Let’s Unpack Trevor Noah and Race Relations in France

On July 15th, 2018, France’s Men’s Soccer (Football) team won the World Cup for the second time, and for first time in twenty years (the first time being in 1998). I was in Lille in 2016 during the Euro Cup, and although I have never been much of a soccer fan (much less, a fan of men’s soccer) I did get into the World Cup as France got better and better. We took the kids to watch games in Malaysia and I even joined my friends out at a local bar for the semi-finals (I was in London during the final!)

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Allez Les Bleus! Watching the match against Belgium

If you’ve been following this blog over the course of the past five years, you may have realized that I am not shy when it comes to breaking down, critiquing, and analyzing certain ‘taboo’ topics, including la laïcité, sexism, or as today’s topic will discuss, racism.

When France won World Cup, people all around the world were very excited for France and the French team. Trevor Noah, a comedian of South African descent in the United States, took a moment to mention that 80% of the French soccer team is of African descent during his set. See the clip below:

Many French people were offended by Noah’s statement, “Africa won the world cup”, which frankly, as a blanket statement with no other background knowledge or information on France’s (frankly shameful) history of colonialism, it seems a bit off and racist. Trevor Noah, on the other hand, claims that he was actually trying to address the problematic race relations in France and used the statement as a way of saying, “Immigration is awesome! Look at what diversity can do!” (Many have argued that Noah’s comments were also used by the French alt-right, most notably the Front National’s supporters.) Others have remarked that Noah would never have made that comment if it had been an American basketball team that had won a championship game. However, I argue that context matters greatly here. Firstly, to assume all basketball players are of a certain race is racist, and there is (as my friend Michelle so intelligently pointed out) a large difference between an African immigrant and an African descendent. Additionally, I believe that the French alt-right used the “Africa won the world cup” in a racist context, literally taken to mean, “These guys are not actually French even though their passports say they are,” whereas Noah used the words in a different context entirely.

Obviously, there was a bit of an uproar in response to Noah’s set. One person in particular, France’s U.N. Ambassador Gerard Arnaud, took particular offense. Let’s try to break his letter to Trevor Noah down.

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I take particular issue in one specific part of Geraud’s statement, and will further explain below.

“Unlike the United States of American, France does not refer to its citizens based on their race, religion, or origin.”

The fact is that the United States and France have very different ways in which to address race, racism, and identity. As the author of the Vox article puts it, America developed a national culture centering on liberal tolerance, whereas revolutionary France focused more on building a shared sense of national identity and unified culture (Beauchamp, Z. 2018).

The United States obviously has a more visible history of slavery and legalized segregation (aka Jim Crow), and as a result, adopted race-specific policies such as affirmative action. We also have more dialogues for talking about race, including white privilege and institutionalized racism and systematic oppression. The United States also routinely includes specific questions having to do with race and ethnic origins on most government forms. Of course, the United States’ questions regarding race can bring up necessary questions in regards to racial bias, but they can also be a vital part when creating and proving statistics correlating with poverty, levels of education, housing opportunities, hate crimes, prisoners, voters, representation in politics or the media, etc. Finally, one of the great things about being American is that we as citizens can equally embrace all parts of ourselves and our identities, as well as aspects of our families’ or ancestors’ sub-cultures. That’s what makes the USA a ‘melting pot’ and the meaning of “American” so vast. (Coca Cola tried to show this in their Super Bowl commercial in 2014!)

France, on the other hand, has approached the topic of race, race relations, racism, and identity in a quite different manner. For me, the starkest difference between American and French identities is that in France, you are French above everything else (instead of Irish-American, African American, Mexican-American, for example). Race is also a very taboo word/topic in France, and is avoided in government laws and policies, classrooms, and conversations. Rather than focusing on diversity, France instead focuses on assimilation, and attempting to create a ‘unified’ culture shaping an identity (hence in theory, making everyone ‘equal’ because they are the same). The French government has truly embraced a ‘color-blind’ mentality in the fact that the country does not collect any census or data about race in relations to its citizens and has instead labeled hate speech as a crime punishable by law,

You can’t acknowledge something as a problem when the statistics or proof don’t exist, right? This is where my problem with Geraud’s statement comes in– it feels too easy and frankly ignorant, especially coming from an official ambassador of France.

As one person on a Facebook thread so eloquently put it, “France is living in denial. America is living in ignorance.” (Perhaps the opposite could ring just as true.

Here was Noah’s response:

I must say, I agree with Noah 100% on his response. Perhaps I will be criticized in that I am being too American or pragmatic, but in a country where there is still a lot of racism and xenophobia (especially against Muslims and Jews), and where French identity is of vital importance, I think it is crucial to show (inadvertently or not) that Muslim and French identities can and do coincide. Fifteen of the French players have African origins. Seven players are Muslim. In a perfect world, personal beliefs of individual players should never come under scrutiny, but perhaps highlighting these amazing examples on mainstream media would maybe help shape this perspective. It’s interesting how, when highlighting these statistics, critics protest, “How dare you call them immigrants or Muslims? They’re French!” Can’t they be both? Perhaps it’s an American way of thinking– we say, “This is awesome! Yay immigration! Yay diversity!” while the French say, “Who cares?” or, “Oh, we didn’t even notice because we don’t see race.” Of course, I do not want to tell the French team and individual players how they *should* identify– I’ll leave that up to them.

I also wanted to share some responses:

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However, this statement from author/professor Khaled Beydoun brings me to my next point:

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To further prove his point, Trevor Noah provided the recent example of Mamoudou Gassama, a man whom scaled a wall to save a toddler from falling out of a window.

A true hero, this refugee from Mali (whom has no papers) has been given the promise of naturalization by President Emmanuel Macron. France’s newly elected president has taken a hard line on expelling economic migrants from France, supporting a bill to deport thousands of immigrants squatting near Paris. President Macron’s actions have been called hypocritical and cynical– and have put into question what it takes for any immigrant in France to separate themselves from “those other migrants” and to become ‘French’.

Overall, it has been a fascinating topic to discuss with fellow immigrants and French people alike. At least in my own social circles, it seems that there is a hard line of (respectful) disagreement between the French and the anglophones– most of the people in France I have spoken to do not see the issues of identity and assimilation. I, on the other hand, have been taught that colorblindness is an easy way out, and is also an ignorant way out– to not see someone’s race is, in a way, not seeing that person, wholly, fully, and completely (at least, that’s what I’ve read from POC authors).

It boils down to that fact that is it unfairly easier for some immigrants to assimilate (or pretend to assimilate) better than others here in France

Does a one-size-fits-all model seem to the answer for everything? Is it only white people who white-splain why POC shouldn’t want to have ‘other’ labels? Or, should we embrace any kind of label from any kind of person, as long as it’s the individual who decides?

Where do you stand?

Bisous,

Dana

9 thoughts on “Let’s Unpack Trevor Noah and Race Relations in France

  1. This was a super interesting commentary by Trevor Noah and then response from the French politician. Race is treated definitely different in France. When I worked there, it didn’t really matter what you were ethnically. And people only talked about it once you got to know them. It’s an interesting difference from the U.S. Thanks for the post. Cheers.

  2. I think it’s a matter of looking into the differences between American and French culture, along with their history of immigration and assimilation. I’ve noticed that with the former, it prides itself in an individualistic, “self-made” ideal while the latter strives for the collective whole. That said, it can be seen why Americans embrace this idea of being proud of one’s ancestral heritage, as the nation is also considered an “immigrant’s land,” and why the French are more nationalistic, let alone adamant about identifying themselves as just “French” and not “Moroccan-French” or “Vietnamese-French.”

    Likewise, I find the notion of colorblindness problematic, and I do agree with you that it can be interpreted as the “easy way out” of addressing race/ethnic problems in the country. It aims to be race-inclusive while also not addressing that some people might want to identify as being other than French, even while living in France.

    Your mention of white people “white-splaining” that POC don’t want “other labels” hit me especially, and it has made me think long and hard about whether your statement is or isn’t true. From my POC viewpoint, I would say you’re absolutely right in that the “other” label is repressive…but I think we need to look more into the politics of this statement, as I don’t see it as inherently racist– I guess when it comes to running a country with such a heterogeneous population, people try to make sense of it by categorizing people, which is a sort of heuristics to understand them. Categorizing people isn’t inherently bad, but it’s when judgment and preconceptions come in and cause problems.

    Basically, this debate on race and politics can go on for eternity without any real resolution. However, I would say that, as long as people talk about it, the issue will continue to be relevant and will help create awareness for people to want to take action to solve it, whether effectively or not. Appreciate you bringing up this topic!

    1. Your opinion is super valuable to me, Rebecca, thanks for reading! I guess I don’t want to seem too American in my approach, nor do I want to take away voices of POC by telling them how they *should* feel or identify when it comes to race politics… you saw the examples on Twitter! I think it’s a topic on which I will never agree with most French people…

      I also agree that categorizing people definitely has pros and cons– although I think the lack of statistics in France makes it easier for them to live in denial when it comes to their own problems about race…

      Thanks for reading!

      Dana

  3. Hi Dana,

    I just wanted to point out that Khaled Beydoun is actually a law professor from the United States.

    Great article!

  4. I loved your post and I do agree. Noticing the face of the French football team and how it has changed over the years was one of the first things I noticed and I actually posted an article from the New Yorker https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/the-french-world-cup-win-and-the-glories-of-immigration?mbid=social_twitter on my personal Facebook page which touched on this subject. A few people “liked” it, and only one French friend “liked” it, but then un-clicked the “like”. I can only chalk it up to the very different viewpoint on race between the USA and France. I think that in theory, it’s great to focus on assimilation and accept immigrants as a part of the nation, but to ignore that they do also have their own culture, is another thing. I saw a French documentary about black culture in France and how people of African immigrants felt about how they were treated. In fact, some said that in France, it’s as if their uniqueness doesn’t exist, as if they are all the same when they don’t actually feel this way. They are French on the street and then at home, they can enjoy their African roots. I agree that people can be French and also retain their own cultural identity. I imagine that not all children of immigrants would retain the same viewpoint, either, as people’s opinions and experiences will vary!

    1. I totally agree with you! I think assimilation is great but only if it comes with the idea that people wills till practice and identify with parts of their own cultures. Thanks for reading!

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