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Racism and Epistemologies of Ignorance: Framing the French Case


The paper aims to apply the epistemologies of ignorance framework to racial issues outside the Anglo-American world, the region where it is has been developed and which has been its almost exclusive focus. Centering on the French context, which is often considered as a unique or particularly acute example of the tension between a republican intellectual tradition of colorblindness, and a lived reality of racial discrimination, the paper identifies two renewed and opposed anti-racist positions in France: a publicly dominant, republican colorblind race-eliminativist position on the one hand, and a critical approach on the other hand. The latter puts the emphasis on the significance of racial concepts as decisive epistemic tools, used to identify specific racial inequalities that tend to remain invisible, even taboo, in the dominant French public discourse. This paper analyzes French republican colorblind race-eliminativism as a distinctive form of epistemology of ignorance that enacts epistemic injustice, and argues that critical anti-racism is a form of epistemology of resistance, aiming at epistemically empowering racialized agents.

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  1. See however Gallegos forthcoming.

  2. While colorblindness is not specifically republican, it took a distinctive shape in the republican movement in France in the 1980s, when ethno-racial and cultural diversity was construed as a threat to the virtue-based ideal of equal citizenship. On the theoretical and practical political tradition of republicanism in France, its reworking in the 1980s and its relation to national identity, see Schnapper 1988, Laborde 2008, Bourdeau and Merrill 2008, Berenson et al. 2001, Laborde in Freeden and Stears 2013.

  3. Race eliminativism is a normative position that pleads for the elimination of the concept of race because of its logical incoherence and political dangerousness. See Appiah 1996, Zack 2002, Mallon 2006.

  4. It is critical of racism, of the naturalistic understanding of race, of the denial of the past and it challenges the dominant race theory. On this use of “critical”, see Mills 2016.

  5. These extracts come from a series of blog posts, letters, articles, editorials, and special issues, published in the French press in 2018 and 2019. The attack on academics was launched in an editorial piece in Le Point “Decolonialism, and Hegemonic Strategy” (28/11/2018) and an article in L’Obs: “Decolonials are Attacking Universities”), (30/11/2018). Both publications are widely read monthly centrist republican newspapers. Other instances include Libération: “The racialist Left” (4/12/2018), Charlie Hebdo: “The race-obsessed at the Sorbonne” (23/01/2019), Le Monde: “Academic Freedom Under Growing Threat in France” (12/04/2019), Marianne, “The attack of those obsessed with race, sex, gender, identity” – accused of “infiltrating universities” (12/04/2019), and La Revue des deux mondes 18/04/2019 “A new intellectual terrorism”, all supposedly more left-leaning newspapers.

  6. (my translation)

  7. (my translation)

  8. (my translation)

  9. They appeared in less mainstream and more left-identified media: Mediapart blog of Ludivine Bantigny, December 19th, “Where does the indignity lie? On the ‘call of the 80 intellectuals’ against decolonial thinking”; special issue in Mouvements on “Intersectionnality”, February 12th; Le Nouveau Magazine Littéraire, April 9th, “The cannon war will not take place”; AOC (Analyse, Opinion, Critique), April 10th and 11th, “The word race 1/2: it exists” and “The word race 2/2: the word and the thing”; Mediapart blog of Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison, April 23rd, “Universities: the ‘dictatorship of identities’ and ‘indigenist’ minorities?”

  10. The amendment was unanimously adopted by all presents: 119 voters, 119 votes cast, 119 votes in favor (the Assembly numbers 577 members). The minutes of the discussion are available on the website of the National Assembly: All subsequent quotations are my translations from the transcript.

  11. A change in the Constitution also needs to be examined by the Senate and approved by referendum.

  12. Commenting on the appearance of the word “sex” while the word “race” is deleted, is beyond the scope of this paper. Let me simply note that it betrays the belief, shared by all representatives, that while race is an absurd or empty concept because it has no biological reality, sex is firmly grounded on biological facts.

  13. Three main arguments can be identified in the discussion: the ontological argument which will be the focus of this paper, a historical argument (race belongs to an obsolete discursive regime and was used in the past to support oppressive national and international imperialist or genocidal policies) and an expressivist argument (suppressing the word race is a powerful expression of France’s official endorsement of anti-racism).

  14. Even the recent attempts to assess the biological validity of race, or of some specific biomedical understanding of race applied to human beings, underline the situated character of the knowledge that would thus be provided. See Spencer 2018a, b, c.

  15. In the words of Minister of Education Jean-Michel Blanquer for instance, who publicly declared that “racialized” was “among the most appalling words of the political vocabulary” (Radio interview on Europe 1, November 21, 2017).

  16. Such as the CRAN (Representative Council of Black Associations), the PIR (Party of the Indigenous of the Republic), the BAN (Anti-Negrophobia Brigade), the CCIF (Collective Against Islamophobia in France) and many other anti-racist associations born in the mid-2000s.


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Correspondence to Magali Bessone.

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Bessone, M. Racism and Epistemologies of Ignorance: Framing the French Case. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 23, 815–829 (2020).

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  • Epistemic injustice
  • Epistemology of ignorance
  • Racism
  • Race
  • Republican colorblindness
  • Critical anti-racism
  • France