Why is it So Hard to Address Racism and Islamophobia in France?

Lisa Buchter reflects on the article, “Addressing racism and Islamophobia under the rules of colorblindness: When social movements engage in category work to reform the meanings of regulatory categories,” which was published in Strategic Organization.

This research article is based on paradoxes I have encountered as part of my dissertation fieldwork, which started 10 years ago. As I conducted my research on social movement organizations and insider activists addressing different forms of discrimination in France, I came to realize that, while the strategies of different minority activists often felt similar, their successes were different depending on which minority was the focus. Using simulation to educate people about the effect of stigmatization was an effective and widely-used strategy to raise awareness about ableism. Yet, using the same tactic to raise awareness about the discrimination of Muslim women wearing the hijab created strong political and media backlash. Organizing as an internal network to challenge one’s company from the inside was an effective strategy to address homophobia and transphobia in the workplace.

Yet, doing the same thing to address Islamophobia or racism would be perceived in a negative light, dismissed as communautariste, and framed as a scandal in the press. Throughout this comparative dissertation, I came to realize that straightforwardly addressing racism and Islamophobia was difficult because the current French colorblind and secularist context make monitoring and addressing discrimination challenging for activists and social movement organizations. Why is this the case? What do activists do to try to circumvent these challenges?

A hijabi factory worker assembles parts at a workstation.
(Photo: hosny_salah/Pixabay)

In this article, the challenge is even more specific: while some organizations have successfully addressed racism in France, they often did so indirectly, through tackling questions of “diversity” or “underprivileged neighborhoods.” I have noted that social movement organizations seeking to directly address racism or Islamophobia ended up failing and disappearing (mentoring project for addressing the glass ceiling faced by racial minorities, recruitment platforms specialized for Muslim jobseekers), while social movement organizations offering the same service, but framing it differently, could be successful.

This research discusses these tensions through the theoretical lens of “category work,” and I propose the concept of category reform to show how these organizations—and in particular Rainbow, one non-profit organization that I studied through in-depth ethnography—did not just align with other categories to pursue their political goals but sought to reform the meaning of these categories locally, when interacting with jobseekers or corporate actors. While the language they used in their public discourses did not include racism and Islamophobia, they worked hard to undermine these forms of discrimination through their training, recruitment services, and local practices. These social movement activists skillfully conveyed politically relevant messages while superficially aligning themselves with legitimate regulatory categories. They showed the shortcomings of recruitment practices based on colorblind principles (anonymous resume) by offering alternative recruitment practices that valued difference and made it something positive (video resume).

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Lisa Buchter

Lisa Buchter is an assistant professor of law, management, and social sciences at Emlyon Business School.

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