‘Metissage’: understanding racialisation in the history of regulating ‘mixture’ in France

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By Rébecca Franco, Euromix PhD Researcher, 15 April 2019

Poster from 1968 promoting anti-racism and solidarity with immigrant workers

Since the 1990s, ‘métissage’ [mixture] is often used in French public and political discourse as the ultimate end and means of the post-racial dream.[1] Métissage is a specifically French concept that is invoked to talk about the cultural and ‘ethnic’/‘racial’ mixing that is indicative of the integration of different (non-white) groups in the French national identity. At the same time, however, the French political and social dialogue is filled with concerns about the descendants of (post)colonial migrants, especially about the residents living in the marginalised suburbs known as the ‘banlieues’. These citizens have made political claims to redress racialized inequality. However, they have faced rejection by the government based on the argument that this reinforces particularistic notions of identity, which is in the French tradition of universal Republicanism seen as ‘unfrench’.

So what is going on here? In the country of ‘liberté, egalité et fraternité’, everyone is supposed to be equal.  So, racialized inequality is not seen as a valid basis of political claim-making. And yet, the descendants of the people whose labour and resources helped build the country are marginalised on the basis of racialized logics. Freedom is circumscribed, equality differentiated, and brotherhood conditional.

In this blog, I will go into the difficulties of understanding and talking about the role of ‘race’ and processes of racialisation in France. Through this, I explain and motivate my research on the regulation of ‘mixture’ at a time in which many (post)colonial immigrants moved into France.

The banlieue

Let us first turn to the current situation of the descendants of postcolonial immigrants in France so to comprehend what is at stake. According to the decolonial intellectual Mbembe, the French state has refused to address the issue of ‘race’, while simultaneously engaging in practices of racialisation at multiple levels of society.[2] This becomes apparent in the issues surrounding the ‘banlieues’. The French marginalised suburbs are heavily populated by French citizens of African descent: some first generation, but many residents have been in France for multiple generations. The ‘banlieusard’ [the residents of the banlieue] is seen as ‘savage’ in the same way as was done in the colonies.[3] They are often cast aside as threats to the nation, as foreigners – although they are French citizens.

The residents of these urban zones have challenged amongst others racism, spatial marginality, racialized police brutality, and lack of opportunities,[4] as they fight for a place in postcolonial France.[5] Fed up with the marginalisation their (grand-)parents  have had to deal with, they struggle for recognition, dignity, and equality.

On the side of the state and ‘mainstream’ media, however, the banlieues are represented and discussed as a hotbed of crime, despair, and unrest. The problems in the banlieues are more often discussed as proxy of the problem of ‘immigrants’ than to address issues of residents. Accordingly, the urban zones are problematized as threats to national security, and policies have mostly revolved around repression rather than solutions.[6]  In response to the formations of group identities, government is concerned with what they call ‘communautarisme’ [pejorative term for ‘segregation’ based on group identity], as the residents are accused of refusing to integrate.[7]

Negating ‘race’

The French authorities and politicians often use this rejection of communautarisme as an argument to negate the particular experiences of marginalisation based on markers of identification, such as ‘race’ or ‘ethnicity’. Whereas the term only really gained currency in the 1990s – as the ‘dangerous’ alternative to métissage – it is today vilified for testifying as the rejection of French universalism.  In this same vein, ‘race’ or ‘ethnicity’ is not a legal category nor included in the census in France. The argument is based in the French Republican idea that universalism and equality are the integral tenants of French society.[8]

In an op-ed in response to the referendum in Switzerland on the banning of minarets in the newspaper ‘Le Monde’, the then-president Sarkozy asserted: ‘National identity is the antidote to tribalism and communautarisme. […] Métissage is the willingness to live together. Communautarisme is the choice to live separately.’[9] Whereas communautarisme is rejected, métissage is promoted as proof of French universalism. Through this, métissage indicates tolerance (on the side of the state/French society), while communautarisme indicates intolerance (on the side of the ‘other’). In both concepts, however, the historical dynamics of power, are negated, and so through this discourse the French state becomes absolved of responsibility.

The rejection of specific markers of identification, such as race, as a category of analysis, solidarity and political claim-making, then, becomes hazardous if we consider the ways in which they have played an essential role in the making of modern France. Accordingly, the politics of ‘colour-blindness’ has been criticized for negating the historical, institutional, and structural inequalities based on such markers of identification.[10]

So, how can we try to understand the processes of racialisation in the French context?

Researching race and mixture

The difficulties in understanding and researching racialisation in general, and France in particular, lies in the flexibility of the concept of ‘race’ itself. Stuart Hall has argued how ‘race’ is a floating signifier, as it has disparate meanings that can be activated in specific contexts. Similarly, ‘race’ can operate under covert signifiers that invoke ideas of race without enunciating them. Covert racialisation is not limited to the French context by any means. However, the French context in which the official narrative of France is that is has never ‘done’ race because of its investment in universalism, makes it ever the more important to consider the flexibility of race.

Critics of the French narrative of their exceptional equality and universalism have argued that ‘inassimilability’ was used as a covert for exclusion on ‘racial’ terms. This played a role under colonialism: subjects could in theory become citizens, if they were ‘evolved’ enough, spoke perfect French, and acted like ‘real Frenchmen’. In reality, this was close to impossible.[11] In this way, difference is evaluated against the universality of France.

In other words: France is seen as universal perfection. Everybody is equal, except if you cannot adhere to that French perfection: then, you are ‘inassimilable’, different, unequal (and can be colonized).

In this light, the (renewed) interest in métissage as a marker of integration and the goal of post-raciality warrants a closer examination. In French, unlike the English terms ‘miscegenation’ and ‘hybridity’, the notion of métissage indicates both ‘racial’/’ethnic’ mixture as cultural meanings of mixture (unsurprisingly, given the historical connection between assimilability in cultural terms and racialized exclusion). Whereas mixed couples are seen as a measure of integration, the concept métissage itself does not explicitly talk about race as it is made devoid of its biological meaning in today’s context.

Still, the regulation of ‘mixture’ and mixed relationships have played a central role in the creation of identities and in ordering society along these identities. ‘Mixture’ presupposes the existence of two different parts. So, the way in which ‘mixture’ of people is regulated can help show how boundaries are created and enforced. The regulation of ‘mixture’ as a way to create and regulate the native and the foreign, white and non-white, colonizer and colonized, has a long history. Reading this history back into its contemporary use can help understand why and how the investment in color blindness negates the state’s responsibility in racialized regulation of belonging.

History of ‘mixture’

Several scholars have looked at the ways in which mixture was regulated at different moments in French history across the French colonial field. In colonial times, the authorities promoted ‘mixed’ relationships when it was seen as a practical solution to men’s desire, but it became mostly vilified when scientific racism became popular at end of the 19th century. [12] ‘Mixed race’ children (metis) were seen by the authorities as unrooted and problematic, as the fear for a ‘monstrous metis’ as a rootless danger was perpetuated through art and literature. Interestingly, a decree in the 1930s for ‘metis’ in the colonies made ‘mixed race’ a condition to obtain French citizenship through that decree.[13]  This illustrates how the regulation of ‘mixture’ reveals the underlying racial logics of otherwise universalist jurisdiction (at least on paper). At the same time in the metropole, immigration was promoted only insofar as immigrants were deemed assimilable to the French in terms of having families with the French population.[14]

Just before independence in West Africa, Leopold Senghor, a Senegalese intellectual and later first president, used the concept of métissage to advocate for cultural hybridity as an alternative to nationalism. For multiple reasons that essentially revolved around the French government’s rejection of an equal federation with African states, the notion of métissage lost currency over the course of decolonization of West Africa.[15]

In France, research and discussion on ‘mixture’ only pops up again in the 1980s/1990s. These works and political discussions discuss the meaning of mixture in terms of integration of second-generation immigrants. Besides, the fear for ‘mariages blanc’ [white marriages, i.e. sham marriage for documents] made mixed (nationality) families and couples hypervisible.

Generally, regulatory practices and discourses depended on the specific ‘needs’ of the different authorities at that moment in time and space, which were not always cohesive. Tracing the histories of the regulation of ‘mixture’ shows a fragmented field of anxieties, regulations, and governmental practices that crafted, protected, and contested racialized categories and belonging. The discourse about métissage today, thus, is a continuation of the uncomfortable history, rather than a break from it.

There is, however, little literature and attention the regulation of ‘mixture’ in the period between WWII and the 1980s. During the 30 years of the trentes glorieuses (1945-1975), France underwent massive change. It transformed from an Empire to a modern European nation-state (although they still had and still have foreign territories). At the same time, many Northern Africans and Sub Saharan Africans moved into the French metropole, as they transformed from colonial subjects, to differentiated citizens, to postcolonial immigrants. Whereas this period is remembered as a time of open immigration, the regulation of immigration and belonging is more complex and fragmented. During this period, the postcolonial borders of contemporary France were crafted. Research into the regulation of mixture during this time can help understand how racialisation played a role. Accordingly, it can contribute to a more critical understanding of the contemporary discussion on métissage, communautarisme, and belonging of the descendants of postcolonial immigrants.


If today métissage is seen as an unproblematic solution, then political claims based on racialisation are rejected and the responsibility of the state is negated. Since talking about ‘race’ is seen as ‘unfrench’, and therefore explicit measures to tackle the issue of racism is seen as ‘unfrench’, then perhaps we need to open up the narrow way in which the role of ‘race’ and racialisation in French history today is remembered and understood.

Research on the historical regulation of ‘mixture’ is a fruitful line of inquiry because it can help reveal how the boundaries have been created, maintained and contested. Reading the history of the regulation of ‘mixture’ back in to today’s discussions can help understand the false dichotomy between métissage and communautarisme, as processes of racialisation become apparent.

[1] Whereas in my research, I favor the concept ‘interracialized intimacies’ to mixture, in this blog I use the term mixture because this is the term used in the archives. Interracialized intimacies indicates the process of racialization inherent in the designation of some intimacies as ‘mixed’.

[2] Mbembe, A. (2009). Figures of multiplicity: can France reinvent its identity? In C Tshimanga D. Gondola and P. Bloom eds. Frenchness and the African Diaspora: Identity and Uprising in Contemporary France, Bloomington: Indiana University Press

[3] Mbembe, A. (2005). La République et sa Bête : À propos des émeutes dans les banlieues de France. Africultures, 65(4), 176-181.

[4]   Boubeker, A. (2013). The outskirts of politics: The struggles of the descendants of postcolonial immigration in France. French Cultural Studies, 24(2), 184–195. https://doi.org/10.1177/0957155813477797

[5] See for example the advocacy group ‘Les Indigenes de La Republique’ http://indigenes-republique.fr/

[6] Avenel, C. (2009). La construction du « problème des banlieues » entre ségrégation et stigmatisation. Journal français de psychiatrie, 34(3), 36-44. doi:10.3917/jfp.034.0036.

[7] Moran, M. (2017) Terrorism and the banlieues: the Charlie Hebdo attacks in context, Modern &Contemporary France, 25:3, 315-332, DOI: 10.1080/09639489.2017.1323199

[8]   Léonard, M. des N. (2014). Census and Racial Categorization in France: Invisible Categories and Color-blind Politics. Humanity & Society, 38(1), 67–88.

[9] See https://www.lemonde.fr/a-la-une/article/2009/12/08/pour-le-chef-de-l-etat-l-identite-nationale-est-un-antidote-au-communautarisme-par-nicolas-sarkozy_1277587_3208.html

[10] For example, see Stovall, T. E., & Van, . A. G. (2003). French civilization and its discontents: Nationalism, colonialism, race. Lanham: Lexington Books. Peabody, S., & Stovall, T. E. (2003). The color of liberty: Histories of race in France. Durham: Duke University Press.

[11] For archival research on this in West Africa, see Coquery-Vidrovitch, C. (2001). Nationalité et citoyenneté en Afrique occidentale français: Originaires et citoyens dans le Sénégal colonial. The Journal of African History, 42(2), 285-305

[12] White, O. (1999). Children of the French Empire: Miscegenation and Colonial Society in French West Africa 1895-1960. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[13] Saada, E. (2007). Les Enfants de la Colonie: Les metis de l’Empire francais entre sujéton et citoyenneté. Paris: La Découverte.

[14] Camiscioli, E. (2009). Reproducing the French Race: Immigration, Intimacy, and Embodiment in the Early Twentieth Century. London: Duke University Press

[15] Cooper, F. (2014). Citizenship between Empire and Nation: Remaking France and French Africa, 1945-1960. Princeton University Press.

An Exceptional Marriage Upsetting Colonial Orders?

lees in het Nederlands

by Betty de Hart, Euromix Principal Investigator, 11 October 2018

In the late nineteenth century, on 22 January 1889, Oei Jan Lee married Christina van Wijk in Leiden, a university town in the Netherlands. Oei Jan Lee, or as he wanted to be called, Johan Lee, was of Chinese descent, born in the Dutch East Indies (nowadays Indonesia) and his wife Christina was a Dutch white woman, born in the Netherlands. Johan Lee had studied law at Leiden university and in 1889, he obtained his PhD on the topic of Responsibility of the vendor for hidden defects of the good.[1] The couple had met through her father, who was a teacher, where Johan Lee had been staying. After the marriage, they had a short announcement in the local newspaper to thank for the interest in their marriage, as was common usage for couples of their class.

Their marriage was considered a ‘mixed’ one. This is the popular term for what was an interraacialised marriage: between partners of two groups that were considered distinct, racialized groups by society, at this particular time and place. The term interracialized points to the constructed, arbitrary nature of references to these relationships and their offspring, and explicitly departs from assigning essentialist status to them. [2]

No respect for the ‘white race’

Their marriage drew considerable media attention in the metropole as well as in the Dutch East Indies. The colonial press was especially interested because the couple was expected to establish their life there. Such a marriage between a woman who  was considered ‘European’ and a man who, as a Chinese, was categorised as a ‘foreign oriental’ was not only perceived as rare and remarkable, but also as a threat to the colonial racial and legal order. This is what the colonial Bataviaansch Nieuwsblad  wrote about the marriage, blaming Christina’s father:

[Because] a small burger in the Netherlands by marrying off his daughter shows to have thrown away all respect for his religion, for the white race and the nation and the family, to which he belongs (,..).[3]

Source: Bataviaans Nieuwsblad, 9 March 1889. Commenting how Christina’s father lost respect for his religion, ‘white race’ etc. 

This news report shows how this interracialized marriage of an individual couple was seen as a matter of general interest: endangering religion, the ‘white race’ and the people; it was seen as degrading all of them. It was also common discourse at the time that such a marriage was not seen as a matter of choice by the white woman herself, but rather something that happened to her, because she was naive, was chosen, or, in this case, ‘married off’.[4]

The excerpt cited here was a response to an earlier commentary by translator of the Chinese language P. Meeter in the Javabode, who welcomed the marriage as proof that Chinese ‘did not fall back to the same level as the natives’, as some had alleged. Under the heading ‘European or Chinese?’, Meeter described Johan Lee in a positive light; not only had Lee married a ‘Dutch lady’, he had studied law, and had applied for naturalisation.[5]

Although this may sound positive, Meeter believed in a racial hierarchy with the ‘natives’ at the bottom of this hierarchy. He also used racial language in linking the topic of Lee’s dissertation to his ‘Mongolian descent’. This fits with the negative colonial discourses on the Chinese community in which they were depicted as money brokers exploiting the weaker ‘natives’.

The Dutch East Indies had a racial hierarchal order inscribed in law. In 1848 article 109 of the Government Regulation for the Dutch East Indies introduced a legal distinction between ‘Europeans and their equals’ (Europeans, Christians and all non-natives), and ‘natives and their equals’ (natives, Arabs, Moors, Chinese, Mohammedans and heathens).

Meeter addressed he question whether Oei should be considered ‘Chinese’ or ‘European’. Marrying a ‘Dutch lady’ or ‘a full-blooded Holland girl’ as some media called her [6]  was not the only thing that Johan Lee had done to upset this colonial order; Lee claimed equal treatment as European in different ways.

The legal consequences of being Chinese  

Lee had already applied for Dutch citizenship in 1886, three years before his marriage, but the request was denied. The Director of Justice of the East Indies was of the opinion that although Lee’s naturalisation was legally possible, it went against the ‘spirit of the law’ to naturalize persons of a ‘completely different race’ and ‘completely different way of living’. A Chinese could never de facto become Dutch and it was in the interest of the colony to keep the different groups apart. The Minister of the Colonies J.P. Sprenger van Eyk (1884-1888)[7] agreed that naturalization should be denied, because Lee would still retain the status of ‘foreign oriental’, and if not, naturalization would result in circumvention of the other procedure, the individual request for ‘equality to Europeans’.[8]  Hence, although the Netherlands government never had racial criteria inscribed in nationality law (as in the United States)[9], they applied racial criteria in practice. Consequently, for Chinese, naturalization would remain problematic and an issue of political debate for a considerable period.[10]

In the colonial order, to be categorised as Chinese had distinct legal consequences. The Chinese had to live in separate living areas under supervision of Chinese leaders and only in exceptional cases could they live in areas designated to Europeans, or where the Indonesian population lived. In 1872, it was expressly forbidden to dress differently than what was considered to be according to the Chinese ‘landaard’ (‘national character’). Furthermore, an 1863 Act restricted mobility of the Chinese and ‘natives’ by an obligatory pass system. The rules to separate living quarters and the pass system remained in place until 1919. These rules demonstrate how blurred racial lines in the colony actually were; keeping the Chinese legally apart was a way to make racial distinctions be displayed openly and more distinct.[11]

Lee, however, did not obey these rules. For instance, in 1889, a few months after this marriage, newspapers reported that he had attended a session of a local court, ‘fully dressed as European’, and wondered how the colonial authorities would react to this violation of the dress code.[12] He also converted to Christianity and that too was reported in the newspapers.[13]

Source: Algemeen Handelsblad, 21 April 1889. Reporting on Lee’s visit to the court ‘fully dressed as European’

Where did a mixed couple belong?

It can be assumed that these rules would also affect Lee’s wife Christina, although this was hardly mentioned. It raises the question where, as a mixed couple, they were allowed to live, and how Christina was supposed to dress. Meeter also wondered how the couple would be treated by the Indisch society, and how she would endure the whispering and giggling by ‘particular Indies ladies’ about their unusual union. He also indicated that, as a European woman, she would feel uncomfortable, if he would be obliged to dress as Chinese.

This implies that a European woman would only be interested in a man who looked European, in other words, who performed Europeanness, even if he wasn’t. The reference to particular ‘Indies ladies’ is a racialised and gendered discourse, which was well-understood as a reference to European women of mixed decent who were held responsible for prejudices in colonial society.[14]

Johan and Christina’s arrival must indeed have created quite a stir in the colony. One newspaper resisted a possible treatment as European, as Lee, in their opinion, was still young, and had done ‘nothing at all’ to serve the general interest. The report continued:

If it would be enough to master the Dutch language and complete an academic education in the metropole, this would be followed by countless requests by well-off Chinese. [15]

The author claimed it was not necessary to spell out the consequences, as they were clear to all those familiar with the colony, so it is believed that the government would refuse the request.

Finally European…

In 1891, two years after the marriage, Lee was granted equal treatment to Europeans.[16] In 1892, he applied for Dutch citizenship once more. By then, he was an attorney at the Indisch Supreme Court. This time, his request was granted and the Director of Justice and the Council of the Indies advised positively. They concluded that he had ‘not fallen back’ to the Chinese way of living and customs, and considering his job, his marriage to a European woman, and his social position he could be considered European. Naturalization then, confirmed ‘the truth’ of what he was. Lee was naturalised by law of January 2nd 1893 (St. 1893 no. 9). Nevertheless, this was considered the exception that confirmed the rule, which remained that ‘foreign orientals’ could not naturalise. Naturalisation for Chinese remain problematic for years after Lee.[17] In the end, although he did everything he could, it is questionable whether Lee upset the colonial order, especially because he remained the exception, with the colonial racial legal order firmly in place up till decolonization.

At some point, Johan and Christina returned to the Netherlands. Lee died in The Hague in 1918, Christina in 1941. Their life events no longer drew media attention. However, it is likely that their life as an interracialized family in The Hague will have been highly affected by the racialized discourses on the Chinese that travelled back and forth between the colonies and the metropole. Retelling their story, as far as possible based on the available sources, gives some insight in how they were affected, and how they responded.



[1] Lee, Oei Jan. Over de aansprakelijkheid des verkoopers voor de verborgen gebreken der verkochte zaak... JJ Groen, 1889.

[2] Haritaworn, Jinthana. The biopolitics of mixing: Thai multiracialities and haunted ascendancies. Routledge, 2016.

[3] Bataviaans Nieuwsblad, 9 March 1889, Nederlandsch Indie.

[4] Laura Tabili (1996). Women “of a very low type”: crossing racial boundaries in imperial Britain. Gender and Class in Modern Europe, 165-90.

[5] Javabode 8 March 1889, Europeaan of Chinees?

[6] Nieuws van de Dag 23 January 1889.

[7] https://www.parlement.com/id/vg09lljhz8y4/j_p_sprenger_van_eyk#p.overig

[8] Tjiook-Liem, Patricia, De rechtspositie der Chinezen in Nederlandsch-Indië 1848-1942. Leiden University Press, 2009, p. 276-277. https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/bitstream/handle/1887/13509/Tjiook+voor+PoD[1]-05.02.09.pdf?sequence=2 .

[9] Haney-López, Ian. White by law. 10th anniversary edition: The legal construction of race. NYU Press, 2006.

[10] For a historical overview of Dutch citizenship law, see: Heijs, Eric. Van vreemdeling tot Nederlander. De verlening van het Nederlanderschap aan vreemdelingen 1813-1992. Amsterdam: Het Spinhuis, 1995.

[11] Shirahshi, T. (2011). AntiSinicism in Java’s New Order In D. Chirot, ‎A. Reid (eds) Essential Outsiders: Chinese and Jews in the Modern Transformation. Washington University Press, 187-207.

[12] Algemeen Handelsblad, 21 April 1889

[13] Maasbode 25 October 1889, De Mail uit Oost-Indië.

[14] Boudewijn, Petra. Warm bloed: de representatie van Indo-Europeanen in de Indisch-Nederlandse letterkunde (1860-heden). Uitgeverij Verloren, 2016.

[15] Rotterdamse courant, 24 April 1889.

[16] Staatsblad van Nederlandsch-indië, no. 221, 20 October 1891.

[17] Tjiook-Liem, Patricia, De rechtspositie der Chinezen in Nederlandsch-Indië 1848-1942. Leiden University Press, 2009, p. 276-277. https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/bitstream/handle/1887/13509/Tjiook+voor+PoD[1]-05.02.09.pdf?sequence=2 .


How to cite this blog post (OSCOLA):

Betty de Hart, ‘An Exceptional Marriage Upsetting Colonial Orders?‘ (11 October 2018) <http://euromixproject.nl/an-exceptional-marriage-upsetting-colonial-orders/> accessed insert date.