasure evokes one question in particular: is it really better to ignore race in order to eradicate racism?

The French outlook on different cultures and assimilation

Another facet of this erasure of “race” and racial identity in France is the way that cultural identities are treated here. While volunteering at Caousou, a private Jesuit school in Toulouse, I had the opportunity to watch one of the high school seniors practicing for his Bacalaureat exams by giving a speech about the problems that New York City faces in the coming years. Based on the documents that he was given, he decided to talk about the racial divisions present in New York City. Referencing New York’s famous Chinatown, he talked about the “Salad Bowl Theory”; the idea that even though New York likes to see itself as a melting pot of different cultures, it has failed to be a true melting pot because individual neighborhoods of the city still retain their own cultural identities. Like the ingredients of a salad, the ethnic groups in New York can still be identified even after being mixed together.

This metaphor really got me thinking about the way that cultural identities are treated in France and in the United States. I’ve heard it claimed that the US is a “cultural melting pot” more times than I can count, but using the metaphor of the melting pot and the salad bowl, it seems to me that France is more of a melting pot than the United States. I say this because of the way that cultural identities seem to “blend in” here. People talk a lot less about their heritage and certainly wear less outward markers of it. While you can find international cuisine all around the city, it was much harder for me to find an asian grocery store. Everyone seems to be participating in French culture by speaking in French, wearing French clothes, and eating French food. For me, this “blending in” of different cultural identities is summarized by the words of one of my hosts, who said that people prefer to practice their cultural identities “in the privacy of their own homes”.

This very much contrasts the way that cultural identities are seen in the US, where there has recently been a push for letting cultural identities be more proudly displayed. In the United States, it is more common to see a group of people wearing the traditional dress of their home country and it is more common to have neighborhoods that are mostly populated by members of one ethnic/cultural group. There are many reasons for this. For one, the United States and France have very different demographic makeups due to their extremely different histories. As April mentioned, it is illegal to collect data on race and ethnicity in France, but some estimates place around 85-90 percent of the population as being white, with most of them being ethnically French. This is different from the US, where 75 percent of the population is white and where being “ethnically American” isn’t really a concept outside of being Native American, which is also an ethnic minority in the United States today. Having less minorities in France makes those minorities less visible, but I also think that it is the “melting pot” outlook in France that causes different cultural groups to assimilate more. In attempting to treat everyone the same, French society enforces a stronger cultural uniformity than the United States. To me, this cultural uniformity seems to rest on the principle that to treat everyone the same, we need to see everyone as exactly the same. And after growing up in the United States, I am not sure that that is true. I think that there is room to see and acknowledge everyone’s diverse backgrounds while still regarding everyone’s fundamental humanity as equal. This is not to say that the United States’ way of treating cultural differences is perfect, because it is clearly not. But in between the United States’ and France’s two very different outlooks on race and cultural identity, the United State’s “salad bowl” of vibrant cultures is much more my speed.

The United States and France: Examples of Racism and Differing Perspectives

Both the United States and France have a long history of racism, but their approaches and conversations about race differ significantly. In the United States, race is a central aspect of identity, reflecting the nation’s diverse cultural landscape. Some groups in France prioritize a singular national identity over ethnic or cultural distinctions. This is not all-encompassing since there are communities and people in France who express their culture in various ways, both privately and publicly. However, both countries continue to grapple with the pervasive issue of racism, which persists in different forms and influences social dynamics.

The United States and France share a history marked by colonialism and reliance on slave labor. Both nations have faced issues of racial discrimination in their policing practices. Young Northern African males in France are being particularly targeted through discriminatory identification checks. The police shooting of Nahel Merzouk, a 17-year-old of Algerian descent, near Paris in 2023 ignited widespread protests across France. Similarly, the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020 served as a focal point for the Black Lives Matter (BLM)  movement in the United States. Despite efforts to address these issues, police brutality remains a significant challenge in both countries. Throughout both countries, there has been more media attention around the BLM movement, and you can find graffiti at Sciences Po and Jean Jaures that read “ACAB.”  However, they use the English translation rather than convert it to French.

Anti-Asian violence in France has been on the rise since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, although it has been a persistent issue predating the health crisis. Myths and prejudices surrounding Asian communities have hindered their sense of belonging in France. As previously mentioned, cultural identity in France could be limited to the privacy of your home due to societal pressures. In public, you must appear French.  Microaggressions and marginalization are prevalent in France, particularly on public transport, where people have specifically mentioned it as a place where they have been racially discriminated against. In the United States, hate crimes against Asian Americans have seen an alarming increase. In 2021, 1 in 6 Asian American adults reported experiencing a hate crime, a significant rise from the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. Despite these concerning trends, anti-Asian violence in both countries has not received as much media attention as other social movements. This lack of visibility is deeply rooted in a historical pattern of neglecting the histories and experiences of Asian communities.

In conclusion, despite attitudes toward colorblindness and denial of racism in France, the reality remains that racism is a persistent and pervasive problem. Other groups have experienced similar encounters full of prejudices and microaggressions that shaped their life experiences. As students from the United States, where discussions about race are prevalent and part of our identity, our experience studying in France offers us a whole new perspective. Of course, our perspective is limited since we have only been here for a few months, and other individuals have lived here their entire lives. Our limited experiences in Toulouse shape our experiences and do not represent every reality. In our time here, we’ve noticed that conversations about race aren’t as common. This contrast sheds light on French culture and exposes us to different attitudes toward race that we hadn’t encountered before. Whether it is a “salad bowl” or a “melting pot” of culture, only through confronting the realities of racism can meaningful progress be made toward creating a more equitable and just society for all individuals.