Sometimes Race Is a Veil: Professor Nathalie Etoke Interrogates the Notion of Race in "Shades of Black"

March 31, 2021

Identity is a living experience and an ever-evolving process, says Professor Nathalie Etoke.

Nathalie Etoke
Nathalie Etoke

In Shades of Black, coming out in April, Professor Nathalie Etoke (French) confronts the paradoxes of race and identity faced by every Black person, and examines current events ranging from the death of George Floyd to the celebration of icons such as Barack Obama and Kamala Harris. Etoke was born in Paris to Cameroonian parents, who raised her in their home country, as a university student, she lived first in France and later in several cities in the United States. She joined The Graduate Center in 2019.

The Graduate Center: How did growing up in Cameroon and then attending college in France influence your approach to the topic of Black identity?

Etoke: I always say that on the African continent, I mean sub-Saharan Africa, everybody is Black, therefore no one is. When you come from a country where the majority population is Black, you do not racialize your identity.

I moved back to France to go to college. I moved into a white majority country. My racial understanding of my identity started there.  When you belong to a minority group, you are made to feel that you are the other. You come from elsewhere and people marvel at things that they shouldn't be marveling at, for instance, the fact that you can speak French very well. That's when you start looking at yourself through the eyes of the other.

In France, there's a belief in universalism. You are just supposed to be French. And because of the class divide, I didn't encounter the issues that children who were born and raised in France by immigrant working-class parents were facing. In fact, my parents are what you would call upper middle class, and they really assimilated into the French culture to the point where they did not teach their children their African language. I can understand it; I am not fluent in it. I used to get mad at them for not seeing any value in teaching us how to speak Duala. I got over it. French is the language I speak with my mother. So it's really my mother tongue, my native tongue.

GC: How did your experiences change when you moved to the United States?

Etoke: The U.S. is a whole different story, because this country has been racialized for centuries. Moving here, whether I like it or not, I become a part of that story. I become part of that racial hierarchy.

But what I like about my experience in the U.S. is that I was also exposed to a wide range African American scholars in philosophy and literature, and also Black Caribbean scholars. They really reflected on this idea of racial consciousness. And that's what I really appreciated, because in France we don't have Africana studies. We don't have a Black existential philosophy as an academic field. There are ways in which you are going through this Black experience, but you don't have the language to reflect on it. You don't have a theoretical framework to even value who you are, this idea of what does it mean to be a human, even in the dehumanizing world. I found the tools and the language in the U.S in spite of everything that needs to be addressed in terms of structural racism, there was something in academia that also comes from a history of Black liberation, Black studies.

To me, identity is a living experience and an ever-evolving process. I define myself as a Black woman. Skin color forces me to deconstruct Black identity in the hierarchical and conflictual social sphere inherent to the country where I chose to live. I didn't choose my race. I didn't choose my gender. I didn't choose the country where I was born. All those categories are boxes that we use to identify people. I always tell my students that there is a difference between a process of identification and your identity, and sometimes we collapse the two. And of course there's the idea of collapsing Blackness whether you moved to France or to the U.S., regardless of your ethnic background, because you are part of a minority group, you'll become Black. Whereas I know full well that Black people are not a monolith. The white gaze collapses Blackness in what [Frantz] Fanon calls zone of nonbeing.

GC: You've spoken about the American tendency to celebrate Black firsts, such as Obama as the first Black president, Kamala Harris as the first Black woman vice president. But you seem to have a lot of skepticism about the urge to celebrate these landmark or exceptional achievements.

Etoke: I'm not just trying to be a contrarian for the sake of being a contrarian. I come from a place where everybody was Black. My friends parents were doctors, my parents are lawyers, so this idea of Black achievement is a foreign concept to me, because I come from a place where I know that people can be at their best if they're given the tools to be at their best. But class is very important.

I think that there are ways in which we celebrate Black achievements here as a form of redeeming narrative. What do I mean by that? The idea that if Black people can succeed in a country where they were enslaved, where they are marginalized, it means that the country's getting better. It means that they are part of this great American narrative. Whereas to me, these people are exceptions to the rule. We never really addressed their class status. Yes, they are Black, but the most visible ones often had the cultural and social capital to be in a position where they can succeed. We do not talk about their social background but we focus on their racial identity. Whereas when you think about working-class Black people who do not have that social capital, how do you want them to achieve that?

I think that sometimes race is a veil that prevents us from dealing with race and class at the same time. We use race to hide the fact that the working-class Black people are a very unique group of people. We do not talk about the existence of a Black elite and their role in American politics. We cannot necessarily just look at Black faces in high places and claim that every single Black person can achieve that. And we use gender the same way.

In presuming that the skin color, gender, or sexual orientation of a person acceding to a high office fundamentally carries a progressive or redemptive political agenda, we are attributing questionable axiological properties to contingent identity characteristics. I'm concerned about their history and their policies with regard to institutionalized racism. What have they done to make this country a better place for marginalized groups?

This integration of an elite, with which the masses are supposed to identify, reflects the paradoxes of a white supremacist society that obliterates the fragmentation of experiences of race, gender, and sexuality. Minorities can become part of the ruling system but do they actually transform it in a radical manner? There is in fact an alliance of converging interests between the democratic white middle class and the middle-class aspirations of minority elite.

GC: What are your thoughts on how the Black Lives Matter movement has evolved in the last year?

Etoke: The conversation I think we should have should be about how nonprofit organizations overlap with neoliberalism. For instance, after George Floyd died, Facebook, Amazon, Uber, the NFL, everybody was taking a stand, right? Putting out a statement. Claiming that Black storytelling matters, Netflix created a BLM category with over 40 titles. On Amazon you had a list of books by Black writers that you should read. This Black history month, let's support Black restaurants. I don't know what to make of that, but I have to tell you that I am more interested in knowing more about those corporations hiring and promotion practices, and how they treat the Black people who work for them, in terms of salaries and benefits in comparison to the dominant group.

The ways in which somehow Black death, Black pain, and Black suffering can become a commodity, the commodification of a revolt, the commodification of rebellion for the sake of capitalism, this is something we have to grapple with. I'm still reflecting on it, but there's something highly problematic about it. And it's not new. There was a time where you could go to Starbucks and drink some type of coffee and they would tell you that it's fair trade. By drinking a cup of coffee or buying something, you're being a good person and you're uplifting a cause. 

In many ways, Black activism has been corrupted by the politics of neoliberalism. We need to think about it: What do you make of a movement or a political struggle that becomes a commodity?

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