Race, Ethnicity and Skin Color Tones in French

Author: Camille Chevalier-Karfis

How do you say she’s white or he is black in French? Learn how to describe ethnic groups and skin colors in French, what’s PC, common slang and what to avoid.

I’ve been wanting to write an article about how to describe skin color tones in France and talk about “race”… It’s the first sentence and I’m already in trouble.

Please understand I’m writing this article with the purest of intentions. Yet, if I am to explain which French terms to use or not use, I may have to use a bit of offensive language, and also relevant keywords so that you do find this article: hence the use of “race” in the title and the intro…

So let’s dive into the subject.

Racism in France

Unfortunately, racism is France is still pretty strong. Many people are not openly racists, but have very strong racist tendencies. Things are slowly changing even though far right extremists are also alarmingly getting more votes.

  1. Le racisme – racism
  2. Un/une raciste – a racist
  3. Une race – a race. A term that is no longer used to describe people. Note that it is still the term we use with animals. For example, in French, a dog breed is “une race de chien”.
  4. Racial(e) – racial
  5. La xénophobie – xenophobia – hostility towards what is foreign, especially foreigners.
  6. Être xénophobe – to be xenophobic

Skin Color Tones in French

let’s start by using the different French adjectives you may use to describe the color of skin. From lightest to darkest.

The French color adjectives will be in the feminine since they describe the skin which with feminine in French.

  1. La peau – skin
  2. La couleur de peau – skin color
  3. La teinte de peau – skin tone
  4. Le teint – complexion
  5. Albinos – albinos
  6. Diaphane – almost see-through. Fancy French.
  7. Pâle – pale
  8. Clair – light
  9. Blanche – white
  10. Couleur d’albâtre – alabaster color
  11. Laiteuse – milk like
  12. Rose – pink
  13. Avoir une peau de roux/ rousse – to have a skin typical of redheads
  14. Couleur pêche – peach colored
  15. Dorée – golden
  16. Ambrée – amber color
  17. Couleur de miel – honey colored
  18. Cuivrée – copper like
  19. Olive – I know this one is strange because you may think green! But it refers to a ripe Olive here I guess, so brown…
  20. Mate – naturally tanned
  21. Hâlée – naturally tanned (one shade up)
  22. Basanée – naturally tanned and darker complexion
  23. Bronzée – tanned from the sun (as in it would revert to a lighter complexion if not exposed to the sun)
  24. Brune – brown
  25. Noire – black
  26. Ébène – ebony

Find many useful lists of French adjectives to describe people and things as well as clear explanations of how to use adjectives in French – with many examples – in my French audiobook.

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How To Talk About Races In French?

Ok, I’m getting to the very tricky part. I’m sorry in advance if I offend anyone. Again I need to use keywords in titles so you can find this article on the web…

I’d like to start by saying that the French perspective on race is quite different from the North American perspective. It’s not common in France to refer to a group of people by their skin color (as opposed to their national origin).

And in French, you wouldn’t use the word “une race”. It has become really taboo.

For example, newspapers don’t use the term “whites / les blancs” to talk about white people in France. Actually, as far as I know, there’s no politically correct terms to talk about “whites” in French!

So what terms do we use when we want to talk about people? We tend to use national origin or ethnicity rather than skin color. You’d use terms like “un groupe éthnique”, “les origines”.

A common expression in French is: “tu as des origines ?”… This means ‘I suspect your parents are not originally from France but I’m not sure where they’re from – or I don’t want to take a guess’. As with everything, it can be derogatory or not, it depends on the way it is said and by who.

As I said, this is a touchy subject. As in any language, the terms you use or read change through time : a term that is derogatory nowadays may have been the common term used in the early 20th century.

Furthermore, French terms used in France may not apply to French spoken in other countries.

With all this being said…

How To Say A Black Person in French?

Let’s see how to talk about a black person in French.

  1. Un noir – a black man
  2. Une noire – a black woman
  3. Une personne à la peau noire, de teint noir – a person with a very dark complexion
  4. For Africans: une personne d’origine africaine, d’origine sub-saharienne
  5. For African-Americans: un noir américain, une noire américaine, un afro-américain, une afro-américaine
  6. For the Caribbeans: use nationalities: guadeloupéen/ne, martiniquais/e, haïtien/ne, dominicain/e, jamaïcain/e, cubain/e…
  7. Black – common slang,
  8. Renoi, kebla – verlan slang – commonly used as well
  9. Un/e nègre, blackos – offensive terms – please don’t use these but it may be useful to understand them.

How To Describe A Dark Complexion Person in French?

  1. Une personne de teint mat, de peau mate, de teint olive, basané – all terms describing a naturally tanned/ darker color skin. These adjectives could apply to other ethnic groups although “basané” is pretty targeted to North African.
  2. Une personne d’origine maghrébine, d’origine nord-africaine – North African
  3. Une personne d’origine orientale – Middle Eastern, Indian
  4. Un indien, une indienne – Indian and surrounding countries
  5. Un/e arabe – common way to group this ethnic group – often used even if the person doesn’t come at all from an Arabic country…
  6. Un beur – verlan slang for “arabe”, the feminine is “une beurette”. Then it got twisted again in verlan to become “un/e rebeu/e”.
  7. Un/e bougnoule – offensive term for “arabe” – please don’t use these but it may be useful to understand them.

How To Say Latinos in French?

We don’t have many latinos in France. So I’m not too sure how we would refer to this ethnic group. I guess we’d say “d’origine d’Amérique Latine” or use the nationality.

Derogative terms used for people of Spanish origin in France is “un espingouin”, and for people of Italian origin “un rital”.

How To Say An East Asian Person in French?

  1. Un/e asiatique – Asian
  2. Une personne d’origine asiatique – Asian (politically correct)
  3. Un/e asiat’ – common slang
  4. Un/e jaune, niakoué, chintok – offensive terms – please don’t use these but it may be useful to understand them.

How To Say A White Person In French?

  1. Un blanc, une blanche – white – but really not that used in French
  2. Une personne à la peau blanche, de teint blanc – white skin person
  3. Un caucasien, une caucasienne – Caucasian… but, unlike in the US, we don’t use that term in France except in a science/anthropology context
  4. Un Européen (une européenne) de souche – from Europe. But this terminology has now become associated with far-right nationalism…
  5. Un/une fromage, un jambon – offensive terms – please don’t use these but it may be useful to understand them.

What About A Mixed Race Person in French?

I don’t even know what term to use in English… Someone multi-racial? Bi-racial? But in France, we do use the term “un métis, une métisse” and it’s very much used and not derogative – unless said in a derogative manner.

It’s even the title of a French song from ex professional tennis player now singer Yannick Noha.

“Un eurasien, une eurasienne” is the term used specifically to describe the child from white and Asian parents.

In older literature, you may find the term “un/e mûlatre”. It’s no longer used in France nowadays. It meant a child born from black and white parents.

Would you like to contribute to this article? I could use some useful suggestions (please include the words in French and English – chances are I won’t know the translations…) I will of course monitor your comments closely and will block and ban any racist or offensive comments.

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Author: Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Born and raised in Paris, I have been teaching today's French to adults for 25+ years in the US and France. Based on my students' goals and needs, I've created unique downloadable French audiobooks focussing on French like it's spoken today, for all levels. Come to Paimpol and enjoy an exclusive French immersion homestay with me in Brittany.

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