“The Nights of the Blacks” in France: Between Racism and Traditions

Thanks to football player Antoine Griezmann and YouTuber Shera Kerienski, France was well on track to finish on the podium concerning black faces in 2017. However, all is not lost and 2018 seems to be a promising year. “The night of the Blacks,” at the heart of the Dunkerque carnival, is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary on March 13th. Faces painted in black, red lipsticks, black turtlenecks, raffia skirts and bone necklaces constitute the dress code of the carnival-goers, who parade proudly and unashamedly in the streets of Dunkerque. In the age of the almighty Internet, some people are still convinced that black face is an appropriate way of celebrating black people.

Taking place every year in Dunkerque, a city located in the very North of France, the origins of the carnival date back to the 17th century. Mixing the throw of smoked herrings, dances and traditional songs, the seemingly friendly Dunkerque carnival could have gone unnoticed if it was not tinged with racism. “The night of the blacks” is an independent group of the Dunkerque carnival that remains a part of the tradition: created in 1968, the ball takes places every five years and gather more than 6,000 people in favor of a good cause: the funds raised will be paid to SNSM, an association of sea rescuers.

Thousands of tweets have been posted under the hashtag #Dunkerqueraciste, requesting the cancellation of the evening which promotes racist stereotypes towards the Black community. At the head of this protest movement is the anti-negrophobia brigade, a collective which fights against state racism in France since 2005. Represented by Franco Lollia, the brigade advocates for the abolition of this practice which leads people to believe, once again, that black skin is a disguise.

In response to the accusations of racism made against them, the organizers of the night of the Blacks insist on the lack of understanding on the part of the anti-racist groups regarding the spirit of the evening: according to Pierre Vaillat (one of the organizer of the Dunkerque carnival), the carnival-goers are far away from being racists: Every year his Black friends join in the festivities. What a great way to calm the situation! Even more appropriate, Bernard Vandenbroucque, the group leader confesses to have chosen the color black because of the “beautiful face it gives.” However, despite the calls, the letters, the hashtags and the accusations, Vaillat shows firmness: the night of the Blacks is not going to be cancelled, nevertheless, the town council claims the strengthening of the security forces. As a matter of fact: the anti-negrophobia brigade expressed its desire to join the night of the Blacks, since this evening seems to be dedicated to the Black community.

This trivialization of black faces raises an important debate: as a country with a big and heavy colonial history, how can France, a powerful nation, historical European birthplace of culture and knowledge still approve this kind of barbarous acts, which are offending a part of the population who today feel abandoned and ignored.

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