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Hi Blog. A recent storm in a teacup that happens to be germane to Debito.org is a recent “Behind the Scenes” vlog starring Trevor Noah, where he talks to his audience between takes of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show”.
In a previous segment, he pointed out how the diverse French Soccer Team won the 2018 World Cup, what with a significant number of their players being of African origin. But he summarized it as a joke: “Africa won the World Cup!” “Africa won the World Cup!”
This occasioned a letter of protest from Gerard Araud, Ambassador of France to the U.S., which Trevor read out to his studio audience. Here is the segment, followed by my commentary:
If you cannot watch the segment, it runs as follows: First, Noah read the text of Araud’s letter (with a French accent, which was a bit corny, but that’s one of the licenses of a comedy show):
SIR– I watched with great attention your July 17 show when you spoke of the victory of the French team at the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia Final which took place last Sunday. I heard your words about an “African” victory. Nothing could be less true.
(Interjected Noah: “I could have said they were Scandinavian. That would have been less true.”)
As many of the players have already stated themselves, their parents may have come from another country, but the great majority of them, all but two out of 23 were born in France. They were educated in France. They learned to play soccer in France. They are French citizens. They’re proud of their country, France. The rich and various backgrounds of these players are a reflection of France’s diversity.
(Interjected Noah: “I’m not trying to be an asshole, but I think it’s more a reflection of France’s colonialism.”)
France is indeed a cosmopolitan country. But every citizen is part of the French identity. Together they belong to the nation of France. Unlike in the United States of America, France does not refer to its citizens based on their race, religion, or origin. To us, there is no hyphenated identity. Roots are an individual reality. By calling them an African team, it seems like you’re denying their French-ness. This, even in jest, legitimizes the ideology which claims whiteness is the only definition of being French.”
There is one more paragraph to the letter, but that’s as far as Noah read. Noah acknowledged how having dual identities is used against people to “other” them from other French. “In France, a lot of Nazis in that country use the fact that these players are of African descent to shit on their French-ness. They say, ‘You’re not French. You’re African. Go back to where you came from.’ They use that as a line of attack.”
But then he counterargued: “My opinion is, coming from South Africa, coming from Africa, and even watching the World Cup in the United States of America, black people all over the world were celebrating the African-ness of the French players. Not in a negative way, but in a positive way. They look at this Africans who CAN become French. It’s a celebration of that achievement.
“Now this is what I find weird in these arguments, when people say, ‘They’re not African. They’re French.’ And I’m like, ‘Why can’t they be both?’ Why is that duality only afforded a select group of people? Why can’t they not be African? What they’re arguing here is, ‘In order to be French, you have to erase everything that is African…?” So what are they saying when they say, ‘our culture’? So you cannot be French and African at the same time, which I vehemently disagree with… I love how African they are, and how French they are. I don’t take their French-ness away, but I also don’t think you have to take their their African-ness away.”
He concluded, “And that is what I love about America. America is not a perfect country, but what I love about this place is that people can still celebrate their identity in their American-ness. You can go to a St. Patrick’s Day Parade in America, celebrating that you are Irish. You can go to a Puerto Rican Day Parade in American and celebrate the fact that you are Puerto Rican and American at the same time. You can celebrate Juneteenth as a Black person and still go, ‘Yo, I’m AFRICAN-American,’ which is the duality of the two worlds.”
Noah cited the case of Mamoudou Gassama, a Malinese immigrant to France, who famously scaled a building to save a child that was dangling from a balcony, and used it to demonstrate how far immigrants have to go to “become French”. Gassama got to meet French President Emmanuel Macron, got French citizenship and a job. Noah highlighted this dynamic in his own version of the phenomenon of “They’ll claim us if we’re famous:” “When they are unemployed, when they may commit a crime or when they are considered unsavory it’s the ‘African immigrant’. When their children go on to provide a World Cup victory for France, we should only refer to them as ‘France.’”
Noah reiterated that he will nonetheless celebrate his claim that “Africans” won the World Cup. “So, I will continue to praise them for being African because I believe that they are of Africa, their parents are from Africa and they can be French at the same time. And if French people are saying they can’t be both, then I think that they have a problem and not me.”
@GeraldAraud responded on Twitter:
End of the argument with @Trevornoah He didn’t refer to a double identity. He said »they are African. They couldn’t get this suntan in the south of France ». i.e They can’t be French because they are black. The argument of the white supremacist. 6:02 AM – Jul 19, 2018
Which, as The Atlantic commented: “is a misreading of Noah’s argument, and of his original joke. It also cuts to the core of one of the biggest questions in Europe today: Who is allowed to define national identity — the state, or the citizens?”
COMMENT: Debito.org’s take on this is probably not hard to guess. We agree with Noah’s argument that hyphenated identities can, should, and in fact must exist. Because a) hyphenated identities are a reality (people are diverse, and they shouldn’t have to suppress them for national goals of putative homogeneity); b) they are a personal choice, to include as one’s self-determined identity, and not the business of The State to police; and c) the alternative incurs too many abuses.
Here’s what I mean: Legal statuses (such as French citizenship) are supposed to be something that one can earn unarbitrarily (i.e., with qualifications that apply to all applicants), and afterwards are enforced in a way that does not require one to subsume or sacrifice one’s identity in perpetuity as a “citizen-with-an-asterisk”, forever currying favor with a society’s dominant majority. That is to say, currying favor with people who aren’t diverse themselves, and who often abuse identity politics to criticize diverse people as not being, say, “French” etc. enough. A lack of hyphenation becomes a power game, and the immigrant who has to “hide” something is at a perpetual disadvantage, as a permanent part of her or him is effectively perceived as a negative thing.
This is something I have studied in other societies that do not accept hyphenated identities (such as Japan, where I am a naturalized citizen myself, and often accused of “not being Japanese enough” if I do anything that causes disagreement or debate — even though I am behaving just like some other “Japanese” would in the same situation). And it leads to the deracinated person expending a lifetime of energy dealing with microaggressions, and trying to please unempathetic others who never had to question, self-determine, or fight for their own identities. All of that is outlined in my book “Embedded Racism: Japan’s Visible Minorities and Racial Discrimination“. (More here.)
Returning to this debate: The abovementioned Atlantic article gives the French side of this issue I think quite well (i.e., how it is “an affront to the French ideal that all citizens are equal in the eyes of the state”), for there will always be a tension within national goals for assimilating outsiders (melting pot? salad bowl? mosaic? kaleidoscope? or no immigration policy at all, as in Japan’s case?).
But I salute Trevor Noah for dealing with this issue in a thoughtful and measured manner, and for coming out on the side that, in the long run, works out much better for all involved. Dr. Debito Arudou
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