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What do we see when we see race?

By Dr Cécile Bishop, Kelleher Fellow in French

Vision is omnipresent in the debate about race in France and contemporary antiracist discourse tends to make demands for increased “visibility” in the public sphere. Since joining Oriel, I’ve been working on a new book called Forms of Blackness: Race and Visibility in the French-Speaking World. The book examines matters of racial identity in perceptual terms — as something that people experience, often through seeing or being seen.

A long tradition of French universalist “colour-blindness” rejects any reference to race in public policies, arguing that the concept itself is racist. Strikingly, the English term “colour-blind” — as well as its French variant, “aveugle aux différences” — evokes a form of wilful blindness. Instead of focusing on the opposition between these positions, I wanted to explore the implicit common ground between these different positions, namely the relationship between race and the visual. What do we see when we see race?

Addressing erasure

The first chapter of the book reconsiders a central moment in French national mythology — the liberation of Paris from German occupation in August 1944. Photographs like Figure 1 have played an important role in our collective memory. Most of the people represented look white, and this is fact that has long seemed entirely unremarkable. The reality, though, is that it is rather surprising. The majority of troops making up the Free French forces came from France’s colonies, meaning that the vast majority were considered non-white.

In fact, recent historical research has shown that the whiteness of the liberation of Paris was deliberately crafted: the Free French and American military authorities decided that only the units made up of apparently white troops would be allowed to enter Paris.

In recent years, academics, activists, curators and journalists have sought to address this erasure. For the most part their efforts have centred on identifying and highlighting the few photographs that do depict black-looking soldiers and résistants, such as those showing the résistant Georges Dukson marching along the Champs Elysée, close to Charles de Gaulle.

Although these efforts are of course to be applauded, they lead to other difficulties. Why? Because they fail to question the ways of seeing that presided over the exclusion of blackness in the first place. In other words they leave intact the equivalence that many people draw between certain tones of colour visible in black-and-white photographs and racialised identities.

Focusing on blackness and whiteness as perceptible through photography can indeed lead to further erasures. It is worth noting, for instance, that some of the supposedly white French troops captured in the photographic record of the Liberation were from North Africa. Here it seems that the apparent whiteness visible in black-and-white photography enabled the French and American military authorities to regard these soldiers as white, even as they were considered and treated as racially different under French colonialism.

In the first chapter of Forms of Blackness, I argue that blackness and whiteness are not so much simple visual facts as the result of culturally-specific and historically-situated habits of perception that need interrogating. And I respond to this situation by taking inspiration from the collages made by the Caribbean-American artist Andrea Chung in her series “May Day” (2008). Chung used these collages to reflect on the paradoxical presence/absence of post-slavery workers in representations of the Caribbean, and I felt that I could use a similar strategy to experiment with ways of questioning the photographic record of the liberation of Paris.

This could look something like the second image (Figure 2), where I replace the apparently white soldier depicted with a white silhouette. The sharp whiteness of the silhouette may invite us to question what many people mean when they see racial whiteness in the many tones of grey actually on display in the photograph, and the way the silhouette looks “cut out” of the image may also serve as a visual reminder of the way France’s colonial troops were, for the most part, cut out of the visual record.

My work ultimately uses such experiments to argue for an active form of “spectatorship” in which we may go so far as to intervene in the images ourselves to question the racialised norms and assumptions that shape our visual perceptions. By these means I seek out a position between the two poles prevalent in French discourse today. Rather than seeing race either as an unproblematic visual fact, or as something we should ignore, I locate it in a field of perceptual experience in which our own ways of seeing are at stake.

Forms of Blackness: Race and Visibility in the French-Speaking World by Dr Cécile Bishop is due to be published in 2024 by Duke University Press.

Dr Cécile Bishop’s research focuses on postcolonial Francophone literatures and visual culture, with a particular emphasis on the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa and the representation of race in French Culture. She became a Fellow of Oriel College and joined the Modern Languages teaching team in 2021.