French Prejudice of Colour #1/6 « Functional » Racism

tanlistwa, peinture représentant un homme Noir, buste et tête presque de face, torse nu, portant une caisse sur sa gauche décollée de son épaule qu'il tient à deux mains, il a le regard droit comme posé au loin, en arrière plan un paysage lointain avec un batîment blanc sur la gauche

 Reading time: Around 10 minutes.
–> Lire la version française de cet article  flag-fr-1

I had a half-written article for June, a light subject to relax after the health crisis; but the events of late May/early June stirred up too many painful emotions for me to have the heart to finish it.  The reactions after the destruction of the statues of Schœlcher in Martinique, and, even more so, this new case of racist police violence in the USA and the echo it is getting internationally, particularly in France, have taken up my mind.

I don’t want to talk about history, but about social psychology* because it is in this discipline, I believe, that we can find keys to understanding our social reactions and improve our living together, a process that begins by questioning ourselves. I am so tired** of seeing how little we are able to hear and recognize the suffering or distress of those who are confronted with it, when we escape it ourselves, when we benefit from a privilege, when we are not the dominated or the victim of a situation or a system. I am so worn out by how quick we are to deny or condemn the expression of the other person’s suffering, distress or anger, as if it were not legitimate, because it is uncomfortable or unbearable to face, because it forces us, if we really listen to it, to recognize that our societies have still not resolved crucial problems, that they are far from being fair or egalitarian for all members of society, and that we participate in this state of affairs on a daily basis.

But I am a historian, and this is the only discipline where I feel legitimate to write, to broaden your knowledge of the history that has led to the societies we inherit today, to give you food for thought about the society you want to build for tomorrow. After reflection, today, as every month, I am talking to you about history; I have chosen to write about the history of the colour prejudice in the French Caribbean in the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly in Martinique, and a little bit in France as well, because it is a founding basis of our current social relations that I have studied at length.

I took up the printed paper pad from my thesis*** which deals with free people of colour faced colour prejudice (and more specifically with the process of crossing the colour barrier or passing in English) and wondered what I could extract from it for the blog? What was I should and wanted to focus on? I remembered an archive of the colonial administration in particular, clearly expressing its use of functional racism for the maintenance of the colonial order that I wanted to share (I’ll come back to that!), but I thought it would be more relevant to write several episodes giving a lighter synthesis of my research so that you get a broader view of the construction of colour bias and what it could have meant, not just an anecdotal element of it. It’s a slightly different format from what I usually do in the process, but I hope you’ll find something to think about. Today I’m setting out the theoretical framework.

Throughout my posts I will talk about Blacks (unless I specify otherwise, I will talk about Blacks whether they are of mixed race or not), they were the numerical majority of people in the Caribbean islands, Africans or their Creole descendants; for the most part, they were reduced to the status of slaves in the 18th century. I will talk about their counterpart: the Whites, whether they were Western/European or Creole, on the eve of the French Revolution they formed less than 20% of the islands’ population, but were the oppressors in the service of their colonial project. Finally, I am going to talk about the Free People of Colour to evoke in particular those who, whether black or of mixed race, freed or their descendants, were legally free.

Prejudice of colour (in 1777) according to the colonial administration

Inequality, exploitation, segregation, discrimination, domination, racism are terms that invariably come up in work on the history of the colonial system in the Caribbean and America.

Prejudice of colour is inseparable from these words; it is a key concept in understanding the Martinican society of the Old Regime, and more generally the colonies that experienced the plantation society system, because it was expressed as much in the social sphere as in the political and legal spheres – all of which were intimately interwoven in a complex relationship – and it was exported to the kingdom of France.

In the Caribbean, the creation and existence of free people of colour, as an intermediate legal category between free whites and slave blacks, was the result of the societal matrix instituted in the colonies.

However, the colour prejudice of the 18th century was not the racism of the 19th century. The « scholarly » or « scientific » elements provided by contemporaries of the time were not crucial in the development of colour bias, especially not in the political and legal framework, at least not initially. In 1777, a famous quote from the King’s Memorandum to be used as an instruction to the Governor General and the Intendant who took office in Martinique explained:

« Coloured People are either free or enslaved. Free people are freedmen or descendants of freedmen. No matter how far from their origin, they always retain the stigma of their slavery and are declared incapable of holding any public office; even gentlemen who are descended to any degree from a woman of colour cannot enjoy the prerogative of nobility. This law is harsh, but wise and necessary in a country where there are fifteen slaves for one white man; one cannot put too much distance between the two species; one cannot impress upon negroes too much respect for those to whom they are slaves. This distinction, rigorously observed even after freedom, is the main link in the subordination of the slave, through the resulting opinion that his colour is doomed to servitude and that nothing can make it equal to his master. The administration must be careful to strictly maintain this distance and respect ».
[Les gens de couleur sont libres ou esclaves. Les libres sont des affranchis ou des descendants d’affranchis. À quelque distance qu’ils soient de leur origine, ils conservent toujours la tache de leur esclavage et sont déclarés incapables de toutes fonctions publiques ; les gentilshommes mêmes qui descendent, à quelque degré que ce soit, d’une femme de couleur, ne peuvent jouir de la prérogative de la noblesse. Cette loi est dure, mais sage et nécessaire dans un pays où il y a quinze esclaves pour un blanc ; on ne saurait mettre trop de distance entre les deux espèces ; on ne saurait imprimer aux nègres trop de respect pour ceux auxquels ils sont asservis. Cette distinction, rigoureusement observée même après la liberté, est le principal lien de la subordination de l’esclave, par l’opinion qui en résulte, que sa couleur est vouée à la servitude et que rien ne peut la rendre égale à son maître. L’administration doit être attentive à maintenir sévèrement cette distance et ce respect.]

The elite was clearly aware that it was using a political and legal tool, which did not need scientific support,  » scientific racism  » to justify itself. The good colonial order and the security of whites, who were numerically inferior in the islands, were sufficient arguments for resorting to prejudice on the basis of colour. The small number of European settlers depended on this concept, or so they thought, to maintain control of the colonies.

By the way, to understand the text, you should know that the « fifteen slaves for one white man » regularly asserted in the texts of the time, to justify the prejudice of colour and the threat that slaves represent, is false; in Martinique we are rather around 7 slaves for 1 white man in 1777… which was indeed a lot, but it is half less than the 15|1 announced.
The reference to « gentlemen who are descended, to whatever degree, from a woman of colour, cannot enjoy the prerogative of nobility » refers to a Martinican case, the Dubois de Lachenaye, two brothers who had married « mulattresses » at the beginning of the 18th century; their mixed-race sons, born in wedlock and free, should therefore have been able to inherit their father’s nobility… This was without counting on the prejudice of colour.

tanlistwa, archives, Extrait d'une lettre du gouverneur Machault évoquant les frères Dubois de Lachenaye, 1703.
Extrait d’une lettre du gouverneur Machault sur les frères Dubois de Lachenaye, 1703.

Prejudice, a racist system?

If prejudice was just a functional tool, if it did not concern itself with  » scientific  » elements, if it was not the « biological racism » of the 19th century, can we then talk about race and its corollary racism? Yes.

Genetically, the existence of different human races is rejected by physical anthropology, and is nowadays thought to be nonsense. At the time when I was doing my thesis studies, I had found a very good documentary « A Question of Colour » [une question de couleur] by Franco di Chiera (2010), which explained the different skin colours in the world, the reason for these differences from a biological point of view, and which recalled that in the nineteenth century European scientists, driven by their beliefs, had tried to prove the existence of different races (in fact, most often it was a question of showing the superiority of one race over the others) by relying in particular on the factor of skin colour.

Nevertheless, if the existence of different human races for physical anthropology is a nonsense, in the social sciences, race is an accepted social construct, a concept and a tool that makes sense. For Tharailath Koshy Oommen, « the question is therefore not whether the concept of race has any scientific basis. Although it is based on spurious biological differences resulting from confusion between genotype and phenotype, it remains a relevant sociological variable, as race and skin colour are social guarantees that shape attitudes and behaviour ». This is true today, it was even more so in the 18th century. Women and men were assigned a status as a result of their colour and, as Jean-Luc Bonniol reminds us, « of a physical appearance considered unchangeable and lived obligatorily transmissible to descendants« .

In order to understand the prejudice of colour, I used the theoretical model of racism presented by the philosopher and political scientist Pierre-André Taguieff. Although it is not perfect, it is really interesting because it allows us to clarify and dissect the complex functioning of the prejudice of colour, even if in practice everything is intertwined, because the different components of racism interfere with each other and contribute to reinforce each other.

This has enabled me to better distinguish the constituent elements of racism, which he calls :

  • racial ideology
    To ideology, Pierre-André Taguieff associates doctrine, worldview, vision of history, theory and philosophy. It implies an explicit system of representation with a role of legitimation, of justification, where it is accepted that there are different races that can be hierarchized. Jean-Luc Bonniol gave this formulation which I find enlightening: ideology is « the expression of what the world should be » … according to the point of view of the person who states it.
  • racial prejudice
    To prejudice, Pierre-André Taguieff associates attitudes, affective-imaginary dispositions linked to ethnic stereotypes and monetized in « opinions » and « beliefs« ; prejudice is a way of perceiving, of judging the other through attitudes and opinions. Prejudice pre-exists in public opinion before the individual makes it his or her own; as a result, an individual becomes imbued with the attitudes of the social environment to which he or she belongs.
  • Racial discrimination
    Pierre-André Taguieff associates discrimination with observable collective behaviour linked to a certain mode of social functioning, which can be defined as the denial to individuals or human groups of the equal treatment they are entitled to expect. It leads to measures of exclusion. Racial discrimination is based on a decisive criterion of belonging to a particular ethnic group or race or presumed origin. The group that is discriminated against is thus subordinated, enslaved, subjected to negative stereotyping by the dominant « race » which assigns a place in the social hierarchy by means of the phenotype. Discrimination may be the result of the law, of rulings, but also of morals and mentalities which are much more resistant and difficult to change.

Establishing inequality between « races » has the dominant function of legitimizing a process of exploitation and making it ideologically acceptable to all. For Pierre-André Taguieff, racism can then be understood as « the articulation of an economic exploitation, involving political domination, and of an ideological legitimization, a condition for the acceptability of exploitation and domination ».

Colour prejudice is consistent with this description of a racist system, which is well illustrated in the above-mentioned quote from 1777. We are in the presence of a discourse of what the good colonial order should have been: « one cannot impress upon negroes too much respect for those to whom they are slaves… » This discourse legitimized the use of colour prejudice: « This law is harsh, but wise and necessary in a country where there are fifteen slaves for one white man« . It also reinforced the view of the distance that should separate the two « races »: « No matter how far from their origin, they always retain the stigma of their slavery« . The prejudice of colour segregated and discriminated against a group of individuals who were « declared incapable of holding any public office« , and who could not « enjoy the prerogative of nobility« . It was based on the criterion of colour or its supposed origin, and thus justified « the subordination of the slave, through the resulting opinion that his colour is doomed to servitude and that nothing can make it equal to his master…« . The prejudice of colour was not just a matter for the colony; in the same year, the king drafted a « black police force » [police des Noirs] applicable in the kingdom of France.

Here is a definition of racism proposed by Albert Memmi that I find equally enlightening. « Racism is the generalized and definitive valorization of real or imaginary differences, to the benefit of the accuser and to the detriment of the victim, in order to legitimize an aggression« . In this sense, there is no doubt that prejudice of colour is a form of racism. It is a type of racism, which can be characterized as functional racism, which can be distinguished, for example, from the biological racism of the 19th century, or from a reactionary racism such as anti-Semitism; colour prejudice is not a racism of extermination, but a racism of exploitation « centred on the unequal relationship assumed and legitimized » as Pierre-André Taguieff points out.

The theoretical framework having been set, I will talk in the next post about the prejudice of colour through the opinions and beliefs conveyed about Blacks.

All posts:

(coming up)

French Prejudice of Colour #/4 Its Legal Expression (b)
French Prejudice of Colour #/5 Its Legal Expression (c)
French Prejudice of Colour #/6 In People’s Lives

*For French reader, if you wish to question and better understand the mechanisms of social psychology, I highly recommend the site of the Hacking social and its YouTube Horizon Gull channel. The articles and resources on the site are of great quality and the videos accessible to the neophyte allow a progressive initiation.

**If, like me, you have been or are still in fatigue, pain, anger, sadness… you will probably appreciate the accuracy of Keyholes & Snapshots’ words for black women. In French.

*** The first 5 posts devoted to this series on the prejudice of colour are a reworking of the writings taken from my French thesis defended in June 2015. You can download it here Les Libres de couleur face au préjugé… if you wish to read more about the subject or to get precise references. For this episode, see in particular chapter 1 (p. 29 and following).
Researchers’ quotes in the note are translated from French and may therefore differ from works also published in English.


  • Jean-Luc Bonniol, La couleur comme maléfice : une illustration créole de la généalogie des “Blancs” et des “Noirs”, Paris, Albin Michel, 1992
  • Jean-Luc Bonniol, “La ‘race’, inanité biologique, mais réalité symbolique efficace…”, Mots, vol. 33, no 1, 1992
  • Albert Memmi et Tharailath Koshy Oommen, cité par Jean-Pierre Sainton, Couleur et société en contexte post-esclavagiste : la Guadeloupe à la fin du XIXe siècle, Pointe-à-Pitre, Jasor, 2009
  • Pierre-André Taguieff, La force du préjugé : essai sur le racisme et ses doubles, Paris, Gallimard, 1990. See Chapter 6, on the theories of prejudice and the meanings of racism, more particularly the sub-section « the erudite meaning: racism, racial prejudice, discrimination », pp. 224-270; the theoretical elements on racism developed in my chapter are derived from this reading.


  • Durand-Molard, Code de la Martinique, Saint-Pierre, Martinique, J.-B. Thounens, 1807, n° 517,reproduced by Moreau de Saint-Méry in his compilation of the memoirs of the king of various colonies A.N.O.M. F3 72 f°1, 22, 36, 99, 117, 153, 211, 237. The document is quoted extensively by Pierre-François-Régis Dessalles, Les annales du Conseil souverain de la Martinique, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1995, pp. 339‑340
  • Archives nationales Outre-mer, sous-série C8A, correspondance à l’arrivée de la Martinique, C8A 15 f°43, lettre de Machault au sujet de la noblesse des frères Dubois, 1703.


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