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Decolonizing City Spaces and Images: Black Collective Solidarity and Conviviality in Paris


Published onNov 09, 2020
Decolonizing City Spaces and Images: Black Collective Solidarity and Conviviality in Paris

The issue of anti-black racism and the black condition has been on the rise in the public sphere of the French Republic since the turn of the millennium. Whereas the black condition was formerly only discussed in the French public sphere to a liminal extent, issues of blackness, anti-black racism and discrimination have entered the public sphere in the last decade. This development is strongly informed by self-identified black movements and their responses to the French Republic’s refusal to acknowledge the existence of colonial continuities. Their struggles for the recognition and memorialization of the enslavement of black people, reparations for colonial crimes and enslavement, against police violence, against representational violence in the media, public and educational institutions as well as anti-black racism in the housing and job markets have contributed to the thematization of anti-blackness in France. The reproduction of anti-black imagery and representations in public urban spaces represents a central topic in these struggles, in France and in Europe writ large. The recent mobilizations against blackfacing at the "Nuit des Noirs", an event of the week-long carnival in the northern French port of Dunkirk in February 2018, lead by several black anti-racist organizations are a crucial example. While the leftist local mayor of the city has defended blackfacing as part of the liberal freedom "to laugh, to have fun together",1 various black initiatives and organizations emphasized that blackfacing as a racist practice perpetuates dehumanizing representations of black people. The controversy around the art exhibition "Exhibit B" by the South African artist Brett Bailey at the Gérard Philipe theater in Saint-Denis at the end of 2014 presents a similar case. The installation presents a dozen portraits of black people, performed by black actors, who were exhibited in human zoos as an important part of the colonial and post-colonial entertainment industry throughout the 19th and 20th century in Europe. Whereas Bailey claimed that his installation criticized racism through the exposure of colonial spectacles of dehumanization, various anti-racist collectives and groups in France and throughout Europe claimed conversely that the exhibition perpetuated the commodification of black bodies and reproduced racist representations of black people as silent objects, while rendering the role of racist and colonial perpetrators and systems of exploitation and dehumanization invisible.2

While critiques of the reproduction of anti-black imagery and representations in public and semi-public spheres are of great importance for anti-racist struggles, the reproduction of anti-black imagery is seldomly discussed in relation to spatial configurations. This article aims to fill this void by building on empirical accounts from ethnographic research with a predominantly black grassroots collective from the urban peripheries of Paris, the Brigade Anti-Négrophobie (BAN) (2011-2012). By discussing an intervention of the collective that took place from October 2011 to January 2012 in the center of Paris, and by engaging with post-colonial, race critical and black theories on space, I demonstrate how space and race are related in the context of struggles against racial imagery and representations. Moreover, I demonstrate that the spatial plays a crucial role within current black struggles in Paris as well as allows for new conceptualizations of black solidarity that are shaped by collective action and urban conviviality instead of notions of a (unitary or shared) collective identity.

After having discussed the recent (re-)emergence of black movements in the French public sphere, I introduce the BAN as well as the methodology that has framed my research with black social movements in Paris. The paper then discusses one intervention of the collective with a focus on its spatial dimension, the claims of the group and how the rationales of French Republicanism not only bypass and conceal but further reproduce forms of gendered racism. I finally discuss the black urban activist practices of the collective’s members at the time, which I bring into conversation with black radical approaches on urban conviviality and theories of collective action as a form of radical black politics. My argument is that in their interlocking dimensions, these forms of radical black politics open important grounds for the struggles for all black lives.

Articulations of (Anti-) Blackness in France

Since the late 1990s, significant debates on the issues of race and racism have entered the French public. Discussions on anti-discrimination, the relationship between the police and racialized urban working class youth (increasingly since the urban unrests in 2005, but also before), as well as the mobilizations of anti-racist minoritized groups, especially black groups, have enacted this discursive shift. Over the past two decades mainland France, the home of approximately 3 to 5 million black people and thus the largest black population in Europe,3 has seen the rise of various black groups organizing around issues such as the memory of enslavement,4 the aftermath of colonization, and related forms of anti-black racism and its interlocking forms. 5 The growing visibility of collectives and associations that self-identify as black6 has spurred public as well as academic interest in the rise of a "black question" and blackness.7 Yet, dominant discourses that disqualify references to race and to blackness and the exclusion of the black population and their shaping of France’s political and cultural history remain.8

When considering the recent re-emergence of the issue of blackness in France, it is important to take former mobilizations of race and ethnicity into account9 as well as to consider this re-emergence as a continuation (though always shifting) as black struggles have a long history with regard to French enslavement, colonialism and Empire. Even before the so-called "black turn", various political usages of the identification "black" have long existed. Moreover, neither all social individuals nor groups who are racialized as black operate with notions of blackness (some for instance refer to national categories like "Martinicans" or "Guadeloupeans" or mobilize ethnic categories).10 The different employments of and politics around categories clearly came into view during the 150th anniversary of the abolition of enslavement in April 1998. It was then when the French government for the first time in history officially commemorated the abolition of enslavement.11 President Jaques Chirac held an opening speech at the Elysée Palace in Paris, and the Prime Minister Lionel Jospin introduced the national motto "All of us were born in 1848" ("Tous nés en 1848"), which strongly points to the denial of systemic dehumanization, while various ministers presented plaques in order to commemorate abolitionist figures.12

The national commemoration was the result of decades of organizing and lobbying of especially Antillean organizations, though African organizations were also involved. These organizations were outraged about the national motto and organized a silent march on May 23, 1998. Approximately 40,000 individuals of African descent marched the streets from Place de la République to Place de Nation in commemoration of the enslaved, to protest the Republican domestication of the abolition of enslavement through the national motto and to demand that the enslavement of Africans be recognized as a crime against humanity.13 This important march simultaneously demonstrated the presence and the multiplicity of African-descended associations in France. As Crystal M. Fleming14 describes, the march was a turning point in the politics of commemoration of enslavement in France as it signified a broad support among black associations that seek recognition of the colonial and imperial underside of France’s national history. However, it also points at the divisive discourses among and within the various organizations, often rehearsed within the questions of the usage of race and blackness, but also seen in the relations between people of Antillean and African origins.15 Much of these discussions were around the danger of homogenizing different experiences under the term “blackness”. Having said this, there are also collectives that avoid the risk of ontologizing or essentializing blackness in the sense of a conception of a unitary "black community" (with a common collective or even shared identity) by instead utilizing notions of blackness that allow for multiplicity and heterogeneity. As I argue in the course of this article and through an engagement with an intervention of the black urban grassroots collective Brigade Anti-Négrophobie (BAN) from 2011-2012, and notions of urban conviviality and collective action, an understanding and conception of blackness, understood as (but not restricted to) the conditions created through (post-)colonial oppression and dehumanization of people racialized as black, as well as the struggle based on collective action and rooted in urban conviviality as sharing environment, has the potential to overcome the pitfalls of homogenizing notions of blackness as well as foundational conceptions of solidarity. Grounded in collective action and based on urban conviviality as an everyday practice of cohabitation and acting in space, this notion of black politics can moreover foster forms of solidarity that are not restricted to black identities and thus allows a reconfiguration of forms of black solidarities and radical politics that are always black but never only, and are part of the genealogy of the black radical tradition.

L'inaction nous rend complice - The Brigade Anti-Négrophobie

The BAN is a predominantly black urban grassroots collective, which struggles against anti-black racism in particular and racism in general.16 It was founded in 2005, shortly before the urban unrests in the French suburbs. The disastrous series of apartment fires in 2005, which mainly affected migrant families of African descent, at the Paris-Opéra Hotel in April (twenty-four deaths, including nine children), at the apartment block at Boulevard Vincent-Auriol in August (seventeen deaths, including fourteen children), and some days later on Rue du Roi-Doré (seven deaths, including four children) further contributed to the founding of the group and its widespread support network.17 Since its creation, the collective has been especially active on the ground against institutional anti-black racism, racist police brutality, gentrification processes as well as everyday racism in the mass media, education and public spaces. Furthermore, the collective is engaged against racist discrimination in the job and housing markets.

The group was involved in the Collectif Contre le Contrôle au Faciès (Collective against stop and search controls), which struggles against police stop and search practices and their racist underpinnings. 18 The collective also co-organized the mobilizations against Jean-Paul Guerlain’s anti-black racist statements, who in the context of promoting his new perfume on the national TV channel France 2 in October 2010 stated that: "For once, I started working like an n[]. Then again, I don’t know if n[] have ever worked that hard", (translation, V.E.Th.).19 The BAN organized protests in front of the Guerlain store on the Champs-Élysées with other anti-racist associations such as CRAN (Le Conseil Représentatif des Associations Noires de France, Representative Council of Black Associations in France), SOS Racisme, and MRAP (Le Mouvement contre le Racisme et pour l'Amitié entre les Peuples, Movement against Racism and for Friendship between Peoples). Some of these organizations eventually filed charges against Guerlain for racism. 20

The actions and interventions of the collective are characterized by performing a symbolic militant, non-violent and predominantly black, but also of colour and white appearance, while wearing black t-shirts with white letters: Brigade Anti-Négrophobie, or Collectif Anti-Négrophobie and standing unwaveringly. The group distinguishes itself from other black organizations in Paris. Grounding their mobilization processes on the notion of shared experiences of racialized black urban youth that predominantly belong to the classes populaires has enabled the group to specifically attract the attention of what is often referred to as the "second" or even "third generation", something that many other self-identified black movements as well as self-identified French Caribbean and African organizations at that time have mostly failed to do in a broad sense.21

Linked to this is the distinction in terms of references to nationality. As Latifa - a member of the group - explains:

"Our generation is one that is not limited through the national frontiers of the countries of origins of our parents. Although most of us have strong linkages to these countries, our experiences are interlinked beyond these places."

Latifa points to the multiplicities of black identities in terms of national origins here. In contrary to many other collectives active in that temporal landscape, BAN members do not refer to national origins as modes for collective mobilization of the group, but do draw on the shared experience of anti-black urban racism and oppression. Though many have strong linkages to the countries where their parents were born and some lived for some time, the political mobilization of the group is not based on national identification, but rather on the shared experiences of urban anti-blackness in a specific spatial and temporal configuration.22 Blackness presents a form of political mobilization here that is not grounded in thick black collective identity formation, understood as a political unifier or positive framework of reference. Based on the multiplicity of black identities and the shared experiences of oppression instead of collective identification, the collective operates with a notion of blackness that is rather opened for a plurality of individual black identifications, especially alongside religious or cultural lines. According to religious identity, this also shows a distinction of the collective from, for instance, the CRAN and also French Caribbean organizations such as CM98 and Collectif DOM. As Célestine23 demonstrates in her empirical study, CM98 and Collectif DOM are hesitant in terms of working with black people who self-identify as Muslims.

Although various conceptions of blackness are at work within the understanding of the collective (since some members individually identify as black Muslim, black Kemet, black French person with Senegalese origins and so on), these notions are not the foundation for the political mobilization of the collective, as they detach from blackness as a collective or shared identity (in the sense of a political unifier for identification) as the basis for their political engagement.24 This form of solidarity points to an important difference within registers of black politics.

I am partially drawing on the difference between "thick" and "thin" collective identities emphasized by Tommie Shelby for the theoretical conceptualization of this form of black solidarity. According to Shelby, thick identity conceptions are based upon shared matters of, for example, common ancestry and cultural values and habits, or on cultural conceptions that emphasize shared beliefs, values, conventions, forms of life, traditions and practices, identifications and horizons. Thin conceptions, on the other hand, speak to categories within a socially imposed classification regime, which construct and mark racialized individuals as inferior and rather speak to the shared dimensions of oppression, exploitation and dehumanization (instead of an identity).25 Put differently, thick identities rely on the construction of a unitary collective or shared identity and positive attachments, whereas thin identities refer to the shared experience of oppression. This is a notion of blackness, which we already find in the workings of Frantz Fanon and other radical black archives.

However, a detachment from "thick" conceptions of blackness as the basis for mobilization does not imply that various forms of thick identities are not individually employed. It simply means that thick blackness is not the foundation for black politics of solidarity. The notion of black solidarity employed by the BAN comes close to Shelby’s conception as the political mobilization of the collective is rather based on the experiences of and struggle against shared racist oppression. Shelby argues that "we should separate the need for an emancipatory black solidarity from the demand for a common black identity"26 because conceptions of collective identity constrain individual negative freedom. However, whereas Shelby defines black solidarity solely through the negative framework of common oppression, I read the practices of the collective as operating with a notion of collectivity, albeit one of action and collective resistance. Here, collective action allows for a new formulation of collectivity that is neither grounded in identity nor solely in the experience of common or shared oppression. As I argue further below, the collective’s members mobilize a form of solidarity that is grounded in the shared experience of anti-black racism, collective political action and conviviality as a spatial practice of cohabitation. The members therefore create a notion of black collective solidarity that goes beyond abstract universalism as well as particularism. By detaching from reductive forms of collective identities as sources for their political mobilization, while taking the lived experiences of anti-blackness seriously, I argue that this form of black solidarity partially reactualizes forms of black politics that are often marginalized within the genealogy of black political movements, though crucial for the black radical tradition.27

Below I discuss one of their weekly interventions to then further elaborate on the proposed notion of black solidarity. I participated in this intervention from end of October 2011 to February 2012 as part of my ethnographic study with black urban social and political movements in Paris. The ethnographic study of this long-term empirical research included eight months of activist research28 with this and other collectives, which included my active participation in their various interventions and demonstrations, as well as narrative interviews with group members. The ethnography is inspired by post-colonial feminist thought and practice, thus I have tried to constantly engage with my own position as a black feminist researcher, as well as an anti-racist feminist activist in the German context, and the relational positionalities alongside intersectional systems of power. As numerous black and chicana feminists,29 as well as third world, post-colonial and transnational feminists scholars remind us30, we always speak from a specific socio-historical epistemological location and knowledge is thus situated31 and positioned. Jin Haritaworn writes that "positionality can enable us to directly "touch/interact/connect" with our subjects, in ways which are less exploitative, less objectifying and more politically relevant."32 This also speaks to the conditions shaping academic research.33 I have carried out the research in conversation with the members of the collective, beginning by framing of issues of importance, and the collective discussion of which interventions would become sites of analysis.

Past Images Matter in the Urban Present

…But I will tear off the banania grins from all the walls of France

Léopold Sédar Senghor (1940)

On Saturday November 12, 2011 at 5 p.m, a colonial remnant figured on Rue Mouffetard 14, situated at Place de la Contrescarpe in the fifth arrondissement of Paris. This area of the city hosts numerous cafés and bars, bookshops as well as a prestigious university, and is very popular among tourists. Furthermore, it is one of the oldest districts of the city, the core of what was once called 'bohemian Paris'. On Saturdays, the streets around this area are even more packed than during the week. Students, tourists and residents are swarming through the streets.

While people are floating by, Sekou, Amara, Mariama, Bousso, Ivy, Moussa, Karim, Deborah and I are standing in front of a huge colonial storefront that is fixed onto the opposite building. 30 minutes later eight further members of the group arrive. The colonial storefront is the only left over of a chocolate confectionary that once existed in this street and was called "Au N[] joyeux" ("The happy N[]"). The ancient advertisement of the chocolate factory that opened its doors in 1748 shows Zamor, an enslaved servant, and his slaveholder Comtesse du Barry. Zamor, originally from Chittagong, Bengal, was captured by English traders of enslaved persons when he was eleven years old and was sold to Louis XV of France, who gave the child to Comtesse du Barry as a present in 1773. He is portrayed with a big smile while standing in front of the table and holding a bottle of oil in his hand. Madame du Barry is also smiling and holds a tray of silverware, a silver tea pot and a sugar bowl. Ironically, Zamor is wearing a serviette around his neck whereas Comtesse du Barry wears an apron and a servant bonnet.34 "Au N[] joyeux" is written in capital letters on a long metal sign placed above the painting. The building hosted a popular café/club in the early 20th century with the name "Café au N[] Joyeux" (famous artists such as Ernest Hemingway often visited this place) and is now a supermarket run by people of colour.

As a historical monument, the painting is "protected" and framed by Perspex. At the bottom right, there is a scratch on the Perspex, showing the mark of something being thrown at the painting.

Photo of the colonial storefront. Source: Brigade Anti-Négrophobie

The collective and I are approaching passersby to discuss the impact of this storefront. Most of the people with whom we get the chance to talk to emphasize that they have never seen the painting before, although they pass through this street several times a week, or even a day. Some of them express that they are shocked, others walk by faster and pretend that they do not have time or that they do not see us. Yet many other people react very defensively and claim that this is "part of French history" and therefore "one cannot erase history like that as it should be remembered in public spaces and daily life". Issues on France’s memorial politics and the (im-)possibilities of working through France’s colonial history and its continuities come to the forefront, specifically the question of how (allegedly) past images matter in the present and how anti-blackness is reproduced.

Nevertheless, there are also those people who approach the participants of the intervention, obviously drawn by our black t-shirts, which all participants wear over winter-jackets during a rainy November day. Within a wider metanarrative of the French Republican model and its inherent "fear" of communitarianism, they feel offended by the t-shirts.35 Behind us, on the other side of the small Place de le Contrescarpe, there is a police car with two police officers who are surveilling the intervention. Ivy has told me that police have observed the group’s intervention from the very beginning and that he thinks this is mostly because of the t-shirt and the symbolic appearance of the group. "They do not know how to process us, where to put us in their cartography of crime prevention". "Or maybe we are just in the wrong place" said Mariama and smiled ironically.

The intervention staged by the group involves collecting signatures for a petition calling for relocating this and similar paintings (mostly located in Paris and Lyon) to museums. By 6:30 p.m. the group has collected approximately forty signatures, which, as one member told me, is quite good for a rainy day. Usually the members try to arrive at and leave a place together during their actions and while wearing the shirts. To some extent, this is related to the racial stratification of the city,36 which also expresses itself in the landscape of urban policing of racialized, gendered and spatialized bodies (Fieldnote excerpt).37

Decolonizing Public Images and Modes of Disqualification

During the three and a half months the intervention at the storefront took place, there was not one Saturday on which the group skipped its visit. Rachid, a member of the BAN, told me that it is important to hold this intervention every week, as this would demonstrate the BAN’s conviction in their claim. When I participated in the intervention for the first time in mid-October, Ivy told me that the intervention is first and foremost about raising public awareness on the colonial continuities at work within the French Republic and to struggle against its avoidance of thematizing the workings of racism, especially anti-blackness. He then added that the collective has set up a petition, which calls for the relocation of the storefront to a museum.38 I was struck by the way the group was perceived by passersby: how much denial, disqualification, but also situational solidarity the group engendered.

During the interventions, the claims to place the storefront in a museum often encountered three related forms of disqualifications and dismissals which reduce, if not evacuate, claims for social and decolonial justice and further demonstrate how the universalist French Republican rhetoric works towards the reproduction and perpetuation of racist injustice by detaching from racialized categories. The first form operates through the claim that the object of intervention is only an "image" and that a reaction to this image is "only" an individual (often exaggerated) emotion. Bousso and Mariama explained that their claims are disqualified as being wrongly directed towards an image. Stuart Hall and others39 have shown that the repertoires of regimes of representations are crucial parts of the workings of racialized, patriarchal and capitalist systems as they not only ideologically legitimize societal practices of exploitation, exclusion and dehumanization, but rather interplay with these institutionalized practices.

Racist representational regimes, images and words have profound effects on various levels. Drawing on Judith Butler’s theory of performativity, as well as on Sara Ahmed's notion of sticky signs, Noémi Michel40 analyzes through which modalities discursive injuries operate and introduces the notion of "sticking power" which refers to the modes of injurious power which are non-lethal, albeit exclusionary. Sticky signs are those signs, which accumulate affective value through iteration "as an effect of a history of articulation."41 Sticking power operates through the discursive articulations of pejorative meanings, which tie the subjects and bodies to the sign that sticks.42 During the interventions, the black members of the BAN often explained what these images do to them in terms of their embodied experience and their social life worlds. Karim explained that the painting demonstrates the denigration and subordination of black subjects and bodies as willfully submissive. He furthermore linked this to his experience of being a hateful body, a body that is rendered a hateful other, otherwise only good enough to serve.43 I myself could very much relate to many of their statements as anti-black imagery fuels into the reproduction of anti-blackness on multiple levels and often legitimizes it implicitly or explicitly.

This experience of representational anti-black racism is partially what engenders the activism of the group around the storefront. I have mentioned above that the conception of black political solidarity employed by the members is rather bound to a creation of black solidarity on the basis of shared, however not identical lived experiences of anti-black racism. I have also argued that this conception comes close to the notion of black political solidarity employed by Shelby. However, whereas Shelby’s notion departs from the common experience of oppression, the form of solidarity that I see employed by the collective’s members departs from lived experiences of anti-black racism as well as collective action and a notion of conviviality that is related to the urban forms of everyday living together. Moussa, a member of the collective once told me at one of the interventions that the most important thing for him is being active against anti-black racism. "We have to act. That is what forms collectivity." Collectivity for him as well as many other members of the collective, is not solely bound to common oppression, as Shelby might suggest, but is re-shaped through and in action. The collective does not mobilize a common or shared a priori identity at their intervention but creates a form of collectivity that is enacted in and through collective action against anti-blackness. This form of collectivity thus does not presume or predate collective action but is rather enabled by it, being present at the storefront weekly and acting in concert, and is thus a result of the process of acting.44 Turning to Hannah Arendt’s understanding of collective action proves useful in order to discuss this form of collectivity.45 According to Arendt, solidarity is not only grounded in the shared experience of oppression (Arendt even detaches completely from the realm of common experiences as grounds for solidarity as this would be, according to her, antipolitical because sameness cannot be the basis for any political action) but is moreover based on common commitment and collective political action. Not presuming action but emerging out of acting in concert, solidarity comes into being through this very acting in concert, through what Arendt terms "world-making."

This understanding of collectivity grounded in collective action opens a further mark of distinction from many other black political organizations active during that temporal landscape of the French Republic. Although the group has its focus on the various articulations of anti-black racism, its members are not only black. There were also several active members of colour and white members in the group at the time of this study. The members of colour mostly explained their involvement in the group through building stronger bonds of solidarity between racialized groups. Moreover, the white active members also express their involvement in terms of engaging in solidarity.

Nevertheless, although the collective is open to everyone, the group sticks to the paradigm of experiences of urban anti-blackness. As Karim has put it:

"This is not about communitarianism, not about one closed identity, all kinds of people can join the BAN, but the identity of the project stems from the experiences of black youth from the outer cities. We struggle against racism in all its forms but as the question of anti-black racism has long been neglected […] we took on these questions because they were absent before. But we are not a black group in a communitarian sense." 46

The approach of BAN members employs a notion of blackness in order to critique structural inequalities while simultaneously detaches from thick conceptions of blackness as grounds for political mobilization. Therefore, this is a position that is critical of French Republican universalism as well as of liberal identity politics (as critiqued within registers of black radicalism, not within white forms of disqualifications).

Before turning to the role of space in relation to race and blackness as well as to the notion of conviviality informing this conception of black solidarity, let me discuss the other modes of disqualification that were brought up at the intervention. The second "counter-argument" often employed by pedestrians centered around the construction of BAN members as being "too" politically correct and that this correctness harms and attacks the value of freedom of speech. It was significant how political correctness (PC) was constructed as "dangerous" and a "threat" to the Republican liberal democracy.47 In the context of France, the PC discourse, dominantly seen as a divisive US-American import as is the case with multiculturalism and post-colonial theory approaches,48 is not only used by right-wing extremist groups to denounce associations and advocates of anti-discriminatory usage of words and images but furthermore mobilized by the hegemonic French Left (which also increases in other European contexts). The collective was often confronted with expressions like "I am against racism but what you are doing is too politically correct and communitarian". The disqualification on the basis of political correctness points at the linkages of Republican (as well as white liberal and white left) anti-racism, its liaison with a detachment from race and its effect of reproducing racism through this detachment. The intervention of the BAN was not accepted or recognized as anti-racist but as a politics of particularity, and thus disqualified as harming French Republican values. At this scene, anti-racism is de-linked from the group’s intervention whereas passersby perform themselves as anti-racists and disqualify the collective as communitarian and thus as a threat to French Republican values. This allegedly anti-racist attitude serves to delegitimize the claims of racialized and injured subjects, while rendering their claims particularistic and has its roots in a version of French liberal universalism that would rather conceal and reproduce racism than counter it.49

Thirdly, dismissals which were based on the role of history often mobilized expressions such as: "This was in the past and it is important to remember the past, so why do you want to get rid of it?" or "You cannot erase history like that," or "This has to be remembered and it is part of French history". They demonstrate that colonial enslavement and colonialism were recognized as parts of French history, but they were framed as something located in the past.50 Thus, although acknowledging colonialism and enslavement as projects that have shaped French history, dominant historical and cultural archives turn their back on the question of the various and entangled contemporary continuities of colonialism and how they shape and structure contemporary French society. The statements’ significance thus does not lie in the absence of recognition but rather in a form of making absent through recognition and thus refashioning the (alleged superiorization of the) French Republic and Republican anti-racism as remembering its past wrongdoings.51 The confinement of colonial enslavement and colonialism to the past was the main argument expressed for the necessity of leaving the storefront exactly where it is. Otherwise, this would mean to "erase" history. This accusation came up once explicitly while I was listening to Kwesi and Amara, who were talking to a group of people. One person stressed defiantly that "One cannot erase history like that". Amara said that the group’s aim is not to erase history. "How could we anyway?!" he added in-between, but that they want the painting to be contextualized. The group of passersby stressed an interpretation of history as written by the archival pen of "neutrality", which re-inscribes the dominance of Western Europe as the subject of all histories.52

As various scholars in the field of race critical theories have demonstrated, these dominant versions of history are clearly racialized and gendered as they are articulated from centers of colonial racist hetero-sexist power, which renders alternative knowledges and histories subordinate. Race and gender were also strongly at play during the interventions and discussions with passersby. During the interventions, the black female identified members of the BAN, as Bousso and Mariama have explained above, were often accused of being "too emotional" and taking the picture "too seriously", whereas most of the black male identified members were confronted with the emphasis on the importance of history. Gendered continuities of the colonial "civilizing mission" were strongly re-actualized here and the binary between the personal and the political alongside binary gendered notions was continuously re-drawn. Black women in the collective were especially aware of these gendered dynamics, as well as about gendered dynamics within the collective, and very outspoken about them.

The strong reactions of a lot of people read as white (but not only) at the intervention can be interpreted as forms of racial denial and defense mechanisms53 that articulate themselves through the delegitimization of the claims of the BAN on the basis of hegemonic French Republican narratives,54 which detach from the usage of race and are highly gendered. However, it is important to also state that the intervention did not only engender negative reactions and modes of disqualification and denial, but also support. Some passersby emphasized how important it is to remove the racist relics of French colonialism in the public that continue to dehumanize racialized people and resituate them in a historical museum, where there can be contextualized. Others just signed the petition quickly, expressed how important the intervention is and hastened on. Sometimes passersby would express how necessary they find the intervention and decided to stay with members of the collective for an hour or so to take part in the intervention actively.55 However, the members of the collective mainly experienced disqualification and even state regulation and surveillance during the intervention, as they were regularly observed by police during this and other interventions, which is also articulated through the racialization and social stratification of space.

Disturbing Space with a t-shirt as "our weapon"

French Republicanism also functions through spatial means and through the spatialization of the (racialized, gendered and impoverished) other.56 How the collective is disqualified and observed by law enforcement tells something about the safe-guarding of the post-colonial spatial relation as it demonstrates what happens when the spatially and racialized other claims space in the city and challenges the workings of French Republicanism also through spatial means. It is against this backdrop that one has to understand Mariama’s statement: "Maybe we are just in the wrong place". The racialized bodies of BAN members represent bodies that are not only not welcomed in the gastronomic, touristic and university area of Place de la Contrescarpe in Rue Mouffetard, but are simultaneously out of place. The surveillance and disqualification of the BAN has to be considered along the entanglements of gendered racism and styles (such as dress, speech and language) ascribed to the stigmatized and racialized outskirts (pointing strongly at class stratification). The racialization of space, which categorizes racialized groups alongside spatial stratifications, creates uneven geographies in terms of who is entitled to inhabit and dwell in which place and who is restricted or even confined in spaces structured by state violence. The area in which the BAN claimed space through their anti-racist action is constructed as a race-neutral and simultaneously white site in which black people and people of colour as political subjects are unwelcomed, pathologized, surveilled, stopped, displaced and erased, especially multi-marginalized black people and people of colour.57 Being in the wrong place, as Mariama states, refers to the inextricable and constitutive relation between race and space in the production of gendered racism as a place-based phenomenon through which spatial insides and outsides are created and reproduced.58 As George Lipsitz argues "[r]ace is produced by space, that it takes places for racism to take place."59

Thus, these racialized and gendered bodies that are placed out of the public areas of inner Paris highly disturb the spatial, racialized, and gendered norm of the fifth arrondissement. Policing these bodies and rendering them illegitimate is part of the workings of racialized governmentality or governmental racism, understood as the regulation and management of racialized populations,60 also in geographic terms, that always operates alongside vectors of violence and force. This is not only represented by the police officers. Moreover, many passersby took on the role of the police within the field of appearance, and in public contestations, in order to put BAN members in their place and to "protect" the storefront. Thereby, this is also a "protection" of white, gendered, bourgeois, inner-city Republican space. This is a spatial struggle. Policing functions here as a protection of Republican national self-understandings and self-images in which racism is geographically projected to "somewhere else"61 and racialized urban groups, too.

At the same time, the group acts in terms of what one can call, following Nirmal Puwar,62 "space invaders" as they are not part of the hegemonic somatic spatial norm of this urban space, but disturb it through their presence and claims, and intervene in the urban public field of appearances and (non-) participation.63 As Puwar argues, space invaders intervene in spaces that are not reserved for them and in which they are not expected, kept out, thus challenging the dominant texture of spaces from which they ought to be excluded. If we follow Henri Lefebvre’s64 articulation of the right to the city as the right for social and political participation in various realms of social life, in which the city is conceptualized as a field of contestation of and for participation, and critically interrogate this formulation from a post-colonial and black geographical perspective,65 then the intervention of the BAN against the colonial storefront cannot only be understood as an intervention against the aftermath of colonial representations or racist imagery. It simultaneously presents an articulation of the right to the city in its decolonial sense as black subjects have a stake in the production of space. Borrowing from Katherine McKittricks words: "Black matters are spatial matters."66

In this sense, the intervention also became a site of spatial resistance to racism as a place-based phenomenon. Through drawing attention to issues of anti-black racism in the socio-political landscape of the Parisian region, the BAN (like many other groups and collectives) disturbs and challenges the somatic spatial norm of racialized urban spaces and moreover, fosters a counter-space that eludes and contests the apparatus of post-colonial domination in its French Republican version (albeit this intervention was limited to the Parisian metropole).67 The counter-space that is created through the intervention of the group does not exist prior to their claims and appropriation of space but is rather found and produced by and through them.68

This is strongly performed as well as registered and dismissed by passersby and law enforcement through the t-shirt of the group. Although the shirt is a signifier of solidarity with and of the collective, it simultaneously embodies the flash-mob character of the group.69 However, the shirt also does something or better, something does the t-shirt in terms of materializing it as an issue of race. It evokes reactions and affirmations and moreover disqualifications, which have even led to instances of criminalization, such as the expulsion of the collective from the national commemoration of the abolition of enslavement, in the Jardin du Luxembourg in May 2011 (as well as during subsequent demonstrations).70 An affective economy is significantly at play here and it allows us to think about the affectual dimension of issues on race and space. Jasbir Puar71 argues instructively that race not only works through systems of knowing or the visual – the realms of signification – but furthermore through affective dimensions, and they function through spatial means.

The t-shirt becomes the signifier of the Republican "fear" of the "threat" of race, deeply grounded in the constitutional contradiction of the French Republic and simultaneously engenders the spatial and affective reaction to this "threat". It names what French Republicanism tends to ideologically conceal through its constitutional and official avoidance of race (which perpetuates the workings of race and racism through the operation of universal particularisms). The t-shirt is not an object of dismissal because of its look, or because many individuals wear the same t-shirt, but because its materialization poses a threat (of race)72 to the hegemonic ideals of French Republicanism. The fear of the threat of race, or better, the denial of race, enacted through the t-shirt, and the majority of the racialized bodies that wear it, affectively engenders the stopping and searching of the intervention, its policing in urban space. During almost all of the interventions of the BAN this t-shirt - worn by bodies that are coded as well as scripted not only in racialized and gendered terms, but simultaneously through practices of class distinction and spatial discrimination - became the signifier of the threatening "communitarian particular other".

Claims of discursive injury and vulnerability cannot be restricted to images and words as representations, albeit images and words do things, but are very often claims to public and urban spaces in the sense of appearance and the decolonization of public space. In the case of the intervention against the colonial storefront, the claim to remove the storefront as a challenge of the workings of French Republicanism and its reproduction and safeguarding of racism implied by racist artefacts and imagery simultaneously entailed a claim to the city and an to urban space, which is materialized by the bodies that claim this very space and condensed through the wearing of the t-shirt.

The spatial dimension also plays an important role in the conception of black solidarity I want to discuss here. As I have argued above, I read the practices of many of the collective’s members at that time and space as enacting a form of black solidarity based on the lived experience of anti-black racism (instead of a black unitary or even shared collective identity), as well as on the praxeological condition of acting in concert (which also allows non-black people to join the interventions by actively participating in the struggle against anti-black racism).73 However, if this notion of black solidarity is neither grounded in the construction of a collective unitary or shared identity, nor can it be reduced to the direct experience of anti-black racism, from where does it stem from?

Many members of the BAN explained to me that they are active in the collective because they share space and environment and construct often unseen, "strange alliances" 74 in the outskirts of Paris. My interlocutors not only expressed their relation towards their urban neighbourhoods in the racialized working class districts but engaged with and in these places, which are indeed their homes, spaces of social practices and care, spaces where urban socialities are fostered, and yet spaces of violence, structural exclusion and domination also. They expressed the foundation of their engagement through a notion of living together as banlieusards. The concept of conviviality enables a focus on the living together of banlieusards (of which performative identity formation is part but hardly the only important aspect), instead of merely a narrow focus on cultural identities as banlieusards.75

I argue that radical conviviality has the potential to lay ground for forms of solidarity that are not reducible to social identities such as race, class, gender, or religion, because conviviality arises from the realms of urban lived everyday social practices. Conviviality thus refers to the forms of accommodating each other and living together in and through sharing space. Nevertheless, it is not solely the co-presence of people with multiple and diverse social identities that brings about conviviality. It is rather the way that these people relate to each other in everyday urban life. Conviviality refers to the kinds of creative and spatial social practices among ordinary people from different cultural, religious, racial and ethnic backgrounds and it allows for thinking of the potential of politics that can emerge from this.76 Paul Gilroy defines conviviality as the:

"process[es] of cohabitation and interaction that have made multiculture an ordinary feature of social life in Britain’s urban areas and in postcolonial cities elsewhere […] [which] does not describe the absence of racism or the triumph of tolerance. Instead, it suggests a different setting for their empty, interpersonal rituals, which, I suggest, have started to mean different things in the absence of any strong belief in absolute or integral races […] It introduces a measure of distance from the pivotal term 'identity', which has proved to be such an ambiguous resource in the analysis of race, ethnicity, and politics. The radical openness that brings conviviality alive makes a nonsense of closed, fixed and reified identity and turns attention toward the always unpredictable mechanisms of identification."77

Elsewhere, Gilroy states that this form of urban conviviality (which he does not want to term multiculture due to the fixed and essentialized understandings of culture that are mobilized by this term), provides the resources of challenging racism (in the sense of anti-racist practices); i.e. resources which appear spontaneously, unseen, and often, unwanted.78 According to Gilroy, conviviality has the potential to generate emancipatory interruptions in the realms of everyday living together and ordinariness.79 He thus calls for a shift of focus from identities to social and urban practices. The emphasis on social urban life forms and practices provides the possibility for forms of solidarity among the different positioned individuals and social groups. The anti-racist practices of BAN members that I have discussed play on a similar notion of ordinariness, expressed through collective action and based on the (not necessarily direct) experiences of anti-black racism. In this context of conviviality, the spatial and the racial are deeply related.

In fact, conviviality in the context of how I read the practices of the collective’s members demonstrates that an anti-racist struggle with a focus on anti-blackness can be enacted without mobilizing thick racial identities as political foundation but rather through the mobilization of spatial relations and through acting in concert based on lived experiences of anti-black racism. The notion of black collective solidarity based on conviviality provides a crucial vantage point for anti-racist struggles that go beyond ontologizations of race and still take lived experiences of racism deeply seriously by departing from these experiences.

Thinking this towards intersectionality, I suggest that the notion of radical conviviality can emerge in racialized spaces in which ordinary and heterogeneous people transcend the imposition of racist orders by sharing space and engaging in social urban practices on an everyday basis and by drawing on lived experiences of racism and intersectional forms of subordination. An attachment to racial and various intersectional identities on an individual basis has place in this notion, as well as the individual choice to only refer to a one’s identity based on the experience of intersectional subordination. In this sense, the spatial allows for a form of urban solidarity that constantly goes with and beyond racial and intersectional identities while simultaneously accounting for lived experiences of intersectional oppression.

However, it is crucial to state that radical conviviality does not assume that the workings of racism are somehow over, and it does not assume that cohabitation towards critiques of intersectional power relations and oppressions is an easy task. In fact, multi-marginalized subjects, black women, black non-binary and black trans folks as well as women of colour, non-binary and trans folks of colour are hindered to share space, dwell and live conviviality within racialized urban areas as well as white spaces. In fact, grounding the analysis and activisms through the struggles against interlocking oppressions and exploitations based on and produced by racial gendered capitalism is crucial and fundamental to leave no one behind. And crucial for black radicalism to fully unfold as a making and radical practice of solidarity.80 This notion also entails the possibility for interdependent politics. Recent political black transnational mobilizations – for instance the Black Lives Matter movement as a multi-racial and intersectional movement and its transnational travelings – not only demonstrate that black politics are not in need of black collective identities, and achieve their power through forms of black solidarity, they also show that black collective solidarity can radically challenge the matrix of interlocking oppressions and racial gendered capitalism towards new worlds and new relations.


In this article, I have discussed a conception of black political solidarity and collective action based on conviviality by drawing on my reading from an intervention of the black urban grassroots collective Brigade Anti-Négrophobie from 2011 to 2012. By delving into a weekly intervention by the collective against a colonial storefront in the public and urban space of Paris, the relation between claims against racist representations and appropriations of urban public space has been explored in order to show how struggles around representation are linked to spatial relations. I have sketched out a form of black solidarity that is not grounded in forms of black identities, but rather bound to the creation of black solidarity on the basis of lived experiences of anti-black racism as well as on collective political action that stems from conviviality. Grounding this form of black solidarity in struggles against entangled forms of oppression and exploitation is what I have discussed as the radical conviviality of politics for black lives.

Preview Image Credit: @Boluca


This text emerged from my ethnographic research and engagement with black urban social movements in Paris in the period from 2011 to late 2012, though the mistakes are all mine. Special thanks to the members of the Brigade Anti-Négrophobie for letting me take part in their important interventions and for sharing their perspectives with me. Individual names of group members and other research participants are pseudonymized to protect their anonymity and privacy. The name of the group is not anonymized since this has been agreed upon with the collective.

The arguments of this text were first presented at the Returning the Gaze: Blackface in Europe Conference in Amsterdam in 2014, organized by ERIF. I am thankful to the organizers as well as to the audience of this conference for inspiring discussions and creating space. As always with empirically based theoretical and political work (as well as with other kinds of work), and since this paper was presented in 2014, accounts, experiences and approaches have to be embedded in their specific temporal and situated landscapes. Much has changed since this time, including the black political landscape in Paris, and France (and Europe) more broadly, as well as within black political configurations and collectives. New collectives have emerged and flourished, and especially black queer-feminist and afro-feminist collectives have flourished and created spaces, alliances and present archives. For instance, the collective Mwasi and the pan-African collective Cases Rebelles were founded and deepened necessary work and visions.

Thank you also to Jeanette Ehrmann, Kira Kosnick, Sara Salem, SA Smythe, Lidia Solomon, Alexander Vorbrugg, and Veronika Zablotsky for discussing some of the ideas presented in this article, and for reading and commenting on various drafts. Many thanks also to the two reviewers of this article, to the darkmatter team, and to the editors of this special issue Noémi Michel and Bel Parnell-Berry for their inspiring work, encouragement and vision.

Vanessa E. Thompson is a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer at the Department of Social Sciences at Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany. She was previously a Fellow at the Department of Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research and teaching are focused on critical racism studies, Black studies, feminist theories, post- and decolonial feminist theories and methodologies, critical security studies, and transformative and abolitionist justice. In her current project, she analyses forms of policing Blackness in European contexts from a black feminist perspective and looks at abolitionist alternatives. Vanessa is also engaged in these fields as an activist. She co-founded the collective copwatchffm and is a member of the International Independent Commission on the Death of Oury Jalloh. Her recent publications include:

Thompson, Vanessa E., and Fatima El-Tayeb. “Racial Profiling als Verbindung zwischen alltäglichem Rassismus, staatlicher Gewalt und kolonialrassistischen Traditionen. Ein Gespräch über Racial Profiling und intersektionale Befreiungsprojekte in Europa.” In Racial Profiling. Struktureller Rassismus und antirassistischer Widerstand, edited by Mohamed Wa Baile, Serena O. Dankwa, Tarek Naguib, Patricia Purtschert and Sarah Schilliger. Bielefeld: Transcript, 2019.

Thompson, Vanessa E. “Turn white or disappear. On the Everyday of Racist Policing.” In We Protect you from yourselves. The Politics of Policing, edited by Democracia and Felix Trautmann, 79-93. Madrid: Brumaria, 2018.

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