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'New ideas and new perspectives'

Nathalie Etoke, assistant professor of French and Africana studies
Nathalie Etoke, assistant professor of French and Africana studies

, assistant professor of French and Africana studies, wanted to provide her students in her "Black, Blanc, Beur" course with a meaningful perspective on issues of race, ethnicity and citizenship in France. So she made a documentary, "Afro Diasporic French Identities," and added it to her course resources.

The documentary "examines the relationship between ethnicity and race in the French sociopolitical context, focusing on the stigmatization of 'the other' and how the observation of color through a narrow lens contributes to a dilemma of citizenship and memory," said Etoke.

Funded by Connecticut College and shot over the course of three summer weeks, the documentary is an exploration of the unique perception of race in France. A public screening of the film was held on campus in April and a trailer for the film is on YouTube.

The film features interviews with a dozen black French citizens, and is freckled with news clips, dance performances, dramatic readings of poetry and speeches and beautiful shots of Paris itself. Each of these components works in harmony to form a picture of the problem of race in France.

"There is a lack of discourse [about race] in France, a lack of research. When you're a French citizen, you're supposed to be just French. There is no black culture, no singular black voice, and no black identity," she said.

The film highlights these issues through interviews with black French citizens. Many of those interviewed focus on the more subtle aspects of French racism, like the way France's black citizens are frequently asked by white citizens where they are from, as if their blackness alone suggests that they are foreign.

"Why does my origin interest you?" one French citizen, Hyppolite Menye Malla, asks in the film. "I am just French. And what is my origin? Human!"

The project is a reflection of Connecticut College's interdisciplinary approach to education. Through the project, Etoke, who has no previous experience in film making, brought together experts from a variety of fields to intelligently approach a complex issue. Following the film's public screening, Etoke led a discussion with Léonora Miano, an award-winning writer featured in the film, and Connecticut College professors Courtney Baker (English) and Monique Bedasse (history.) Bedasse was able to apply her expertise by tracing the history of blacks in France, and their extremely varying countries of origin-a factor which may contribute to the disparate voices of black French citizens.

Baker called the movie an "intricate presentation of race that transcends pithy commentary." Relating it to her area of expertise, Baker delved into the linguistics of race in France, explaining "the structural impossibility of being black and French simultaneously."

With a personal history embedded in the relationship between France and Africa, Etoke shares an obvious connection with her research, but her reasons for pursuing these interests are far from selfish.

"This type of research isn't just for me," she said. "It's to bring about new ideas and new perspectives."

-Sam Norcross '14

June 14, 2012