Anti-Blackness and the Legacy of Colonialism at Sciences Po

By BEING BLACK AT SCIENCES PO*,
Inter-campus Sciences Po Student Organization, created as a “safe space for Black students at Sciences Po”


The paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.”

James Baldwin

A professor told me it didn’t matter if I worked during the holidays because coming from the Outre-mer I was already used to slavery.”

Anonymous Black Sciencespiste, Class of 2021

The quote above was one of the countless testimonies our page began to receive from Black students,  when we started in September 2020. As more and more students entrusted us with sharing their experiences, the stories became more grave, signaling the extent of anti-Blackness as a  pervasive force endemic to Sciences Po as an institution. At all levels of the establishment, there  will always be Black Sciencespistes with their traumatizing experiences which forever impacted their educational trajectory  at this institution—they carry it as a burden, hushed and silenced, operating with the acute understanding that if they were to speak, no one (and especially not the administration) would take them seriously enough to handle the issue. 

The issue of anti-Blackness intersects with  a plethora of other systemic issues lying at Sciences  Po’s core: anti-Blackness operates in tandem with sexism, classism, homophobia, ableism, and the  faux sense of loyalty to a Republic built on empty values. Students who are relegated to the  margins—whether due to their race, gender, sexual orientation, class, or nationality (students from the Global South) have had their experience colored distinctly due to difference. What is  particularly malignant about this is the genuine struggle that it takes in attempting to engage with  these problems. Within the general atmosphere of both Sciences Po and France, students engaged  in these struggles are entrapped in a double bind: organizing and engaging in anti-racist and anti-sexist struggles centered at tackling these issues, while being gaslighted into believing that these  efforts are not warranted in France, a purported emblem of equality under the veil of  universalism. Through the collective student work being done by organizing circles and  associations across Sciences Po’s campuses, and the string of attempts to connect with  administration only to have them repressed or denied, there is a need in understanding what it takes to engage in generative anti-racist and anti-sexist struggles. 

It’s become clear: Sciences Po is a colonial institution at its heart where every aspect of its inception and its current day existence serves towards extending neocolonialist practice and reproducing the asymmetries of the global world order. Therefore, in order to effectuate generative change out of anti-sexist and anti-racist student-based resistance, it is imperative that we as students engage in  decolonizing practice, that not only undermines and de-legitimizes Sciences Po as an institution,  but seeks to actively destroy the systems that produced it.

Sciences Po’s repeated failure to address the issues of students it has relegated to the peripheries  demonstrates its long history as an agent in legitimizing and perpetuating French colonization. Just  as rhetoric surrounding race in France stem from its history and colonizing practice from the assimilation model1, the responses on the part of the administration, as well as the ways discussion  about combating racism are actively suppressed, suggest that Sciences Po perpetuates colonial  practice to this day. The treatment of racialized and gendered students, particularly Black Sciencepistes, is emblematic of its role of perpetuating neocolonialist practices steeped in racism  and misogyny. The experiences of Black students being regularly sidetracked and suppressed,  along with the vitriol that Sciences Po’s administration treats collectives such as Being Black at Sciences Po and Pour Nous, falls in line with its colonial legacy.  

It has been clear: Sciences Po is a colonial institution at its heart where every aspect of its inception and its current day existence serves towards extending neocolonialist practice and reproducing the asymmetries of the global world order.

Both Pour Nous and Being Black at Sciences Po received hundreds of testimonies from racialized  students at Sciences Po, the harm having been done by either another student, an administrator, or a  member of faculty/staff. Many of these testimonies share common features: loaded comments referring to a colonial past, racial slurs, violent/insensitive comments about slavery, and other  pejorative comments that evoke certain racialized mechanisms—such as exoticization,  hypersexualization, or being an “angry black.” Testimonies on the our page mention testimonies clearly products of colonial, racial logics such as: 

J’étais en première année, je faisais une visite médicale sur le campus. En me pesant et en prenant mon poids, X me fait remarquer que suis en surpoids […] Ensuite, X me dit ‘de toute façon en Afrique ils aiment bien les femmes bien en chair et rondes’ et finir par me donner son numéro de téléphone ‘au cas où ça ne va pas trop.'”

Anonymous Black Sciencespiste, Class of 2024

One other professor, while appraising the midterms exams, explained to the class that he was surprised by the level of English of people ‘coming from former colonies.'”

Anonymous Masters student in the Masters in International Public Management

Neocolonialist practices culminate in other events to which the university has remained culpable,  such as the Duhamel Affair, and #sciencesporc, as well as when the Director of Communications  was caught liking racist and islamophobic tweets. 

The genealogy of Sciences Po’s colonial past is not so imperceptible. Many of the institution’s  practices stem from its inception and the intentions of its founder, Emile Boutmy, explain the  current realities for its many racialized and gendered students today. As noted on page 5 of the Pour Nous Anti-Racism Report:

The university’s colonial legacy is evidenced in part by its establishment of a colonial school in 1886 designed to train students to take on professions in the colonial administration in a way that ‘propogates […] a more scientific and international colonialism.”2

Pour Nous, Anti-Racism Report, October 2020

Furthermore, there has been important work done by Sciences Po professor and postcolonial scholar Pap N’diaye, along with Jakob Vogel and a group of History masters students, culminating in an extensive research project titled, “Sciences Po: A Colonial History.” There are  quotes from Boutmy specifically:

Our colonial domain has become a huge empire. Everyone agrees that it would be very dangerous to abandon the selection of agents destined to represent the State at random.”3

Emily Boutmy, The Recruitment of Colonial Administrators

In addition, the project records and tracks the ideology and rhetoric being employed by  administrators and faculty during the 1880s and 1890s, in establishing Sciences Po as an emblem of ‘national prestige’ with expertise in producing generations of colonial administrators ‘promoting  colonization, helping the expansion of trade and industry’ for France. The project mentions professors such as Joseph Chailley-Bert and Paul Leroy-Beaulieu, who ‘make the link between the  business community and the academic world.’ 

Quotes taken from Leroy-Beaulieu mention: The colonies offer “our societies raw  materials at low prices” and constitute “new markets for the flow of manufactured products  from Europe” (Paul Leroy-Beaulieu). Moreover, these colonized territories are considered  as privileged places for making low-risk financial investments. Paul Leroy-Beaulieu thus  underlines that “the capitalists run […] less risks in the colonies which are extensions of the  metropolis.” (N’diaye et al, Sciences Po: Une histoire coloniale)4 

This history being traced to the realities of today, its remnants can be found at every level of the  university. In problematizing the 3A abroad, it becomes clear the ways this practice, though  seemingly benevolent, serves as an extension of the mission civilisatrice, where students are sent out abroad to corners of the world which they have distorted understandings of, operating under the power and prestige that comes with being the student of a colonial state formation. 3A placements do not exist in a vacuum, and as a practice are entrenched and founded in the underlying global power asymmetries born of colonialism itself, allowing students to travel to places without an awareness of their impacts on the people whose land they’re imposing on; 3A placements rely on the  accumulation of prestige and wealth Sciences Po acquired from its role in constructing the French empire. Students move around the world carrying the violence and power imbalance that this  positioning requires. Other practices, such as the Parcours Civique, require equal amounts of interrogation and criticism. 

The Parcours Civique (in English: the Civic Learning Programme), is a mandatory engagement that “offers students the opportunity to learn about citizenship and social responsibility through the development of a personal project in the service of others.”5 In other words, it is a humanitarian-esque project undertaken by each student to better and broaden their social conscience through multiple internships and writing assignments. This description of what the Parcours Civique entails is however broad and unclear, which leads to many different internships from all sectors being submitted for the program. Questions arise over the true nature behind the project’s seemingly humanitarian facade when internships in the French army are approved by Sciences Po administration but work at a local collective is not. Additionally, many of the projects taken on by the students serve to make themselves and the institution feel as if they are bringing on social change when no sustainable aid is provided. In the end, it only benefits the student and the institution which continue to boast about their hollow social consciousness instead of benefitting the “autres,” as proudly mentioned in the Parcours Civique’s mission. The nature of the project, although superficially benevolent, inscribes itself in a wider pattern of the West’s White Savior Complex and should thus not be overlooked by critiques of Sciences Po’s coloniality.

3rd-year placements rely on the accumulation of prestige and wealth Sciences Po acquired from its role in constructing the French empire.

As Sciences Po students engage in one struggle or another, decolonizing practice is the starting  point for effectuating change and building towards a world free of racism, sexism, classism,  trans/homophobia, and other modes of oppression and dominance. As a student body, we must  come to terms with the ways Sciences Po operates in servicing and preserving its colonial legacy,  and thus, repeatedly fails to meet the interests of students in doing so. As an institution steeped in  an irreconcilable, bloody, violent history, it will not be the solution to our problems as students. We must look out for each other, build our own communities and develop consciousness  as students oriented against both the university and empire. 

Where to start? Read Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, which had originally been banned upon publication in France (1961). ▣

* Sciences Political Review is an open platform for all students at Sciences Po’s undergraduate college to publish articles in their name by themselves or on behalf of an association. Since this article is published solely on behalf of an association, all opinions and ideas expressed in this article are solely those of the association and do not necessarily reflect those of Sciences Political Review’s editorial team. For more information, please check our Editorial Policy.

Sources:

1. Former Les Élites Colonisées Puis Post-Coloniales | SciencesPo – Dossiers Documentaires. http://dossiers-bibliotheque.sciencespo.fr/sciences-po-une-histoire-coloniale/former-les elites-colonisees-puis-post-coloniales. Accessed 3 Mar. 2021.

2. Pour Nous. Anti-Racism Report. October 2020. Accessed 3 Mar. 2021. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1PbnsyJEJcKCdDoTNhmAqcqck-vqQ6cI2/view

3. Sciences Po, Une Histoire Coloniale | SciencesPo – Dossiers Documentaires. 2017. http://dossiers bibliotheque.sciencespo.fr/sciences-po-une-histoire-coloniale. Accessed 3 Mar. 2021.

4. Ibid.

5. Sciences Po, “Le parcours civique: un humanisme en actes” Accessed 3 Mar. 2021. https://www.sciencespo.fr/college/fr/formations/objectifs/experiences-apprentissage/parcours-civique.html

and

Une Vision Libérale de La Colonisation | SciencesPo – Dossiers Documentaires. http://dossiers-bibliotheque.sciencespo.fr/sciences-po-une-histoire-coloniale/une-vision-liberale-de-la colonisation. Accessed 3 Mar. 2021,

Former Une Élite Coloniale à l’aube Du XXe Siècle | SciencesPo – Dossiers Documentaires. http://dossiers-bibliotheque.sciencespo.fr/sciences-po-une-histoire-coloniale/former-une elite-coloniale-laube-du-xxe-siecle. Accessed 3 Mar. 2021.

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