AUP graduation ceremony at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.

Academics

Dr. Beth Epstein Compares French and US Perspectives on Race

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On Thursday, March 5, 2020, anthropologist Dr. Beth Epstein came to AUP to give a lecture examining the official “race-blind” orientation of the French state and exploring how the “difference-blind” republican ideal plays out in everyday French life. Epstein addressed an audience of students, faculty and staff in the Judith Hermanson Ogilvie Grand Salon in the Combes Student Life Center.

Epstein, who holds a PhD in anthropology from New York University and is Academic Director at NYU Paris, has lived in France for over 20 years and has conducted extensive fieldwork in both rural and urban regions across the country, particularly in the Parisian banlieues. Her research focuses on urban issues in France as well as on French and American perspectives on race.

In her lecture entitled “How in the World Can They Think They’re Race-Blind? An Anthropologist’s View,” Epstein began by explaining how French and American societies interpret “differences” differently. In the United States, differences are hyphenated, as is illustrated by the number of options available when answering questions about race and ethnicity on census surveys. Whether a person identifies as African-American, Chinese-American, Mexican-American or any of the countless combinations, people’s race and ethnicity play a large role in how they choose to self-identify. In France, the government maintains a “race-blind” model of public policy, and it is illegal to ask questions about race or ethnicity on any official demographic statistic collection surveys.

 

Epstein went on to explain that while Americans might look at the French system and say that, by not collecting data about race, the French are choosing to push aside and ignore problems related to racial inequity in France, the French see it another way. They look at the United States and see a society divided by race, particularly in urban spaces demarcated by ethnic communities. Epstein clarified that the French see their belief in républicanisme as a way to fight against “existentialist thought,” the idea that you are born into a certain group and that you cannot change that. As Epstein pointed out, “The French have fought revolutions against this type of thinking.” French républicanisme espouses the idea that people must come together to celebrate the shared values they believe in and reject any ideals that could divide them. Under this belief system, when people put their ethnic or racial identity first they are putting up a barrier against integration. The French system believes that these types of identity markers should be secondary and that by embracing a shared French identity people are able to transcend racial divisions. Though, as is often the case, in practice these ideals do not always match reality.

Epstein concluded her lecture by talking about an annual cultural celebration that takes place in the city of Cergy, a northwestern suburb of Paris with a multicultural population, where she has conducted field research. As she explained, in Cergy there is a lot of excitement about the city’s diversity, and this cultural celebration is a way to honor and celebrate the many cultures represented by the immigrants and their children who now call themselves cergyssois. As Epstein explained, cultural events like these are a way for those immigrants who have embraced the républicain ideals to maintain ties with their homeland and share their ethnic traditions with their French children. What this demonstrates is that in practice these ideals can coexist and that the situation in France is more nuanced than it first appears.