After reading Mongol Identity’s position statement on the song “L’odeur de l’essence” by French rapper Orelsan, I decided to watch the music video to see how the word “Mongol” was actually being used. As a French speaker, I was already aware that the word “Mongol” is commonly used as an insult, an idiot. The racist and ableist use of that word is rooted in coloniality and race science, and Mongol Identity is doing powerful work to reclaim the word and to raise awareness of the eugenics behind the pejorative use of the word.
When I first started watching “L’odeur de l’essence” (meaning the smell of petrol), I was struck by what seemed to be a rather progressive song with poignant social commentary made by a disillusioned artist. However, the first semblance of anti-racism was shattered as soon as I heard the word “Mongol” coupled with images that were deeply problematic. I will share what I managed to make of the multi-layered racism and ableism in the video, but I must start with a content warning as the racism and ableism mentioned can cause distress.
At the beginning of his song, I can see how the white rapper Orelsan was perhaps trying to speak out against racism by condemning the different types of racism that exist in France. For example, he defends those whose faith is tarnished (implying anti-Muslim racism) and regularly critiques those who fear that the “other” (migrants) is taking over:
“L’incomprehension saisir ceux qui voient leur foie
Denigrer sans qu’ils aient rien d’mande
La peur les persuader qu’des etrangers vont v’nir dans
Leur salons pour les remplacer”
However, his good intentions become meaningless later on in the song with his poor choice of language and imagery that further deepen racial prejudice and ableism.
The white rapper goes on to talk about the other problems with society and one of them is "giving weapons to Mongols" coupled with images of people of East Asian descent and one Black man being violently held down and arrested by white officers with weapons.
Now he could have intended it to be a play on words implying the police officers are the armed “idiots” (with the ableist meaning of the word “Mongol”), possibly making a vague reference to police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. But the imagery coupled with the pejorative use of the word “Mongol” makes it too ambiguous and risks deepening existing racial biases that many viewers are likely to have. A few scrolls down the comments section of the YouTube video will easily confirm this. Even to me, when I first heard “giving weapons to Mongols” with those images in the video, the subliminal message I interpreted was that Black people and people of East Asian descent are inherently dangerous and *only* white police officers can use weapons sensibly to pacify them. Perhaps this wasn’t the message Orelsan intended; but it just goes to show that you can’t challenge racism (police brutality against Black and brown people) with more racism and ableism (the pejorative use of the word “Mongol”).
As the song continues, Orelsan then complains that we're surrounded by "Mongols" and they're everywhere: another alleged problem in society. But is he promoting the fear of migrants, after condemning it at the beginning of the song? Again, even though he probably meant to signify “surrounded by idiots” and not Mongolians, the depiction of East Asian people in the video seconds before, and the play on words seconds later when he mentions the Mongol Empire with an image of Genghis Khan, sends mixed messages which have the potential to sow more racism and ableism in the listener’s mind.
Orelsan’s last use of the word comes with the pun: “we’ll become like the Mongol Empire and fall like them.” Is he insinuating inherent violence in people of colour, as if there were no violent empires led by white French colonisers? Or is it a warning about the violence implied earlier with police brutality? The ambiguity is problematic.
While Orelsan may very well have had good intentions with the core messages of his song, his poor use of the word “Mongol” coupled with images of East Asian people, Black people and a statue of Genghis Khan, only reinforces ableism, people seen as less intelligent (which is rooted in eugenics), and racism, particularly the fear of the violent “other,” the migrant, Black people and people of East Asian descent. You can’t stand up to racism with more racism. It’s time for Orelsan, and all of us French speakers, to shed the pejorative use of the word “Mongol” and start listening to people who actually identify as Mongol.
Mélina Valdelièvre is a Franco-Indian teacher of colour living in Scotland. She co-founded The Anti-Racist Educator, a collective of educators of colour based in Scotland, and she now works for Education Scotland as a Lead Specialist in the Professional Learning and Leadership Team where she is leading a new professional learning programme on Building Racial Literacy.