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Rokhaya Diallo and Rachel Khan: Opposing concepts of anti-racism

By Clarisse Juompan-Yakam
Posted on Thursday, 3 June 2021 11:16

Rokhaya Diallo and Rachel Khan © JOEL SAGET/AFP; Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images -Montage: JA

For several weeks now, French personalities Rokhaya Diallo and Rachel Khan have been battling it out on social media and television platforms. One constantly questions the concepts of domination, inequality and belonging, while the other has become the new media figure of republican universalism. Can the two opposing stances converge?

Can we fight for the same cause and yet have opposing views? Anti-racist activists Rachel Khan and Rokhaya Diallo certainly believe so. For several weeks now, the two women have been expressing their different opinions and battling it out on social media and television platforms.

Supported by their respective fans, they reveal two conceptions and two ways of appropriating the fight against racism in France. Rachel Khan has presented herself as the new media figure of republican universalism while the resolute Rokhaya Diallo speaks out against “the culture of the docile minority”, which she says is very entrenched in France.

“Racée” with multiple origins

It all started with the release of Khan’s book Racée on 10 March, published by Observatoire. In this essay, which was praised by the French press, the actress and screenwriter does much more than simply wound the French-Senegalese columnist and director Diallo. She accuses her of engaging in identity politics and of encouraging the victimisation of black people. Two shortcomings that stem, according to her, from the emergence in the public debate of words that carry hatred and resentment, such as “intersectionality”, “diversity” and “racialised.”

Her comments about Diallo are harsh. She calls her “[…] an arsonist [who] simplifies the world and brainwashes a race-obsessed youth, who is waiting until she can find an appropriate word.” She chastises “the entrepreneur of victimisation” and “[her] vindictive cackling [which] gives you goosebumps.” Khan continues by saying that “her primary ambition, under the guise of justice and equality, is to cause division, for the sake of clashes and ratings on Twitter, as she thrives on discord.” As the granddaughter of a deportee who was born to a Muslim Gambian father and a Jewish mother of Polish origin, Khan does not want to be perceived as racialised. On the other hand, she says that she is racée because of her multiple origins.

We are not born racist. To be racialised is precisely to have a specific racial condition in a given geographical context.

And it does seem that her opinions are very popular. Since the publication of her book, the former top athlete has been interviewed by many journalists. In fact, there is not a single major media outlet that has not opened its airwaves or columns to her. Since the media is so well disposed towards Khan, it would appear that France has finally found the muse of the anti-racist struggle that it was missing.

Identity politics

Endowed with a formidable outspokenness and never thrown by attacks from her opponents, Diallo knows only too well that she provokes people as her statements are often met with a lot of anger.

Probably because very few black women dare to speak out in the public arena against racism with such determination, as they risk being accused of engaging in identity politics. “What is expected of someone like me, who has a certain social standing thanks to my studies, is that she should rejoice in her lot and express nothing but gratitude towards the Republic,” says the Washington Post and Guardian columnist on her Facebook page.

On both sides of the Atlantic, Diallo constantly questions the concepts of domination, inequality and belonging that push people into boxes and prevent social mobility. In each of her interviews, she deplores the fact that society reduces these concepts to questions of identity. She wonders how can we talk about “freedom and equality” when some people are accused of endangering the Republic simply because they dare to denounce the consequences of racial discrimination.

“We are not born racist”

On 29 March, the two women agreed to debate on the French 24-hour news channel LCI. This was an opportunity for Diallo, who is used to verbal jousting, to hammer home a certain point. “Proclaiming oneself to be racée is a theoretical luxury that does not stand up to the test of reality,” she said, explaining that it is society that judges based on race. “We are not born racist. To be racialised is precisely to have a specific racial condition in a given geographical context.”

Tensions rose again in mid-April after Khan appeared on CNews, another French TV channel. The host Pascal Praud described the actress as “intelligent, benevolent” and said that he did not understand “why others are malicious, jealous and violent.” One Twitter user later mocked him by tweeting: “You are not like Rokhaya Diallo or Feïza Ben Mohamed, and I love that.” To which Diallo cooly replied: “As long as we stroke their ego and sing France’s praises, they love us,” accompanied by a photo of the Banania ad.

Many were up in arms about her tweet. The International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism (Licra), of which Khan is the president of the sports commission, denounced this “filthy” tweet that proves that “Diallo’s so-called anti-racism is a scam used to smear people.”

“Stung to the core, jealous like an old diva, violent like a dispossessed child, Rokhaya Diallo has just publicly destroyed herself by bringing up, at #RachelKhan’s expense, the subject of disgusting colonial racism,” added philosopher Raphaël Enthoven. “The more of us who defend our universalist and republican values, the more the bananas and other Banania’s will eventually slip away,” replied Khan. Diallo, for her part, insisted that this was a “simple observation.”

“To please certain TV platforms, it is better to refrain from criticising France or denouncing racism,” she says. “These smooth and docile positions are indicative of colonial paternalism. That is all.”

One thing is certain: this Twitter clash alone illustrates the difficulty of leading the anti-racist fight in France. To those who point out the discord between Khan’s “universalist” anti-racism and Diallo’s “racialist and communitarian” anti-racism, some Internet users remind us, with excerpts from texts, that there was a time when Khan defended exactly the form of anti-racism that she is fighting today. Perhaps the ultimate challenge is being an anti-racist activist in France.

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