Rokhaya Diallo is a woman in the spotlight. As one of the guardians of new French thought, the multihyphenate talent – author, journalist, documentary filmmaker – is a regular commentator on French television and radio, hosts the show Talk on BET, cohosts Kiffe ta Race, a podcast that explores issues of race in France with personal stories and a dash of humor, and travels the world to speak about systemic racism.
More than one of the few prominent voices representing the black community, she has assumed the role of a bridge between France and the outside world. She pens opinion pieces on discrimination and ethnic profiling for the likes of the Guardian and the Washington Post (how I initially discovered her), speaks at conferences – including those hosted by the United Nations – and creates films that find captive audiences abroad. Her documentary De Paris à Ferguson : Coupables d’être noirs (called Not Yo Mama’s Movement in the U.S.) explored the parallels and distinct differences between the racial tensions and issues of police brutality in the U.S. and France in the wake of the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and the Black Lives Matter movement that followed, and premiered to wide acclaim at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in 2016.
So impressive are her credentials one would think she was born into antiracist activism. But when we meet at Le Grand Marché Stalingrad [in Paris] on one of those mild, devastatingly beautiful September afternoons to talk about her journey, she speaks instead of a series of inspirations and then a political awakening.
Born in Paris to Senegalese parents, Diallo spent her early years in the 19th arrondissement and her adolescence in the diverse suburb of La Courneuve, where her skin color was a nonissue. “It was so mixed around me. I was hardly an anomaly. It wasn’t until the end of my studies and the beginning of my work life in Paris that I realized I was always the only black girl,” she explains matter-of-factly. That’s when the where are you really from? questioning began and never really stopped. For the first time, she understood that others perceived her differently. “If I’m being asked where I’m from, that means I don’t exist in the collective imagination. I’m associated with what is foreign, not French.”
Unlike her interest in feminism and alter-globalization, a global justice movement that is “attentive to labor and minority rights, the environment and economic equality,” which developed from following the work of activists and theorists Naomi Klein and Aminata Traoré, the racial question emerged organically. This was the early 2000s, when the debate about the head scarf was intensifying and ethnic profiling was prevalent but had yet to be the incendiary issue it would become. And then it exploded in 2005. The preventable deaths of two French teens of color, Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, who had run and hid from police fearing yet another stop-and-search, triggered three weeks of revolt that underscored the deep racial and social divide plaguing much of French society. It also set Diallo’s activism into motion.
By day, she worked in production for Disney Television France, and on the side, she contributed to the causes she believed in. In 2007, she cofounded Les Indivisibles, an organization that deconstructed prejudice and discrimination through humor and parody. “We even created a ceremony to award each year’s most racist remarks in the media. No one was safe!” she recalls, cracking a wide smile.
It’s at this point in the conversation that I become acutely aware of how quickly Diallo can go from terribly serious, with an almost mournful glint to her eyes, to joyful and light. And she speaks swiftly, like a woman who’s been cut off one too many times. This emotional range and expressiveness in her convictions are part of what drew notice from the casting director of a television network who invited her to speak about her newfound activism on a show. A spark was lit: With incredible ease on camera and astute commentary, she soon received other invitations to speak, write, and develop her ideas. Before long, she left her day job to become one of few Black journalists visible on mainstream media platforms, from RTL radio to BET and LCI television networks, where she could debate the defining sociopolitical issues of her generation each week.
But it’s a journey that has been met with considerable resistance.
The core of her work is fighting for racial, gender, and religious equality to make France the inclusive country she still reserves a touch of hope that it can become. In the face of rising populism, she calls into question the ability of the republic to serve and protect all French citizens with its values of unity. She tackles identity in all its discomfiting and controversial truth in the French context – like how “if you are Arab or Black, or merely perceived as Arab or Black in France, you’re twenty times as likely to be subject to identity checks by police. That’s what I call state racism [the term is institutional racism in the United States],” she explains.
Therein lies her trouble: She brings race into the discussion of French identity where it was intentionally left absent. In doing so, she upends the established narrative. When she spoke about institutional racism in France, she was immediately reproached. On Twitter, where she is perhaps the most vocal, she opines on simmering racial discrimination, calls out the failings of the justice system, and encourages people to see beyond the neatly codified understanding of Frenchness. As a result, not a day goes by where she isn’t the target of verbal abuse and cyber harassment. Her critics, cowering behind their computer screens, anime avatars, phony usernames, and, often, political credentials, call her a radical communautariste. And they do so from the comfortable remove of white privilege and a steadfast belief in the universalist vision of France. I’ve watched as the tweets come at her like an avalanche, goading her to take responsibility for the incivilities and bad behaviors of Blacks, Arabs, and any number of marginalized individuals to justify her stance on injustice. And they rebuke her when they assume she hasn’t taken a public position on any number
of world events or catastrophes.
“They get filed under #OuEtiezVousRokhaya (#WhereWereYouRokhaya), to try to find some element of humor in all of this,” she says, though I know she wishes she didn’t have to. In cases of online harassment with bigoted or abusive remarks, the sequence of events is usually the same: Someone crosses the line, her supporters report the abuse, and the accounts often get suspended. But when attacks come from the mainstream media or public figures, the jousting can go on for days. In one such instance, an old clip of Diallo speaking on the show C Politique resurfaced on Twitter. In it, she explains how difficult it is for people of color in France to find certain products adapted to their skin tone. “I said, ‘It’s a permanent issue to live in a country that gives you the impression that you don’t exist because nothing is created with you in mind; not Band-Aids, not hairdressers, not foundation. We can’t buy our cosmetic products in the supermarket.’” When one user suggested she try invisible Band-Aids, she responded factually: The compress is white and therefore visible on darker skin. The exchange went viral and devolved into a barrage of mocking, racist, and misogynistic tweets from the usual trolls to even the (far-right) mayor of the southern town of Béziers – Is she offended by her white teeth too? What other household objects might Rokhaya claim as racist next?
This behavior persists because there’s nothing more dangerous and primally terrifying to the established order than a woman with a voice. For centuries, society has expected women not to defend themselves and to, instead, repress their anger. And as a Black woman who is repeatedly told not to rock the boat or complain but feel grateful for having “made it,” Diallo goes against decorum. She fights back, knowing that her words matter and draw attention to the failures the country has tried and continues to try to sweep under the rug. And so she remains a thorn in the sides of any and all who, as she says, “aren’t ready to confront the truths they don’t want to see.”
Still, she’s not overly concerned with making enemies nor with the seriousness of the threats made against her online (among the most heinous, that she should be handed over to the KKK) – mostly because she doesn’t believe they’re much more than posturing. Still, when she can’t speak freely at home, she speaks abroad. “France is stuck in an identity crisis,” wrote Diallo in an opinion piece for the Guardian in 2018, following the news that a student union leader wearing a hijab was attacked by the media, “unable to recognize all its citizens and apparently frightened of its own multicultural reflection.” If her words find a willing foreign audience, it’s because they’re accustomed to discussing issues like race and discrimination more openly. [In 2020, Diallo became the first French journalist to join the prestigious “Global Opinions” section of the Washington Post.]
As an observer, particularly one accustomed to the discussions around race that exist in the U.S., I can’t say I’ve ever found anything unusual or especially polemical in her activism – she is firm but respectful; factual and well researched; constructive in her critiques. Even with all that I know about the French context, I still find it perplexing that one woman can provoke such outsize anger, particularly from institutional sources. Diallo offers an explanation. “They’re afraid of what I represent – the possibility for change. Young people are getting active. France is changing. It’s the end of a certain comfort and could mean the loss of privileges for [the] elite,” she says confidently. “Other voices are forcing their way through in the media space, and that makes them crazy.”
As much as Diallo is unflinching in her confrontation of injustice, she is not without hope. “Where there is dialogue, there is possibility.”