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1 Looking “in-between” is not enough to make a person mixed-race. From that perspective, North Africans are not mixed-race, between Black and White; they are not “gray.” People with light brown skin are not mixed-race just because of their skin color. If they are, it is because their father and mother belong to sufficiently distinct cultural groups, which in the case of people of mixed Black and White ancestry corresponds to different skin colors. But mixed-race people are initially and above all identified by the color of their skin and their physical appearance.

2 The question of métissage is topical because travel is easier than ever before and exchanges between populations are increasing for economic reasons: poverty is driving refugees from the South or East away from their countries, while commercial interests are pushing Westerners toward them. Numerous exiles are still motivated by political reasons. There are also more adoptions of children from abroad. Although the idea of métissage often generates fears about the dilution of identity, it is not a new phenomenon. Women and men have always traveled, voluntarily or not. The fear of the other has never been an insurmountable obstacle for humans. These journeys bring them into contact with other human beings. Even when they do not entirely share the ideas of these fellow humans, men or women have been able to join with them sexually by violating prohibitions, whether by rape in order to assert domination, or voluntarily, thereby disobeying the prescriptions of their parents’ culture. In some cases, it is an act of loyalty to the dominator, as for example in the Congo after Belgian colonization. From these voluntary or forced sexual relations are born people known as métis (mixed-race). Métissage is not limited to the birth of mixed-race people but also concerns practices and theories. It is how cultures are created and live. My article will focus on the people we call “mixed-race.”

The birth of mixed-race people

3 The project that creates mixed-race children is a transgression. This transgression is deliberate because the man or woman who chooses a sexual partner from a different group than that of his or her parents is being disobedient and knows it. It is followed by a period of suffering. The parents are made to accept the choice. The grandparents of mixed-race children are always slightly resigned. For that reason, the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren is often passionate later on. We might ask whether this is not a sort of realization of the desire for transgression inside every person. Amid the worst barbarities we see rape but also voluntary relations between, often, women and enemy men. There must be a kind of pleasure, of the order of fantasy, in the possession or appropriation of the other. The mixed-race people born of these forced or voluntary relations cannot be clean; they are the “corruption of purity,” as François Laplantine would say, in that they can never totally belong to one or the other. They are different, rebellious, surprising, fascinating. They go beyond both sides and are to be found elsewhere. Mixed-race people are never where people want them to be. That is their specificity. At first sight, mixed-race people who are the product of a transgression transgress by standing alongside their parents. They are not like their parents; they are different, and that difference can be seen with the naked eye. There is a sort of provocation about them right from their birth. The birth of mixed-race people poses a number of problems. One problem comes from the fact that they look physically different to their parents. The principle of reality—which is nothing other than the human body as a condition of the soul—can be recognized through one’s face, form, color, smell, cry. The same goes for all men and all women. This is how we distinguish the child, the adult, the girl, the boy, the human, the animal, and the monster, the mixed-race person.

4 This reality means they perceive the world differently, and, as a result, they do not think like their parents; there is such a thing as métis thought. The birth of mixed-race people poses problems because, as François Laplantine and Alexis Nouss (2001) point out in the preface to their book Métissages, “in the life of individuals as of societies, it is rather anti- métissage that is the law, or at least the main trend.” [1]

Métissage as a source of differentiation

5 The term métissage (racial mixing) comes from the natural sciences and suggests the notion of crossing, the mixing of people belonging to different cultures. In contemporary globalized society, métissage brings to mind the homogenization of cultures, which prompts some people to retreat into rigid identities. But history tells us that the phenomenon of métissage is not new; it has existed since the dawn of time. Nevertheless, the identity-loss myth endures, perpetuating the fear and rejection of the other.

6 Métissage seems to be the natural solution behind the continuous creation of new cultural entities. This may seem like a paradox: métissage as a source of differentiation.

7 There is currently a craze for anything colorful, with commercial ulterior motives. “Ethnic” styles are in fashion, and mixed-race people are popular because they drive sales. Yannick Noah or Amel Bent are two examples in France, but beyond this phenomenon, neither of them are “manufactured” by fashion. Although métissage brings to mind the mixture of materials or colors, the result cannot be reduced to a simple product, in all senses of the term. What characterizes mixed-race people is the difficulty of fitting them into a category, because the sociological boundaries erected between the categories of identity are blurred—which is why mixed-race people are so fascinating. They arrest one’s gaze. Old landmarks are no longer in play, or rather, there is play in the classic landmarks. Mixed-race people themselves do not necessarily play with this. They have their own identity.

8 As Marika Moisseeff (2005) puts it so well, “for someone who sees himself and is seen as mixed-race because his ancestors were thought to belong to fundamentally different groups due to differences in their physical appearance, questions of identity are truly specific, and denying them amounts to depriving oneself of the analysis of the actual data to which racism refers.” Without this physical reality, the question of métissage would take a different form. The debate would basically be about what is normal and what is not. People would talk about the intensity and classification of disorders. They would talk about madness.

9 Our work with mixed-race children and adolescents constantly shows us that things are not how we decide them to be. To be able to care for them, we must accept their difference and recognize their identity.

The place of mixed-race people

10 The country of mixed-race people, “Métisland,” is, as Edgar Morin (2003, 175) would say of “Beurrerie,” “a French province, but a non-territorialized province.” And the culture of mixed-race people is not simply the sum of their paternal and maternal cultures, the culture of here and of there. It is a here-there-here-now culture.

11 Everything would have been fine as long as everyone respected the community’s rules and stayed in their place. It is this Manichaeism—order vs. disorder, Black vs. White—that mixed-race people call into question.

12 Mixed-race people do not stay where they are put. They come from two different worlds. After their birth, they live in a third world that they continuously create. The parents of mixed-race children experience this to the full!

13 They are never in-between as one might imagine. They are adjacent, and they pass from one side to the other without denying themselves.

14 In an interview published in L’Autre, we find the following remarks by Edgar Morin (2003, 175): “What is the strength of Cervantes in his wonderful novel Don Quixote? He critiques the imaginary via the real, but also the real via the imaginary [...] And, of course, Quixote is not a madman, but a person who cannot live in a prosaic world; he needs to transfigure it.”

15 Mixed-race people call the established order into question.

16 It does not seem possible to consider the question of métissage without acknowledging its living trace, and when I say living, I do not mean concepts, I mean people: those you see in the subway, those waiting at the post office, but also those in the waiting rooms of psychiatrists or social workers. I am thinking of those who were born mixed-race, like our children who resemble so many other children. I am also thinking of everyday life in human situations, joy, parties, feasts, but also illness, pain, suffering, fear, anxiety, love, and death.

17 For example, people of mixed Black and White ancestry are not White up to a certain limit, or conversely, they are not Black up to the point where the “Whiteness” starts. We imagine a mixture of colors, but at the same time we constantly try to separate and distinguish the two original colors, as if we were scared of being faced with non-natural, hybrid, impure beings who must be purified by returning to the Origin to humanize them—monsters. This can be seen in the grandparents of mixed-race people, whose bond with their grandchildren is often very passionate, with all the risks that entails. These grandparents have, first of all, a sense of pride. This pride goes hand in hand with the fear of seeing their grandchildren escaping them, almost as if their mission were to transmit their culture fully to their descendants in order to link them to “their” humanity, to reimpose order.

18 This sense of pride is matched only by their dismay upon learning of their child’s union with someone from a different culture. They make their grandchild into the ideal outsider, whom they show around their culture and to whom they open doors that are often closed to their son- or daughter-in-law, whether because of modesty or lack of representation. They educate their grandchild’s taste and show them, with great care, what “good manners” are as defined by their own culture.

19 The fear is, first of all, that of seeing their grandchildren become other. For example, for White, Catholic grandparents with a son- or daughter-in-law of African origin, the risk may be Islam or crime, or both. The fear that they will become aggressive. It may also be the fear of polygamy that the others supposedly have in their blood. For Black grandparents, if the in-laws are White, it is the fear of seeing their grandchildren lose their sense of family, their taste for Black food. True, there is nothing worse than eating quenelles, but does that make people who eat quenelles non-human? The same people who eat quenelles also dream about frog legs—the horror! Also, their men are not circumcised. They are like Albinos, White, but they do not know how to dance. Like Albinos, they cannot stand the sun because they have delicate eyes like a cat; they are all left-handed, and they know another world. They can even see clearly in the dark, but they cannot eat spicy food! There is also the fear of suicide and violence in general, because certain colonizers left an image of brutality in their wake. In Togo, for example, the Ewe people often speak of how the French governor Maillet had dead bodies beaten to make sure they were not pretending. That has left a horrifying memory of what White people are capable of doing. There is also the fear that the grandchildren will be drawn to firearms, cigarettes...

20 As for mixed-race people themselves, they accept these voyages through their grandparents’ cultures without anxiety. They have the capacity to solve these problems that are caused primarily by fear of the other. They perpetually create their own culture and are ceaselessly enriched. And they enrich their surroundings too.

Caring for mixed-race people

21 In the field of physical or psychological care, as in social work, it is not certain that these fears do not exist, and they will continue to exist as long as the social and human sciences carefully skirt the question of difference, which is first and foremost a difference of appearance and is essential. There is always a reluctance in this field to confront the physical difference of the other, which is the basis of her identity. We are too quick to move on to the universality of the soul as a notion or concept, leapfrogging over the corporeal reality that conditions it. It seems that whereas more questions are being asked about ethics in the field of care, the body in its reality has been somewhat neglected, which in my view reflects the difficulty we have in accepting people’s cultures in all their diversity.

22 Clinicians are often afraid to downgrade their methodology to a worldview or to fall into ideology. This risk must not prevent recognition of the importance of the formations of the unconscious, in other words Freudian slips, symptoms, dreams, transferences, which are conditioned by culture and language and given as material to the clinician, and which cannot be simply swept aside.

23 If mixed-race people have a keen sense of metaphor, as we often see in clinical practice, that is perhaps because they are like their father and like their mother. A way of being another.

The creativity of mixed-race people and their initiatory status

24 When we ask people about métissage, what comes up is often a mixture of “cultures,” meaning above all cuisine and music. Certain differences are acceptable; up to a certain point in any case... Métissage thus becomes a way of talking, of eating, the music one listens to and the way one dresses, possibly décor, a mixture of colors. This way of seeing things has the advantage of being cheerful, at least externally. It is about ways of doing, which leaves plenty of room for a form of creativity. We choose a recipe that we can always adapt as we wish. We select records, and we can listen to them in an order and at a volume that we can modify at will. When cooking, we can add more or less salt, lift the flavor, add or take away such and such a spice, use different quantities to create the taste we prefer. As for music, as it cannot be eaten and has, in principle, no smell, it can be enough to choose the records, to draw attention to them, thereby offering an insight into our musical culture and degree of openness. We can, depending on what we want to reveal, and depending on the event, guests, and location, compose the mix we want.

25 This type of métissage seems like a construction with an aim, a goal.

26 There is no place in this métissage for disorder, the unexpected, surprise. It is conceivable, modifiable at will, eclectic, but ultimately only allows a finite set of possibilities to exist. Disposable, it belongs to a category of learned behaviors. It reflects a momentary interruption of identity. It is a form of mimicry: “we do it like them.”

27 This behavior may be a necessity for gaining acceptance in a host society. At its root is the fear of rejection or the need for social recognition. What we reveal in such cases is often deformed, rather rigid, somehow out of sync, and at any rate superficial and disaffected, disembodied, borrowed. Ultimately what is made visible here is a dead thing used to a specific end. Does this end ever come? But the time “reserved” for it is passed, and the behavior loses all its value, leaving the individual with a feeling that varies depending on whether she belongs to the dominant or dominated class. If the former, her power gains and increases; if the latter, doubt seizes her because she is conscious of a lack. Then she can reassure herself using the means available to her. In this métissage, the subject strives to control her effect. There is no penetration, though there may be an addition, an expansion of panoplies; there is no initiatory experience.

28 We have not necessarily examined the different forms of métissage in succession, but rather analyzed the set of problems it poses: the problem of identity, the infringement of order, transgression, suffering... It is what is unexpected, unforeseen, and manifests itself after the payment of a price: that of renunciation after an encounter. We also envisage it as mutual enrichment and as a necessity.

Mixed-race women

29 This phenomenon is the source of fantasies, particularly sexual, in the majority communities of the societies in which mixed-race women live.

30 Mixed-race women have a legendary beauty. For that reason, they are not rejected everywhere, but they are not always completely accepted. They voluntarily approach the minority, but they belong to the third group which is at the beginning. Three, two, three... and it begins again...

31 When they become mothers, it is an expanded world that they present to their child. Is it like that for all babies?


  • [1]
    Translator’s note: Unless otherwise stated, all translations of cited foreign-language material in this article are our own.

Looking “in-between” is not enough to make a person mixed-race. From that perspective, North Africans are not mixed-race, between Black and White; they are not “gray.” People with light brown skin are not mixed-race because of the color of their skin but because their father and their mother belong to different cultural groups. But mixed-race people can be identified, above all, by the color of their skin and their physical appearance. The birth of mixed-race people is the result of an act of defiance, and they appear like a “corruption” of purity, with all the identity problems that presents.
Métissage nevertheless seems to be a natural solution, a perpetual motion that creates new cultural entities. It is paradoxically a source of differentiation. Mixed-race children are neither one nor the other; they are a third thing, and this is precisely their specificity. This specificity must be taken into account in clinics and in social work in order to make the encounter with the mixed-race person possible.

  • métissage
  • defiance
  • color
  • differentiation
  • culture

La especificidad de los mestizos

No basta con la apariencia de una «mezcla» para ser mestizo. Desde este punto de vista, los magrebíes no son mestizos, no son «grises» —como se les suele llamar peyorativamente en Francia— por el color de la piel, entre blanco y negro. La gente de piel trigueña no es mestiza por el color de la piel, sino porque su padre y su madre pertenecen a grupos culturales diferentes. Sin embargo, a los mestizos se les reconoce, ante todo, por el color de la piel y la apariencia física. El nacimiento de los mestizos procede de una transgresión y ellos son la manifestación de una «corrupción» de la pureza, con los problemas de identidad que esto plantea. El mestizaje parece ser, no obstante, la solución natural a un movimiento perpetuo que crea nuevas entidades culturales y es paradójicamente fuente de diferenciación. Los hijos mestizos no son ni lo uno ni lo otro, sino algo tercero y esta es justamente su especificidad. Hay que considerar por tanto esta especificidad, tanto en el trabajo clínico como en el trabajo social, para poder acceder a la persona mestiza.

  • mestizaje
  • transgresión
  • color
  • diferenciación
  • cultura

La spécificité des métis

Il ne suffit pas de paraître « entre-deux » pour être métis. De ce point de vue, les maghrébins ne sont pas métis, entre blanc et noir, ils ne sont pas des « gris ».
Les gens qui ont la peau foncée, ne sont pas métis à cause de la couleur de leur peau mais parce que leur père et leur mère appartiennent chacun, respectivement à des groupes culturels différents. Cependant, on reconnaît les métis avant tout, à la couleur de leur peau et à leur apparence physique.
La naissance des métis est le résultat d’une transgression et ils apparaissent comme une « corruption » de la pureté, avec les problèmes d’identité que cela pose. Pourtant le métissage apparaît comme la solution naturelle un mouvement perpétuel qui crée de nouvelles entités culturelles. C’est paradoxalement, une source de différenciation.
Les enfants métis ne sont ni l’un ni l’autre mais un troisième, et c’est précisément leur spécificité. Il faut donc prendre en compte cette spécificité en clinique, comme en travail social, pour que la rencontre avec la personne métisse soit possible.

  • métissage
  • transgression
  • couleur
  • différenciation
  • culture

Reference list

  • OnlineAhovi, Jonathan. 2006. “Place du transculturel dans la consultation psy.” Enfances et Psy 30, no. 1: 110–20.
  • Enfances et Psy. 1999. No. 6: “Cultures, médiations.”
  • Giraud, François. 2003. “Pour une identité complexe. Entretien avec E. Morin.” L’Autre, Cliniques, Cultures et Sociétés 4, no. 2: 167–79.
  • Laplantine, François, and Alexis Nouss. 2001. Métissages de Arcimboldo à Zombi. Paris: Pauvert.
  • OnlineMead, Margaret. 1949. Male and Female. New York: William Morrow & Co.
  • OnlineMoisseeff, Marika. 2005. “Penser le métissage: une interrogation pour les sciences sociales.” L’Autre, Cliniques, Cultures et Sociétés 6, no. 2: 287–304.
  • Moro, Marie Rose. 2002. Enfants d’ici venus d’ailleurs. Naître et grandir en France. Paris: La Découverte.
  • Moro, Marie Rose. 1993. “L’adolescent de famille migrante.” In Psychiatrie de l’enfant et de l’adolescent, edited by Pierre Ferrari and Catherine Epelbaum, 430–35. Paris: Flammarion, “Médecine-sciences” series.
  • Moro, Marie Rose. 1993. “L’enfant de famille migrante.” In Psychiatrie de l’enfant et de l’adolescent, edited by Pierre Ferrari and Catherine Epelbaum, 250–61. Paris: Flammarion, “Médecine-sciences” series.
  • Moro, Marie Rose. 2002 [1994]. Parents en exil. Psychopathologie et migrations. Paris: PUF, “Le Fil rouge” series.
  • Moro, Marie Rose. 1998. Psychothérapie transculturelle des enfants de migrants. Paris: Dunod.
  • Moro, Marie Rose, Quitterie De La Noë, and Yoram Mouchenik, eds. 2004. Manuel de psychiatrie transculturelle. Travail clinique, travail social. Grenoble: La Pensée sauvage.
  • Nouvelle Revue d’Ethnopsychiatrie. 1991. No. 17: “Métissages.”
  • OnlineNouvelle Revue d’Ethnopsychiatrie. 1992. No. 18: “Marques sexuelles.”
Jonathan Ahovi
Psychiatrist, supervising physician at the Unité de Psychopathologie de l’Adolescent, Hôpital Louis Pasteur, Dole (Jura), France.
Uploaded on on 25/08/2022
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