In France, kids of African descent are forbidden from practicing a cultural code at school

Be boisterous…just don’t do the ‘tchip’!
Be boisterous…just don’t do the ‘tchip’!
Image: AP Photo
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We all know that sound and speech is how we communicate our thoughts and sentiments, but not all sounds are pillars of good communication. The ‘tchip’ or ‘kissing of teeth’, for example, rooted firmly in African and Afro-Caribbean culture, expresses disapproval, contempt, disagreement, anger or as French minister of Justice, Christiane Taubira explained it: a concentration of disdain.

It’s when you make a suction sound created by using your lips to suck the teeth. The tchip is the name given to this expression in French–an onomatopoeic word for the sound that takes the written form: ‘mxm’. This sound has caused enough of a furor in the French schooling system recently to the point where some schools have banned its use on school premises.

“I explained to my school that I was strictly forbidden from tchipping others!” says Eric Bongo, deputy headmaster of Charles Baudelaire, a school in Evry, Paris. Whatever its true meaning at the time of use, it is clear and it is considered a sign of disrespect.

The extremity of its meaning is subject to the situation and the user. Following Bongo’s action to ban tchipping in his school, several schools followed suit.

This animated video (in French) explains the expression, its various forms and origins was posted to YouTube on the Zmokheur Channel with the goal of ridding the school system of this cultural code deemed as inappropriate.

In the video the narrator says that in the future everyone in France will tchip and presumably it is this fear of appropriation and permeation that has lead to the need to nip it in the proverbial bud. Interestingly, the infiltration of the tchip seems not to have crossed over the boundaries of the Ile-de-France region. This may be because outside the region the number of Afro-immigrants and their first and second-generation children plummets dramatically.

What’s wrong with banning an insult?

Aside from being reminiscent of the ban on Islamic headscarves in French schools and public spaces in September 2010, the problem with this ‘corrective’ action lies in the fact that the tchip is a part of language for many cultures. In both instances, upholding certain French ideals of living together is done through ‘othering’ i.e. allowing Muslims and Africans to come inside but to leave parts of their culture at the door.

While it is obvious that its use should be within the confines of what is acceptable in a public space such as a school, to simply ban it is to remove a part of language that may be the only form of expression known to many who share particular cultural backgrounds. Additionally, whether it is the intended effect or not, rejecting certain cultural codes racializes them and stigmatizes certain pupils for whom the tchip is part of language and culture.

The measures being taken in the French school system regarding its use leads one to wonder whether the same measures are being taken to combat the use of insults or ‘gros mots’ (as they are commonly referred to in French) with less cultural affiliations. Is the same level of fear present that soon all of France and the French language will be littered with the crude and offensive f-bomb?