Jan 26, 2010, 05:41AM

From Paris With Antiquated Racist Stereotypes

You'd be surprised what they're still stocking at the local Monoprix.

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Within my first week of arriving in Grenoble, France, I got sick—the first of many things that would go wrong with my year abroad. The cough started as a tickle, and then crept deeper into my lungs and became a hack. The hack lasted for another two weeks, and when I’d had enough of the pharmacy’s caramel-and-vanilla flavored cough syrup (after two sips), I sought solace at the chain supermarket, Monoprix. I meandered my way down past the clothes, stopping to brush a few fashionable but surprisingly pricey scarves with my germ-infested hands. I walked past the fresh produce, good enough but expensive compared to the farmer’s market, which takes place right beside the store; I walked all the way past the frozen foods (pizzas, quiches, fish sticks, croques monsieurs) toward the hot chocolate aisle. While most Americans abandon chocolate milk after the age of 10, French adults put hot chocolate in a bowl and call it breakfast. I was sick of being sick, felt like a needy child, and wanted in on hot chocolate for breakfast. This is when my moral dilemmas began.

I faced a few shelves of boxes in solid primary colors: Nesquik, Poulain, the generic Monoprix brand. In the midst of all these kid-friendly colors, my eyes zeroed in on a subtler, dark brown oval cardboard container. The first word I saw was equitable; the product contained 32 percent cacao harvested under Fair Trade regulations. Then I flipped the container around to see the name of the brand. A cartoon of a black man wearing a fez with white eyes and a bright white smile faced me. He held a mug of hot chocolate up to his stark white teeth, which were outlined by thick, bright red lips. The brand was called Banania. I stood wondering at the label for so long that I could see a security guard’s head poke out from the end of the aisle, likely suspicious that this coughing foreigner staring hard at the hot chocolate was going to steal it. But didn’t the French realize that putting an image of a black man next to a word like “Banania,” which sounds like a fictional country, seems wrong? As if it could be read as a reference to Africans as monkeys?

The security guard’s head disappeared, and I continued to stare.


The history of Banania can be traced back not to Africa, but to Nicaragua, near Lake Managua. It was there that in 1909, French journalist Pierre-François Lardet tasted his first bowl of a delicious chocolate drink. After much pestering of the locals, he discovered that the secret ingredient was banana flour. He knew the French would love it.

But how would he market the product? Lardet tossed around a few ideas with the word “banana,” to make the word catchy and to showcase the special ingredient. He eventually came up with “Banania.”

To complete the marketing campaign, Lardet hired a cartoonist to depict a woman from the French Antilles—slightly east of Nicaragua. And, although this was a way of drawing support both for the product and for colonialism, it was a subtle effort. The woman appears to be a mûlatesse; slightly European and slightly exotic. She is shown to be distributing “vigor, energy, and strength” to a crowd of scaled-down little French people. She is, therefore, a sort of mother figure, graciously providing for France in a time of war shortage.

The symbol of the French Antillesian didn’t even last a year before it was replaced by a tirailleur sénégalais, a Senegalese skirmisher. Perhaps the image of a mother wasn’t friendly enough, or he saw that chocolate milk and war was obviously a better match than chocolate milk and mom. And from this decision on, things get a lot more racist.

By this time, the Senegalese soldiers were gaining popularity in France. France had enlisted these colonial subjects to help pacify another colony—Morocco, a seven-year effort that ended in 1914. So no longer were the Senegalese regarded as less than human, animals that needed to be civilized. They were seen as enthusiastic babies, always willing to lend a hand and wearing a smile—but still needing to be civilized, of course.

The resulting ad featured a tirailleur sénégalais, injured and resting on a box of Banania. He holds a spoon and a bowl of the product. He is smiling brightly as he proclaims “Y’a bon,” pidgin French for “It’s good!” I’m trying to decide if it’s comparable to or worse than if an American brand stuck an image of a Jamaican on it and slapped on a “Ya mon!” but you get the point.

Truckloads of these bright blue boxes were sent to the soldiers fighting in World War I, in an effort to both cheaply nourish them and, according to a French summary of Banania’s history, to egayer la grisaille des tranchées (to gay up the grayness of the trenches), the bright blue and smiles to cheer up the soldiers. The tirailleur sénégalese serves again.

Since then, Banania has undergone a few image overhauls. The Senegalese soldier lost his body and became just a face drinking hot chocolate, and in the mid-1960s marketing specialists thought stylizing the original drawing would boost dwindling sales. They kept the most important things: his fez, cup of the product, and giant smile. The “Y’a bon” slogan was finally recognized as too racist and taken off the ads. What remains is something further stylized, further de-humanized, and a throwback to blackface. Tack on a name that kind of sounds like a place on a map, and you have a product brought to you by Blackface from Banana-land.


That’s in a name, anyway? Why can’t I just let this go as a remnant of a racist past, the rough equivalent of America’s Aunt Jemima? Because my studies of French culture have been rich in the issues of racism and national identity, a country that, through colonization, produced some of the greatest intellectuals of modern time: Aimé Césaire, Jean Genet, and Frantz Fanon, just to name a few.

And yet, if I ever needed a ghostwriter for a novel, I could hire a “literary negro” (or sometimes simply a “negro”). Or if I wanted to explain that my French isn’t very good, I could say that I “speak Little Negro.” If I was itching for a dessert of say, a ball of coconut dipped in chocolate, I can go to the grocery store and ask if they have “Negro heads.”

In 2005, the French Parliament voted to make it mandatory for high school educators to teach students about the “positive role of the French overseas, notably in northern Africa.” A year later, then-president Jacques Chirac repealed the law, but how on earth did it even get that far? I mean, what the fuck, France? It’s as if the country has drowned itself so much in theory that it’s unable to act.

So, I had to make a choice. Banania’s product was certified under Fair Trade law. Nestle’s product surely wasn’t regulated under the same laws, and I could put money (five euros, or about seven dollars) on Poulain and Monoprix’s brands being made under dubious conditions. If I bought the Banania, I would be supporting laborers’ rights. There’s a small but better chance that I would be changing their vie quotidienne. I grabbed the stupid box and coughed my way up to what is considered the line but is actually a clusterfuck of people trying to get in front first. I went back to my apartment and fixed myself a hot chocolate, although feeling guilty. Maybe I should grow up and move on to drinking coffee.


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