We Don't Say That France is the place where for decades you weren't supposed to talk about someone's blackness, unless you said it in English. Today, we're going to meet the people who took a very French approach to change that.

(Note: This story contains strong language in English and French.)
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We Don't Say That

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We Don't Say That

We Don't Say That

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This story contains language that some may find offensive.

GREGORY WARNER, HOST:

So how did you run into this story?

NGOFEEN MPUTUBWELE: So I was 19.

WARNER: Mmm hmm.

MPUTUBWELE: (Laughter).

WARNER: Ngofeen Mputubwele is a radio producer in New York.

MPUTUBWELE: I went to France with a whole group of folks from my campus college ministry. And then my brain turns on, and, like, oh, my gosh, I speak French. I've been speaking French forever. This is fun. This was a lot of, I'm in this place, and it's cool, and, like...

WARNER: I belong.

MPUTUBWELE: I belong, yeah. I have, like, skills.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MPUTUBWELE: My family is Congolese. And I have this kind of insecurity because I have Congolese French growing up in America; I don't have fancy French. So if someone tells me the, like, right thing, I'm like, oh, OK, cool.

WARNER: And his French friends would instruct him.

MPUTUBWELE: Like, yeah, we don't use that.

WARNER: A pen was not a beek; it was un stylo. Or a towel is not essuie; it's a serviette. And the news on the TV, that is never, ever le nouvelle.

MPUTUBWELE: Oh, no, no, no. We don't use le nouvelle; we use les info - like, the informations (laughter). Yeah.

WARNER: So you were, like, improving your French?

MPUTUBWELE: Right, right, right. Totally.

WARNER: Even when the proper French turned out to be not French at all.

MPUTUBWELE: Yeah. The word in French for black is noir. We use that word in English sometimes, like film noir. And so I'd use the word noir to describe myself - like, je suis noir, I'm black, or les noirs aux Etats-Unis, black people in the U.S. And then a friend was like, oh, actually, we don't use the word noir for people; like, we use black, the English word black.

WARNER: Black.

MPUTUBWELE: Black. Noir is a little bit, like, mmnn (ph), but black is better, you know?

WARNER: Ngofeen did not question this lesson any more than the others.

MPUTUBWELE: I remember coming back home and telling my parents, like, do you know that in France French - right? - I was like, you say black, not noir. I was like, OK - fact I learned.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: I'm Gregory Warner. This is ROUGH TRANSLATION, the show where we take you to far-off places with stories that hit close to home. Today's episode takes place in a country where language is so treasured and so reverently protected from foreign influence that just trying to change a word can be seen as a threat, and a threat not just to tradition and the status quo but to the French self-image, to what it means to be French.

So we got two stories for you today, two creative efforts to change the words we call ourselves and each other. We're going to come back to Ngofeen's discovery that black was the new noir and what happened next. But first, a story that really shows the inner workings of how the French language is so closely guarded. And it starts with this other word.

MPUTUBWELE: I found out this crazy thing that just, like, sent me on this whole spiral of working on this story. You know what a ghostwriter is, right? Somebody writes...

WARNER: Writes the books for you, yeah.

MPUTUBWELE: Exactly. The word in French for ghostwriter is France's version of the N-word. And I was like - I literally was like, what?

WARNER: So we're going to start with that story, when ROUGH TRANSLATION returns.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: We're back with ROUGH TRANSLATION. Just a warning - there is some strong language in this episode that we've left unbeeped (ph) because this story's about strong language.

MPUTUBWELE: First thing - can I get you to introduce yourself?

NELLY BUFFON: OK. I'm Nelly Buffon, and I was working as a journalist for 13 years.

WARNER: What does Nelly look like, by the way?

MPUTUBWELE: She looks like a nice teacher - maybe, like, art teacher. Oh, yeah, Miss Buffon. I love her.

(LAUGHTER)

BUFFON: It's strange because, as a mixed-race person, you feel that you are 50-50. But here in France, I know that for white people in front of me, I'm not black. When I refer to myself as a black person, they said, oh, come on, you're not so black (laughter). If you don't have your hair natural, we won't even find out that you have black blood. It's strange.

MPUTUBWELE: Yeah.

BUFFON: It's really, really strange.

MPUTUBWELE: Yeah.

Like a lot of journalists, Nelly has an inner novelist.

BUFFON: I wanted to write books, to write novel.

MPUTUBWELE: So she writes up a manuscript and sends it off to publishers and gets a resounding no.

BUFFON: I felt frustrated because I wanted somebody to tell me what I have to do to do it better.

MPUTUBWELE: Nelly's looking around, and there's not a lot of these things we're used to having in the U.S., like books on writing or MFA programs.

BUFFON: No blogs, no websites - no, no, no. Everybody thinks that writing cannot be learned here in France.

MPUTUBWELE: Hm. OK.

BUFFON: It's something like, you have the gift, or you don't have it.

MPUTUBWELE: And so Nelly says, I'm going to start this consulting agency where I can help people learn how to write, like, connect them with people who can help, like, maybe an editor or a ghostwriter.

Are there many black-owned...

(LAUGHTER)

BUFFON: No, I'm always alone. I've always been alone. I'm always the only black person.

MPUTUBWELE: One day, pretty soon after she starts this new literary consulting agency, she's at a press conference hosted by the Ministry of Culture.

BUFFON: I remember exactly the place. We were in the temple of French literature, the Centre National du Livre.

MPUTUBWELE: Imagine a fancy salon lined with books.

BUFFON: And this woman asked me this question - (speaking French).

MPUTUBWELE: What this white woman asked Nelly was, do you offer nigger services? That's the literal translation.

BUFFON: And that was really shocking, and I was, like, having my heart squeezing and my brain totally freezing for some seconds. And I was like, am I supposed to punch her?

MPUTUBWELE: Nelly knows this is the word for ghostwriter.

BUFFON: Everybody knows that word in France.

MPUTUBWELE: But it's one thing to know that word, and it's another to hear it said to you.

BUFFON: And you are just shocked, and you are a lot of...

MPUTUBWELE: It's like she's the only one hearing how painful that word is.

BUFFON: You feel just really confused.

MPUTUBWELE: The word negre - it can mean - like, can translate as negro. But after talking to black and white people in France, when it's used today, it's much more like our N-word in the U.S.

WARNER: So how did that word come to mean ghostwriter?

MPUTUBWELE: Negre was the word used to describe black people during slavery. Like, it's funny; like, France is really proud of the fact that slavery was illegal in France, but if you cross the Atlantic and landed in the New World, places like Haiti or Guadalupe - which is where Nelly's family is from - or Louisiana, that's where France enslaved black people, in its colonies. They were the negre. So negre came to mean ghostwriter because a negre is the person who's doing all this work and not receiving any of the benefits of that labor. The most famous example that's kind of been carried down through history to us is with Alexandre Dumas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: Alexandre Dumas (speaking French).

MPUTUBWELE: Dumas is one of France's most famous writers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (Speaking French).

MPUTUBWELE: They actually made this film about Dumas and one of his ghostwriters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (Speaking French).

(LAUGHTER)

MPUTUBWELE: You'll remember from, like, the French literary world, writing is a gift. It's like this - (singing) ahhh (ph).

WARNER: That's right.

MPUTUBWELE: And so this great mind is actually using ghostwriters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (Speaking French).

MPUTUBWELE: Dumas was mixed. His grandmother was black. So you know, the guy who wrote "Three Musketeers" is a black man from France, for the record (laughter).

WARNER: And the ghostwriters he hired were white.

MPUTUBWELE: Yeah, his ghostwriters were white. And so they started making fun of him.

LOUIS-GEORGES TIN: People would say he exploits them.

MPUTUBWELE: Louis-Georges Tin founded the best-known black organization in France.

TIN: People would laugh at him, calling him le negre. So le negre has - the nigger has niggers.

MPUTUBWELE: The thing is, you - like, it's an ordinary word that you can use whenever the word ghostwriter comes up. But back in the Centre National du Livre, that white crowd is not going to have the same relationship with this word as Nelly does.

BUFFON: When I came back home, I was talking with my husband about that. And I decided that I have to have a prepared answer if this came again.

MPUTUBWELE: Nelly wants people to stop using the word, but she also has a business to run and clients to get.

BUFFON: And it was like, (speaking French).

MPUTUBWELE: Mmm hmm.

BUFFON: That means, yes, I see what you mean (laughter), but we don't use this term.

MPUTUBWELE: She decides to use the English word, ghostwriter - ghostwriter.

BUFFON: And I'm always saying that with a big, big, big smile.

WARNER: And what is she trying to do in those moments?

MPUTUBWELE: She's trying to get white people to hear that word in the same way she's hearing it.

WARNER: She's not just correcting their words; she's saying, did you hear what you just said?

MPUTUBWELE: Yeah. For years, Nelly keeps correcting people. And then one day, she's venting about all this at a friend's place.

BUFFON: We were in Brittany, and we were drinking a lot (laughter).

MPUTUBWELE: The friend works for Greenpeace.

BUFFON: And at Greenpeace, they used to launch a petition for every single thing they do.

MPUTUBWELE: (Laughter).

BUFFON: And she told me, but why don't you launch a petition about that?

MPUTUBWELE: But what Nelly's up against - wanting to change a French word - is a big deal because, in France, language is a matter of national identity. It's considered the foundation stone for the feeling of belonging to a community - that's not my words; that's the government's words. There's a council, set up hundreds of years ago, to guard the language. They're called l'Academie Francaise. There's 40 members known as the immortals. They dress in these, like, embroidered boleros and meet in a cathedral.

WARNER: What do they do there?

MPUTUBWELE: So they write the French dictionary.

WARNER: Wow.

MPUTUBWELE: Nelly addresses her petition to them, but the gears of the immortals turns slowly. So she also sends it to this other group, and they, too, protect the language, but they're more like a rapid response team. They meet, not in a cathedral, but in this ordinary government building. The name of the group is the General Delegation to the French Language and the Languages of France.

WARNER: Do they have an acronym or anything (laughter)?

MPUTUBWELE: DGLFLF.

WARNER: Wait - DGLFLF?

(LAUGHTER)

WARNER: Can we just - can we deal with this?

MPUTUBWELE: Yeah. The linguists I talked to call them the DGLF.

WARNER: OK.

MPUTUBWELE: So that's what we're going to call them - DGLF. Their job is to identify any specialized terms, like all these English words that get created all the time - like smart home, net neutrality, freemium, downcycling, podcasting (laughter) - and help Frenchify them.

GILLES SIOUFFI: (Speaking French).

MPUTUBWELE: Gilles Siouffi is a linguist at The Sorbonne. And he gave me this example - infox. It is a mixture of information, which is information or news, and intoxication, which is, like - in French, is, like, poisoning. So, like, poisoning news.

SIOUFFI: (Speaking French) fake news.

MPUTUBWELE: Oh (laughter). Once the DGLF says, OK, please don't say fake news anymore - say infox - the government has to start using that word. That's now the proper French term.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking French).

MPUTUBWELE: So Nelly goes home, and she crafts this petition and argues why this word should be changed.

WARNER: Yeah.

MPUTUBWELE: And part of that argument is that...

BUFFON: We are supposed to be the people who are really caring about the words.

MPUTUBWELE: We the people who work in the craft of words, we should be careful with our words.

BUFFON: Please care about the words when you are talking to me, and care about this word especially.

MPUTUBWELE: She sends the petition around, waits for people to sign on. And she gets...

BUFFON: Thousand and 500.

MPUTUBWELE: 1,500 signatures - not nearly enough. And one of her friends is like, you should call Louis-Georges Tin.

TIN: I was contacted by a French citizen.

MPUTUBWELE: Louis-Georges - you'll remember - he's the founder of that prominent black organization in France, the Representative Council of Black Associations. And their acronym in French is CRAN.

TIN: Le CRAN.

MPUTUBWELE: CRAN.

TIN: Yes.

MPUTUBWELE: Louis-Georges remembers the day he got Nelly's call.

TIN: And she told me this funny and shocking story about people coming to her office asking for niggers. So that's funny, but that's revolting at the same time. And I told her, you did what you had to do. But because you are an isolated citizen, of course you didn't have all this success.

MPUTUBWELE: When all of this started, Nelly just wanted people to stop saying the N-word to her. She wasn't trying to be an activist or anything.

BUFFON: At the first beginning, I was not comfortable with the idea of contacting the CRAN because they have an image of angry black people. You know what I mean?

MPUTUBWELE: Mmm hmm.

BUFFON: And I really didn't want to do anything with anger.

TIN: She told me that she had tried before, and the petition didn't work.

MPUTUBWELE: And so Louis-Georges, he uses his connections to send the petition to thousands and thousands of people. Do you remember seeing the numbers ticking up, like, going up? Or...

BUFFON: Yeah. Yeah. (Laughter) I remember I was at home going to my computer every 15 minutes. And I was like, no - oh. (Laughter) Plus thousand and plus thousand and plus thousand. It was quite magical.

MPUTUBWELE: It looks like they may actually get a meeting with the DGLF. But there's another problem.

TIN: Ghostwriters.

MPUTUBWELE: The word Nelly's been using is the English word, ghostwriter.

TIN: Which is the American way.

MPUTUBWELE: But you (laughter) can't go into the Delegation General a la Langue Francaise et aux Langues de France - which is just, like, too many references to French in the name - and be like, hey, can we use this English word? Can we say, le ghostwriter? No. Louis-Georges was like, you know what? There's actually a word in French for ghostwriter.

TIN: We have a word for that...

MPUTUBWELE: Before negre.

TIN: ...Which is plume.

MPUTUBWELE: Plume is feather or pen, like a fountain pen. Prete-plume is loaned feather.

TIN: We want to go back to a very, very classical way, an elegant way of saying, which is nice. And it's less racist.

MPUTUBWELE: The first time I talked to Louis-Georges on the phone, he said something like, if you're a minority, and you want to see change happen, you can't be an idiot. You have to be strategic. And this is one of those moments where I see exactly what he meant.

When this petition gets hate mail, it's going to be criticized for changing tradition, changing the French language. And so what they do is they're like, oh, you want to be traditional? We're going to be even more traditional, even more truly French. And the petition gets them this meeting. They go to the DGLF, take the steps up to this ordinary administrative government office. And they meet with a wizard.

WARNER: He's like a court clerk.

MPUTUBWELE: Yeah. He's, like, the - he's like a clerk. I like to call him a wizard (laughter).

BUFFON: I found him friendly.

MPUTUBWELE: The fact that Nelly and Louis-Georges are even sitting in this office discussing this at all is pretty extraordinary. They don't have to respond to some petition from an ordinary citizen.

TIN: And they tell you, we - we'll call you next week, of course. Don't worry.

BUFFON: It's going to the Ministry cabinet.

TIN: Next week comes. There is no phone call.

BUFFON: It's going back to the College.

TIN: You need to call them every week to say, what's happening? Are you working on the issue? It's one month. Why is it so long?

MPUTUBWELE: Finally, Louis-Georges gets word that they're going to issue the recommendation. So I'm going to read the recommendation - (reading, speaking French). So in French dictionaries, the word negre, which is associated with slavery, employed to designate a person of color, is described as being pejorative, racist and antiquated.

WARNER: Wow. Pejorative, racist and antiquated. It's like, that's the coffin right there.

MPUTUBWELE: We, after having convened and considered - we propose this new term, prete-plume. And that's the win. And they send out the alert.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking French).

MPUTUBWELE: Nelly and Louis-Georges go on TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TIN: (Speaking French).

BUFFON: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking French).

BUFFON: Now when people are using this term in front of me, I just tell them that you know you're not allowed to tell that anymore.

MPUTUBWELE: She doesn't have to smile and choose her words carefully. She doesn't have to explain why that word is a problem. She just holds up this paper. We don't say that anymore.

BUFFON: I don't know. I'm always thinking about my ancestors who were slaves. And I'm always thinking that, at a moment, there were people who decided we wouldn't be slaves anymore. And even if they will be killed five minutes later, they decided we don't want to be slave anymore. For me, it's so strong, I think there's nothing above. If they have been able to do that, I can do something as well.

WARNER: You know, I'm just wondering. In this moment when Nelly is able to hold up that piece of paper, this ruling from the DGLF that says we don't say that anymore, like, that we, it feels like the idea, at least, is that the whole country tries to stay on the same page in terms of language. And I guess I'm wondering, if we had something like that in America, would that be kind of nice?

MPUTUBWELE: I mean, if I could pull out a piece of paper from the government every time someone asks me, hey, what tribe are you from in Africa? Like, and the paper said, the word tribe is antiquated and pejorative in that context, I think I might love that. It'd be kind of a relief to not have to explain every time. Like, it seems nice to me in this situation. But I can also imagine a case where I disagree with the government's choice.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WARNER: Which brings us to our second story. What do you do when the powers that be have determined the words that you can and cannot be called, and you are not OK with that?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking French).

MPUTUBWELE: Remember I told you about that trip I went on to France?

WARNER: When you were 19.

MPUTUBWELE: When I was in college, I learned all these things. You say this. You don't say that. You say noir, and you don't say black. So that was a long time ago. And since then, I started asking, like, why don't you say noir? Like, why don't you say that?

WARNER: The French word.

MPUTUBWELE: Right. And to tell that story, we have to talk about something that, like, long before me, black Americans have loved about France.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Speaking French).

JAMES BALDWIN: (Speaking French).

MPUTUBWELE: So this is James Baldwin talking on French radio about when he first moved to Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BALDWIN: (Speaking French).

MPUTUBWELE: He got there in 1948. And he says that when he got to France was when he became an American for the first time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BALDWIN: (Speaking French).

MPUTUBWELE: Back home, I was a sale negre, is what Baldwin says - a dirty nigger.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BALDWIN: (Speaking French).

MPUTUBWELE: This is in the era of Jim Crow. So in the U.S., he found whites-only signs and segregation. But in France, he finds it completely different. In fact, you're not even supposed to name race. And that tradition goes back to World War Two.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in French).

MPUTUBWELE: World War Two is this pivotal moment in French history. Like, a lot of what France is today has happened because of World War Two. So during the war, France was complicit with the Nazis. France, like, rounded up Jews, deported them to the concentration camps. Your religion, your race was recorded and used against you. So after the war, the new president - that's Charles de Gaulle, airport named after him...

WARNER: Yeah.

MPUTUBWELE: ...He has the task of rebuilding the country and kind of recreating the French identity. And as part of that, one of the ways that he does that is they get this new constitution. And in the constitution, they pull from this old, like, French Republic principle that says that France is indivisible. And this one word is so important. It's hard to overstate how important it is. What it means is that France is one people. And the way that gets interpreted is that the government can't ask for race in official documents - not on a census, not on a college admission form.

WARNER: It's illegal.

MPUTUBWELE: Yeah. The idea in France is that race is a false category.

WARNER: So let's not talk about it.

MPUTUBWELE: Let's not talk about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Singing in French).

MPUTUBWELE: Until the early '80s, when a new word shows up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (Singing in French).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Singing in French).

MPUTUBWELE: There's this show that comes on in 1984 called "H.I.P. H.O.P.," which is the letters for hip-hop - H-I-P H-O-P.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "H.I.P. H.O.P.")

SIDNEY DUTEIL: (Speaking French).

MPUTUBWELE: And the guy who hosts this show is the first-ever black host on French television.

DUTEIL: (Speaking French).

MPUTUBWELE: There's a lesson segment, where the host teaches you - like, I'm going to show you how to break dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "H.I.P. H.O.P.")

DUTEIL: Le break machine.

MPUTUBWELE: He freestyles. He's like, put your arm this way, and you turn it all around (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MPUTUBWELE: And then on certain episodes, they'd get really excited because an American celebrity makes a guest appearance on their show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "H.I.P. H.O.P.")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Everybody be peaceful and strive on to be somebody.

DUTEIL: Yeah.

(APPLAUSE)

RACHEL KHAN: (Through interpreter) Seeing black people in Europe, it was like we were entering into a modern era - a new era.

MPUTUBWELE: This is Rachel Khan. She lives in Paris, and she's a bit of a renaissance woman. She spent years doing ballet. She was a nationally ranked sprinter. She went to law school, studied human rights law. And now she works in the artsy world. She's a writer and an actress. Growing up in France, she was the only black kid in her class. And so she loved turning on the TV and seeing these black American celebrities.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I JUST CALLED TO SAY I LOVE YOU")

STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) No New Year's Day...

MPUTUBWELE: Stevie Wonder, Angela Davis, Carl Lewis...

KHAN: (Through interpreter) These almost mythological figures who come in part from the U.S. and who really reinforce that strength.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "H.I.P. H.O.P.")

LINDSAY: Je m'appelle Lindsay (ph).

MPUTUBWELE: Seeing these black people on screen, it's like - they're people like her. And they have this new word - black, or blehck (ph) in French. And at first, Rachel loved it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "H.I.P. H.O.P.")

DUTEIL: How you feel now?

KHAN: (Through interpreter) When you're a little girl, it's immediately a way to distinguish yourself. You know, using this English word, you just come off as hip and trendy.

MPUTUBWELE: (Speaking French).

I'm asking Rachel if there was a moment when she remembers using that word and feeling really cool.

KHAN: (Through interpreter) Totally. But the expression black is beautiful...

MPUTUBWELE: OK.

KHAN: (Through interpreter) You've got a boy you want to flirt with at school - your first crush. And he'd say, yeah, she's black. And you'd respond...

Yeah, black is beautiful.

MPUTUBWELE: Aw.

(LAUGHTER)

MPUTUBWELE: OK. OK. (Speaking French).

KHAN: (Through interpreter) So if we don't have power, at least at that time, being black meant we were strong.

MPUTUBWELE: And it's not just teenagers like Rachel embracing that word. Bit by bit, people start calling French black people black, like (speaking French) - a black woman, (speaking French) - black people. And then in 1990, black enters the French dictionary. But as black's growing in popularity, Rachel's also growing up. And she's noticing something about this word.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MPUTUBWELE: When Rachel was a sprinter winning her national championship, everyone on the team except for one person is black. As she says, they're all different shades of black. And the coach is a white guy. And the coach, he calls the darkest of the athletes. He's like, you are the most black. You are the blackest, so you run the fastest.

KHAN: (Through interpreter) And at this point, it just started to become grating, you know, the exoticizing aspect of it. It's almost as though you become a black object, and you're no longer a person. And I was hearing this thing - that this word black was fused with something very fantastical; something from a fantasy world. A beautiful, black woman - it all went together.

WARNER: And what does the word black have to do with it?

MPUTUBWELE: Because it's an English word. She says, you know how Americans use French words in English, like soiree - we want to be kind of a bit fancy or sophisticated.

KHAN: Rendezvous, (speaking French).

MPUTUBWELE: (Speaking French).

KHAN: (Through interpreter) Yeah. It's like sophisticated.

MPUTUBWELE: Oui.

KHAN: Voila.

MPUTUBWELE: Oui.

In France, when people use English words, it's either about the world of work and seeming efficient, like brainstorming - le brainstorming - or it's about seeming, like, cool and cosmopolitan.

KHAN: (Through interpreter) At the beginning, I really liked it. I liked the fact that my identity was associated with, you know, an English word. It gave me a very cool vibe, you know, like, yeah, I'm black.

MPUTUBWELE: But then she realizes that the shiny coolness that comes with the word black is very different from what she's living as a black person in France. Like, when she was in ballet school, her teacher's always pointing out her butt, that it's not right for ballet. After studying law, she gets this very prestigious government job.

KHAN: (Through interpreter) And so I said to myself, it's amazing that France allows people like me, you know, the opportunity to work at a place like this.

MPUTUBWELE: But she's realizing she doesn't fit in here either. And she's asking herself, like, is it my clothes? Maybe I need to buy the same black pencil skirt that all the other white women in the office wear. Like, maybe I need to reel in my personality and be more subdued. But after a while, she's like...

KHAN: (Through interpreter) Despite all of my effort...

MPUTUBWELE: My feet hurt from these heels that I'm wearing (laughter).

KHAN: (Through interpreter) You know, my hair that I was totally destroying with all the straightening - and so I said to myself, I'm going to be truly myself.

MPUTUBWELE: And who she is is not black, the American word. Who she is is noire. And so she comes up with a solution, which is that she starts correcting people who call her black, telling them to call her noire. And some people are fine with it. Some people are just confused.

KHAN: (Speaking French).

MPUTUBWELE: And then...

KHAN: (Through interpreter) These other people almost with this, like, militant mindset would continue to call me black.

MPUTUBWELE: I've actually experienced that tension Rachel's describing. Like, when I asked one of my best French friends to call me noir, my friend, who's, like, progressive white guy, like, anti-colonial, all the things - and he was like, no, I'm not going to call black people noir.

WARNER: Wow.

MPUTUBWELE: That makes me think of my racist grandpa who used to talk that way. And, like, I'm not going to say that word.

WARNER: He thinks that word is offensive.

MPUTUBWELE: He feels like he's being racist when he says noir.

WARNER: And in some ways, France has told him that.

MPUTUBWELE: Yeah. I mean, that's the whole French system. And it's kind of one of those moments where you wish you had a piece of paper from the government being, like, use this word. But no, there is not that paper.

WARNER: The DGLF does not apply here.

MPUTUBWELE: This is not a specialized word, so DGLF does not even come into consideration. On top of that, there, technically, is a piece of paper. It's called the French constitution. And it says that France is indivisible, which means don't talk about race.

WARNER: Right.

MPUTUBWELE: So what Rachel wants to do here is, in a way, forbidden in France.

TIN: We have a history of black consciousness in France. But because of the Second World War, it became taboo.

MPUTUBWELE: Remember Louis-Georges from our first story? He's the guy who teamed up with Nelly to take down ghostwriter. When he started this black organization the CRAN back in 2005, he deliberately put the word noir in the name - conseil representatif des associations noires.

TIN: We told them, no, we need to have a word to call ourselves.

MPUTUBWELE: He started out as an activist in the gay rights movement, and he takes those strategies and applies them here.

TIN: So you cannot say it's OK to be black if you have to hide from being black and deny yourself.

MPUTUBWELE: So in your mind, did you see using the word noir as a coming out?

TIN: Oh, yes, because this is exactly what I told my friends. We need to make our coming out like gay militants do.

MPUTUBWELE: Actually asserting, we are here.

TIN: Yes. And, like, we're going to use the word whether you like it or not.

MPUTUBWELE: But there's this reaction in media in the papers. And it's like, does France have noir?

TIN: That would be unbearable.

MPUTUBWELE: So even though it was a big move, the CRAN did not change what black people are called in France. They're still black.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: (Speaking French).

MPUTUBWELE: So that even more than a decade later, Rachel is one of 24 black women interviewed about this for a documentary film.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: (Speaking French).

MPUTUBWELE: This documentary is called "Ouvrir La Voix" or "Speak Up" in English. And it's something completely unseen before in French film.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: (Speaking French).

MPUTUBWELE: There's a black, queer film director, Amandine Gay, talking to 24 black women about their experience in France.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: (Speaking French).

MPUTUBWELE: And while they're talking about sexuality and depression and school, they're also voicing the same concerns, frustrations about being called black instead of noir.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: (Speaking French).

MPUTUBWELE: I actually talked to people after a showing of the film. And, like, they were really excited.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: Oh, yes - thinking like me, every woman was talking.

MPUTUBWELE: But the audience was largely a group of people that wants to talk about race.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: Yeah, I was like, oh, finally.

MPUTUBWELE: This wasn't going to be heard by people - largely white people who are resistant to the word noir.

KHAN: (Speaking French).

MPUTUBWELE: And it's not long after that film comes out that Rachel gets a text about doing something even bigger than that. It just so happens that it's her 42nd birthday. She's working this gig in Belgium, and she is not having a good day.

KHAN: (Through interpreter) And I'm telling you I was so incredibly sick that day. And so I'm there, thinking I'm going to die. You know, this is my birthday. And at that moment, I receive a text.

MPUTUBWELE: The text comes from another black actress - a more famous one - named Aissa Maiga.

KHAN: (Through interpreter) I received a text from Aissa Maiga.

MPUTUBWELE: The documentary reached her, and she wants to add her voice.

KHAN: (Through interpreter) Come on, you know, we need to talk about our lives, what we're experiencing. We need to speak up and change something.

MPUTUBWELE: There ends up being...

KHAN: WhatsApp.

MPUTUBWELE: ...This WhatsApp group of 16 black women - all actresses - coming up with a plan for what they're going to do.

KHAN: (Through interpreter) Come on. Let's write a book.

MPUTUBWELE: This book of essays about their experiences - they use the word noir in the title.

KHAN: "Noire N'est Pas Mon Metier."

MPUTUBWELE: "Noire N'est Pas Mon Metier," which means noire is not my job, which is a way of saying, first off, we're noire. And second off, it is not our job to just be noire like stereotypes in your movies. So they're going to take this book, and they're going to present it at the Cannes Film Festival. Cannes is the second biggest media event on the planet. Everyone in the film industry wants to be there. And so they're taking this moment, with all the cameras on them, to announce to France and to the world that we are noire.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: Harvey Weinstein will never be welcome.

KHAN: (Through interpreter) The fear, you know, came bit by bit as we were preparing for Cannes.

MPUTUBWELE: They do a dress rehearsal of walking down the red carpet together.

KHAN: (Through interpreter) Because at Cannes, you're leaving the world of publishing, and you're entering the world of the image.

MPUTUBWELE: The idea of black women walking down the red carpet together in Cannes - this is really scary to do in France. Rachel and these other actors are worried that producers are going to stop hiring them. They'll think that they're troublemakers.

KHAN: (Through interpreter) And, you know, there was this one other big fear. I really, really didn't want them to tell us that we're being communitariste.

MPUTUBWELE: This word, communitariste - it's kind of the flip side of that idea that France is indivisible and colorblind. Like, you're not supposed to ask about race on the census, but you're also not supposed to segregate with your own people.

WARNER: What's that mean?

MPUTUBWELE: You're just supposed to blend in, and that means to blend in to white France. So here is what's really so tricky for Rachel, Aissa and this whole crew of women. They've decided that in order for things to change, they have to act as a group.

KHAN: (Through interpreter) And there you go - a little panic, a little stress. At the beginning, as we're walking down the red carpet, we're just super focused on what's happening. We're holding hands really tightly. Hearts are beating. It was like the 100-meter dash, you know? I get it. It's 10, 11 seconds of your life, but so many things could've gone wrong.

MPUTUBWELE: On the red carpet, camera shutters click. French eyes stare - 16 black women, all different shades, black and French. Right arms lifted up, fists held high.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: (Speaking French).

MPUTUBWELE: So I watched the French shows that covered Cannes. The anchors are using the word noir, which is a big deal. But even bigger than that is that some of them are asking, like, why did you use noir instead of black? That seems to be something really important. Tell us why.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: (Speaking French).

KHAN: (Speaking French).

(Through interpreter) The way these TV hosts talk, the words that they choose - they have a huge impact. We watch them every night. It's super important.

MPUTUBWELE: The host asks, why are you using this word? And the women respond, this is why. And then the host is like, OK, I'll do that. They're recommending out to society, like, use this word.

WARNER: And did this - I mean, do we know - does this then start a conversation? Are people - are French people now using the word noir more?

MPUTUBWELE: So there is this conversation now around noir and black because of this book and the film and the CRAN and this whole body of activism that's been happening. Not everyone uses it. Like, my cousins still use black. And you remember Nelly from the ghostwriter story?

WARNER: Yeah - got the word changed.

MPUTUBWELE: Yeah. She is wrestling with it, too.

BUFFON: I don't feel comfortable with it when I'm saying noir. And I'm trying to force myself to say it because I agree with the campaign about that to use the word as it is.

MPUTUBWELE: For Rachel, nobody's called her black since the book came out.

KHAN: (Through interpreter) For me, it's a victory. You know, it's a huge victory that we're able to separate these two stories. We don't have the same history as the U.S. or of England. Our story is French and black.

WARNER: This episode was produced by Jess Jiang. Marianne McCune is our editor. And thanks to Cirielle Bedoo (ph), Fia Benin (ph), Joe Osmondson (ph), Melissa Bunoit (ph), Gene Demby, Noel King, Sona Krazikoff (ph), Gabrielle Ramo (ph), Nicola Sonja (ph) and Sami Yenigun for listening to early drafts of this episode. Thanks to Carolyn Trotman (ph) for voicing Rachel Khan. And thanks, also, to Nera Bigoo (ph), Tyler Stovall (ph) and Mark Memmott.

MPUTUBWELE: Ngofeen here. I just want to specifically thank the black women whose research into writing courses throughout this story - Crystal Marie Fleming, author of "Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies And White Supremacy In France;" Amandine Gay, the director of the documentary "Ouvrir La Voix," or "Speak Up;" the authors of "Noire N'est Pas Mon Métier" - all 16. Here they are.

WARNER: Do it.

MPUTUBWELE: Nadège Beausson-Diagne, Mata Gabin, Maïmouna Gueye, Eye Haïdara, Rachel Khan, Aïssa Maïga, Sara Martins, Marie-Philomène Nga, Sabine Pakora, Firmine Richard, Sonia Rolland, Magaajyia Silberfeld, Shirley Souagnon, Assa Sylla, Karidja Touré and France Zobda; and finally, Nelly Buffon, founder of Enviedecrire literary consulting agency in Paris.

WARNER: And we'll have links to all of that on npr.org/roughtranslation.

The ROUGH TRANSLATION executive team is Neal Carruth, Will Dobson and Anya Grundmann. Sarah Knight fact-checked this episode. Jane Gilvin helped with research for this story, mastering by Andy Huether. John Ellis composed music for our show, and Marianne McCune scored the episode.

If you'd like more stories like this in your podcast feed, here's what you can do. Rate us and review us on Apple podcasts - helps people find the show. And drop us your thoughts at roughtranslationnpr.org or on Twitter @roughly. I'm Gregory Warner, back in two weeks with more ROUGH TRANSLATION.

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