Colonial Ordering of Space and Bodies: Researching “mixed race” in Kanaky/New-Caledonia


Author: Anaïs Duong-Pedica

While some would argue that we now live in a postcolonial era, this assumption obscures the fact that settler colonialism continues to be a reality for many Indigenous peoples and nations. Dean Itsuji Saranillio (2015: 84) describes settler colonialism as “a historically created system of power that aims to expropriate Indigenous territories and eliminate modes of production in order to replace Indigenous peoples with settlers who are discursively constituted as superior and thus more deserving over these contested lands and resources”. Among others, setter colonies include Canada, Hawai’i, the United States, South Africa, Aotearoa/New Zealand, Australia, West Papua and Kanaky/New-Caledonia, currently one of France’s “overseas territories”.

History in the present

Kanaky/New-Caledonia was proclaimed a French colony on the 24th of September 1853. The way the formation of colonial power worked was by expropriating Indigenous Kanak from their lands to place and limit them to reserves (a system called the “Indigénat” or Native Code) in order to build a penitentiary as well as plantations and, later, nickel exploitations for which labour was sent from France and the Asia-Pacific region. Part of this colonial project was to minoritize Kanak people to minimize their ability to revolt against the settler state. However, the French aim to “destroy and replace” (Wolfe, 2006: 388) Kanak people did not succeed, as they, to this day, resist more contemporary forms of settler colonial subjugation.

Recently, Kanaky/New-Caledonia has been featured in international news for its unpreceded “decolonization” process, which was born out of the peace agreements signed between the French state, pro-independence and anti-independence parties after the civil war of 1984-1988. This process includes a gradual transfer of power from France to the country, as well as three possible referendums for independence in which Caledonian citizens are asked to vote in favour of or against the independence of New-Caledonia from France. Two of the referendums took place in November 2018 and October 2020 with a possible and likely third and ultimate referendum in 2022.

While the first two referendums resulted in a majority of “No” to independence, it is worth noting that the majority of Kanak people vote for independence (Pantz 2020), while the vast majority of settlers (descending from convicts, free settlers and immigration from France as well as communities descending from the Asia-Pacific immigration) predominantly vote against independence.

Caledonian society is structured hierarchically, with white settlers at the top and Oceanian peoples, especially Kanak, at the bottom. This means that being non-kanak places one in a position of privilege and provides structural advantages. Indeed, non-kanakness, especially when proximate to whiteness and Westernness, offers significantly more life-chances and choices, at the expense of Kanak who experience systemic racism in education, work, housing, healthcare and interpersonal relations. This has been voiced by many Kanak activists and leaders throughout history. For example, in 1969, Nidoïsh Naisseline wrote that:

“The blacks of New-Caledonia have to, in the first moments they open their eyes to the world, learn to hate themselves; everything contributes to persuade them of this: pleasure, money, beauty, God are white; them, they are canaques. How could they not feel like they are inferior beings?” (cited in Banaré 2017: 152).

Thus, when power is taken into account, non-kanak voting “no” to independence indicate a way to keep the status quo in place.

Why do research on “mixed race” in Kanaky/New-Caledonia?

Given the context of a Caledonian society divided along racial and colonial lines, my research project aims to interrogate the politics of kanak-white ‘mixed race’ identity. Through interviews done with self-identified kanak-white ‘mixed race’ people around the 2018 referendum as well as critical ethnographic material, I explore what it means to be ‘mixed race’ in Kanaky/New-Caledonia in the current political context and how ‘mixed raceness’ is deployed in everyday life, politics, and culture by mixed and non-mixed people.

Historically, “mixed race” people have been constructed as an anti-independence figure, notably by French media and settler media (see Chanter 1996, Tate 2013, Muckle & Trépied 2017). However, it is important to differentiate between the colonial construction of ‘mixed race’ and the experiences of ‘mixed race’ people themselves. A recurring theme in my interviews has been how space shapes the lives of ‘mixed race’ people. Living in the wake of the Native Code has undoubtedly affected the spatial landscape of Kanaky/New-Caledonia. For example, the capital, Nouméa, used to be reserved to settlers which explains its old nickname “la blanche” (“the white”). In 2019, the largest racial group living in the city is still “European” (39%), while this group only represents 24% of the overall population. What’s more, “Europeans” are concentrated in the more affluent southern neighbourhoods of the capital while Kanak peoples and Oceanian communities live in the Northern neighbourhoods and in the outskirts of the city. Outside of the capital, non-kanak people live in villages, while Kanak live in tribes (vestiges of the reserves), the main spaces where Kanak lifeways are sustained (see Mokaddem 2002; Passa 2012).

The consequences of this racist and colonial spatial organization was expressed in interviews with self-identified “mixed race” people in various ways. Some spoke about experiences of everyday racism and boundary transgression when going from tribal spaces to predominantly settler spaces or vice-versa. This manifests in practices that aim to make ‘mixed race’ bodies out of place because they are too abject (too Kanak) for the settler space or not “authentic” enough for the Kanak space.

Often, the division of space between settlers and Kanak is reflected in a prevailing feature of ‘mixed race’ talk in Kanaky/New-Caledonia which is to speak in and of “sides” that are in opposition to each other. These sides can be cultural, mental, and familial and manifest through and in space. This is reminiscent of Frantz Fanon’s analysis of the colonial world as being “a world cut in two” (2001: 29). In order to maintain and cultivate their kinship ties and avoid being socially alienated, Kanak-white “mixed race” people must learn and master the social and cultural codes of the worlds they inhabit and travel between.

While the New Caledonia Tourism Office has the “rich and vibrant ethnic mix” as its second reason to visit the country after the lagoon, one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, contemporary racial and colonial structures need to be explored in order to make sense of the divisive nature of Caledonian society and settler colonialism more generally. Indeed, if colonialism relies on the erosion of relationships, then decolonization as a verb (Tuck and Yang 2012) must prioritize relation between peoples, spaces and lifeways and work against exclusion and separation based on racial and colonial categories.

This blog post is part of the Minority Studies series authored and facilitated by researchers from the Åbo Akademi Minority Research profile.


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Mokaddem, Hamid. (2002). Nouvelle-Calédonie: Un Pays Métissé ?. Hermès, 32-33, pp. 535-541.

Muckle, Adrien, and Trépied, Benoît. (2017). The Transformation of the ‘Métis Question’ in New Caledonia, 1853-2009. In Kirsten McGavin and Farida Fozdar (eds), Mixed Race Identities in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. New York: Routledge, pp. 116-132.

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