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Op-Ed: France's Diversity Schemes Are Failing Students of Color

Higher education is key to getting a job in France's creative industries but many minority students still feel shut out of the system.

For Chifa Jouini, a student at L'école du Louvre, a French higher education establishment where art history and archaeology are taught, racism is an everyday occurrence. "I have been told many times I didn't look 'cultured,' and that I don't belong here," she says.

Like many students of color from a low-income background, Jouini has had to rely solely on her schoolwork to get into one of her dream schools, a prerequisite for getting a good job in France's rigid system. But the competition is fierce and more than anything, the game rigged against people like her: the stats show that the entry requirements for French art schools are still rigid, unfair and elitist. And even after getting in, French institutions of higher education can still drive away many hopeful and talented students who do not fit the mold. "Because I am pretty involved in anti-racism organizations, some students avoid talking to me," says Jouini.

In France, to get a job in the creative industries, you need to graduate from an art school or college. The more prestigious the school is, the more chances one has to succeed. However, most art schools don't even address the fact that the majority of students admitted are white and middle to upper class. While there may be between 3 to 5 million black people living in the Paris region alone its prestigious schools don't reflect this at all. Most students of color cannot break through the glass ceiling and struggle even more than their white counterpart to study in the creative industries.

A study by l'Insee (The French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies) shows that in the country's most prestigious schools, educational inequality is getting worse for students from a low income background. It is even worse in the arts: in 2017, only 3.8 percent of the students applying for for La Fémis, France's leading film school, got a place at the school.

The reality is that the "best" students tend to be the ones who can afford to take time off to dutily prepare for the exams. They tend to be white, from a higher income background and with an unprecedented access to culture starting from birth.

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In September 2001, French's prestigious school Sciences-Po launched their first diversity schemes to help young people from low income backgrounds enter the school. Since, in the French school system, some high schools located in impoverished zones are part of a ZEP, (Zones d'Education Prioritaire), a program that channels additional resources to schools in disadvantaged areas and encourages the development of new teaching projects, some of them offer the opportunity to their student to take a few special AP classes and at the end of it, they pass an exam to integrate Sciences po, like all the other students in the country. The only difference is their test is slightly easier to pass.

Following the initiative, many schemes have been created: l'Institut Telemaque, a charity that pairs young students with mentors who help them to have access to a certain academic culture, as well as increasing their confidence; the Via Ferrata, a scheme helping students from a low income background to help them prepare for the entry exams of France's most prestigious art schools; and the Fondation Culture et Diversité lead by Eléanore de la Charrière.

"Art schools are still trying to make their entrance exams more inclusive. They're not quite there yet," De la Charrière says. That's why the foundation's workshops try to improve social cohesion by selecting and preparing students to get in the most prestigious art schools.

The foundation selects students based on their potential and motivation to succeed. However, having both of these qualities is not an accurate way of improving diversity in these schools. Most young people applying, regardless of their background, are highly motivated to get in. So how exactly picking up the motivated ones are going to make the entry requirements more fair?

Since the foundation has been created, around 500 have been accepted to various art schools. As for the ones who failed the entry exams, they used the backdoor, i.e. attend other schools or give up on their dreams.

Art diversity schemes choose who can or cannot be helped to pass the entry exams, based on the idea of meritocracy, despite the fact it is a system that has been proven again and again to be full of flaws. There's no such a thing as merit in a country where your gender, class and ethnic origin is is going to impact one's life, education and jobs. The family you're born into will impact how successful one will be, no matter how smart or hardworking you are.

For the Observatoire des inégalités, a private think tank that aims to accurately study inequality in France and the world, "a few places kept for a handful of students coming from the poorest part of the country will absolutely not resolve the issues around the lack social access of these schools. In addition, most of the students from a low income background are actually not attending schools in a low income area or ZEP"


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On top of that, they have reported that the schemes allowing low income students to attend these prestigious schools have—outside of a good PR story— had little impact on making these schools more inclusive. Having a few spaces allocated for low income students in these schools do not make them more open to anyone who is not middle class and white. Therefore, although these schemes do have the best intentions, they are nothing more than a pat on the back.

A student, Maissa Koudri, who successfully got into Sciences Po but then chose to give up her place, recalls that despite the fact that most students in the schemes were POCs and that the school proceeds an anonymous marking scheme for the entry exam, the ones who got in tend to be white and from a higher income background.

The reason? Despite the scheme, the entry exam still relies on a huge workload that students from a lower income background, who have to support themselves and their families by working, can't afford to do. And even if they can, they often lack the support of their families. No matter how good one is, privileged students will always be better because they are prepared and expected at these schools.

To be fair, prestigious art schools are, by definition, highly selective. But then, why pretend otherwise? How can art diversity schemes truly aim to make art schools more inclusive if they refuse to even acknowledge such a barrier? And why spending so much time and effort setting up schemes that work for a selected few, thus reproducing the same inequalities they are supposed to fight?

The art diversity schemes in France are aware that there is an issue, but instead of targeting the art schools responsible for that, they, instead, mold the students to make them more "white washed" to blend in with what they expect of them. And, unless the schools change, they won't become more diverse.

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Introducing OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2020 List

Celebrating African Women Laying the Groundwork for the Future

It would not be hyperbole to consider the individuals we're honoring for OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2020 list as architects of the future.

This is to say that these women are building infrastructure, both literally and metaphorically, for future generations in Africa and in the Diaspora. And they are doing so intentionally, reaching back, laterally, and forward to bridge gaps and make sure the steps they built—and not without hard work, mines of microaggressions, and challenges—are sturdy enough for the next ascent.

In short, the women on this year's list are laying the groundwork for other women to follow. It's what late author and American novelist Toni Morrison would call your "real job."

"I tell my students, 'When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else."

And that's what inspired us in the curation of this year's list. Our honorees use various mediums to get the job done—DJ's, fashion designers, historians, anthropologists, and even venture capitalists—but each with the mission to clear the road ahead for generations to come. Incredible African women like Eden Ghebreselassie, a marketing lead at ESPN who created a non-profit to fight energy poverty in Eritrea; or Baratang Miya, who is quite literally building technology clubs for disadvantaged youth in South Africa.

There are the builds that aren't physically tangible—movements that inspire women to show up confidently in their skin, like Enam Asiama's quest to normalize plus-sized bodies and Frédérique (Freddie) Harrel's push for Black and African women to embrace the kink and curl of their hair.

And then there are those who use their words to build power, to take control of the narrative, and to usher in true inclusion and equity. Journalists, (sisters Nikki and Lola Ogunnaike), a novelist (Oyinkan Braithwaite), a media maven (Yolisa Phahle), and a number of historians (Nana Oforiatta Ayim, Leïla Sy) to name a few.

In a time of uncertainty in the world, there's assuredness in the mission to bring up our people. We know this moment of global challenge won't last. It is why we are moving forward to share this labor of love with you, our trusted and loyal audience. We hope that this list serves as a beacon for you during this moment—insurance that future generations will be alright. And we have our honorees to thank for securing that future.

EXPERIENCE 100 WOMEN 2020

The annual OkayAfrica 100 Women List is our effort to acknowledge and uplift African women, not only as a resource that has and will continue to enrich the world we live in, but as a group that deserves to be recognized, reinforced and treasured on a global scale. In the spirit of building infrastructure, this year's list will go beyond the month of March (Women's History Month in America) and close in September during Women's Month in South Africa.

100 women 2020

Politics
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What France's LOL League Scandal Says About its Elite Media Class

A Facebook group made up of some of France's top journalists spent years harassing women and minorities and got away with it.

Last week, a small revolution happened in the French media world. An article published by left wing newspaper Libération, interviewed the members of the so called LOL League, a private Facebook group where many prominent journalists and people working in the media, all of them men, most of them white and middle class, used to harass, target and threatened other journalists and bloggers, on social media and in real life.

Created by French journalist Vincent Glad, (a journalist who doxxed a teenage girl called Zahia Dehar who was involved in an underage prostitution scandal with footballers Franck Ribery), the LOL league was at first, a "safe space" for these journalists to make fun of people they didn't like. The group was made of journalists, editors in chiefs, press managers among other powerful figures in the media, many working for left leaning magazines.

Soon, it became a tool for them to harass and stalk bloggers, colleagues, strangers they didn't like. They photoshopped the faces of their victims on pornographic pictures and spread it online, including, on one occasion, on a forum for teenagers. One of the members of the league dated a journalist and then dumped her and lied about being HIV-positive and infecting her. Some members would even created fake media job ads that their victims would apply for, only for them to reject their application in the most humiliating way.

The LOL League mostly targeted women and a few men, especially feminists that would speak up against misogyny, homophobia and racism. French journalist Melanie Wanga recalls that when she tweeted that blackface was an issue in France and not just in the U.S. she was harassed by a bunch of accounts.

For many victims, as Wana explains, who were young journalists just starting their career, there was a fear of speaking up against the League: what if one of the members turned out to be their potential boss? Or a colleague? Speaking up meant that many professional doors would remain closed.

The LOL league expose the most rancid part of an industry that is still overwhelmingly closed to anyone who is not a white man.

Yet, some of them took action, personally and publicly. They wrote and shared an open letter on Twitter calling the Facebook group out in 2012, letter that the League used to harass and ridicule them even more, describing the victims as "cry-babies unable to tolerate online bullying".

The LOL league faced no consequences for their actions. In fact, most of them went to have successful careers in the media and politics. The editorial directors of the many publications they worked at were made aware of the group, but choose to do nothing. When the tide turned and that more people were embracing intersectionality and feminism, a few league members, such as Vincent Glad and Guilhem Malissen, rebranded themselves as feminists.

To make things even more complex, some of the women who were the victims of the league, went on to harass Black French feminists. The LOL league expose the most rancid part of an industry that is still overwhelmingly closed to anyone who is not a white man.

The French media still is a boy's club where the League members were the all mighty rulers and everyone who wouldn't bow down would suffer terrible consequences on their personal and professional lives. Their lack of respect, their sociopathy and inability to see women as human beings, let alone peers worthy of respect explain why the same women wouldn't even be considered good enough for many media jobs advertised. When it's part of the culture to rile and humiliate, you're definitely not going to hire many women to work as journalists. And that explains why it has been revealed that other magazines, like Vice France and the French Huffington Post had until recently their own version of the League.

Unfortunately for the victims, they can't take the group to court for harassment, as it happened 10 years ago. In the French law, it means that there is a statute of limitation.

Since the news resurfaced, a few League members have offered excuses, using the same template powerful people do when they do not feel sorry the slightest but have been caught. It goes this way: "I'm sorry to everyone I have offended but I was young and didn't know what I was doing. "

These excuses are incredibly cynical and show a profound lack of remorse. The League had 10 years to apologize to their victims and didn't do anything, so sure that they power and fame would shield them from any repercussions.

At last, the LOL league has stopped laughing. Most of the famous members have left their jobs or been fired. Some of them will come back, of course. But it is proof that at least, the boys' club karma is, finally coming after so much pain and careers destroyed.

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Image courtesy of ARRAY.

What to Watch at Home During Coronavirus Shutdown: ARRAY's New Digital African Film Series

The film platform, from director Ava DuVernay, is hosting a weekly movie-viewing experience for the "global online community of cinephiles."

If you're looking for African films to dive into while at home during the coronavirus outbreak, a new digital series from award-winning director Ava DuVernay's film collective ARRAY is a great place to start. The multi-media platform and arts collective is launching its #ARRAYMatinee series, and each film will be available for viewing here.

#ARRAYMatinee is a virtual movie-viewing experience that will screen a string of the collective's previously released independent films from Africa and the diaspora. The weekly series begins on Wednesday, April 1 with a viewing of the 2015 South African coming-of-age film Ayanda. "Viewers will take a cinematic journey to the international destinations and cultures featured in five films that were released via the ARRAY Releasing independent film distribution collective that amplifies that work of emerging filmmakers of color and women of all kinds," says the platform in a press release. To promote a communal viewing experience, viewers are also encouraged to have discussions on Twitter, using the hashtag #ARRAYMatinee.

The five-part series will run weekly until May 13, and also includes films from Liberia, Ghana, and Grenada. See the full viewing schedule below with descriptions from ARRAY, and visit ARRAY's site at the allotted times to watch.

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News Brief
Image by Sabelo Mkhabela.

'If you have no savings you are screwed': South African Artists Call For Coronavirus Relief

South African artists take to social media to criticize the government's lack of plans during the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis.

On Monday morning, a few ministers—including the minister of the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture Nathi Mthethwa—asked South Africans on Twitter to partake in a #LockdowngymChallenge.

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