France Insider/Paul Ben-Itzak

June 17, 2008

It’s a black thing

Filed under: Uncategorized — franceblogger @ 4:15 pm
Tags: , ,

Is Michael Kimmelman, a culture writer for the New York Times who now dabbles in understanding France, reading the same French newspapers I am? For that matter, is he even reading the same Le Monde I am? In an otherwise okay article in today’s Times looking at how the nomination of Barack Obama has inspired blacks in France, Kimmelman writes, incredibly, “Even seeing the word ‘noir’ (“black”) in a French newspaper was an occasion for surprise until recently.” Uh, sorry Mike but — I think not! Where it concerns an American — artist, politician, soldier — if he or she is black or for that matter, anything but white, that racial qualifier is required before “American” during any citation in any media. I first remarked on this habit — remarked on it because of the hypocrisy in a country that officially professes to be race-blind — about five years ago in a Le Monde dispatch from Iraq in which American soldiers gave their view. ONLY the one who was black was identfied as such, i.e., ‘Une Sgt. noir.’ And I continued to see it elsewhere. Carlos Santana was not simply a rock musician but a rock musician ‘d’origine Mexicain.’ Now, what would be an interesting topic for Mike to pursue is the difference between the regard many French people d’origine blanc have towards blacks from the United States — who are revered — and blacks of African origine, whether they’re French citizens or not, who are often disdained. (Although I should note that this has improved over recent years.) My own theory for this is that, in addition to genuine appreciation for aspects of American culture d’origine black — notably Jazz — they’re also attracted to the oppression part of the Black American story because it’s yet another opportunity to criticize American society or better, to one-up it because of course in France, everyone’s created equal. The still larger context is that 60 years after — I hate to keep bringing it up, but it persists — France is still processing its own role (or if you prefer, the role of the Vichy government in the name of France) in actively identifying its Jews and ‘foreign Jews’ so the Germans could cart ’em away. To compensate for its lingering guilt, official France and many French insist that except for of course illegal aliens, we’re all French. It’s a noble goal but if it serves to paper over a nagging racial hyper-awareness, does it really have the traction to heal the wound? What I — and many Americans as well as French — loved about Obama’s race speech is that *he acknowledged* our racial problems. We know we’re not there yet. If France wants to get there too — and I believe it genuinely does — the first step is to recognize that it has not yet arrived.

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