Trevor Noah controversy on French World Cup team: “Africa won the World Cup”. Debito.org disagrees with French Ambassador’s protest letter.

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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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14 comments on “Trevor Noah controversy on French World Cup team: “Africa won the World Cup”. Debito.org disagrees with French Ambassador’s protest letter.

  • Baudrillard says:

    I thought this was going to be about how Senegal were denied qualification because of Japan’s unsporting, risk averse tactics. (“Dont take a chance, lose by one goal instead of two!”)

    Ditto, NIshino the coach’s “justification”-“I chose to keep the status quo in our game, and rely instead on the other result.
    “The situation forced me to make this decision.”

    Sounds like “Japan as victim” to me. How about trying to equalize instead? Then youd definitely go through to the next round!

    Not sure where to post this, though it is Japan related, but surely it is a very apt and pathetic reflection of the mindset of the country as a whole, especially the small number of entrepreneurs in Japan, but I digress.

    — Plenty of teams (England historically comes to mind) score one goal to lead, and then play defense for the rest of the game. The announcers repeatedly called this act of not playing offensively “smart football”. I agree that it’s boring (and it’s a major impediment to the sport taking off in societies expecting higher-scoring games), but it’s not only Japan in this case. But we digress.

    • Jim Di Griz says:

      Dr.Debito, I think he’s referring to Japan’s decision to lose 1-0 instead of trying to win which may have led to a 2-0 defeat, putting Japan out of the running, whereas even a 1-0 loss to Senegal was enough for Japan to progress to the next stage.

      @Baudrillard, this is exactly the mentality I was referencing here, when I talked about relying on external factors to negate responsibility for making a decision.
      http://www.debito.org/?p=15107&cpage=1#comment-1675767

      • my other point was, tring to lose just by 1-0 itself was a risky strategy, if Sengal had then scored in the other, simultaneous, game.

        But a draw by Japan wouldve ensured their qualificiation in any scenario.

        But theyd rather stay losing. The coach also said “he couldnt think of a better solution” which reminded me of Japan’s economic stagnation but I digress.

        Interestingly, a student of mine who is an investor (not really, its a hobby as he inherited his fortune), thought that the coach’s decision to play to a 1-0 loss was the “safest” decision. he couldnt get my arguement that it was just as risky, if Sengal had subsequently scored.

        All about “shoganai” and it “being in the hands of the gods”, I feel! Oh boo hoo, we are powerless to change the outcome…

    • Who plays to lose? In this postmodern absurdity, it would probably be Japan, if you had to pick a country.

    • Loverilakkuma says:

      Well, to be fair, it’s kind of a wishful thinking to expect that caveat applicable to Japanese politics to non-political entity. How team Japan performs in sports is a separated entity from how awful Japan handles the politics of culture and human rights, in general.

      • Jim Di Griz says:

        I disagree. I think it’s a cultural response to the responsibility for decision making typified by two ‘rules’;
        1. Never take any risks! Ever!
        2. It’s always better to have been the victim of external forces than to have tried and failed.

        • Loverilakkuma says:

          If we hold these two rules to be true and self-evident, that will likely lead us to call out France for their defensive play(actually, they were slammed for their subsequent choice.) in a semi-final match against Belgium(which France won 1-0). It’s not going to be a “unique-to-Japanese” thing, per se.

          Back to the point, I find it ironic with French Ambassador Gerard Araud’s mentioning of double identity. He doesn’t seem to care that many French succor players have cultural origin of African descents, which are the product of French cultural heritage through long history of colonialism. Although Araud is a left-wing, he also finds himself in the storm of controversy for his pro-Israel stance and a political stud insinuating the US for not siding with France and the UK to confront fascists in the 30s. It’s easy for people like him to say “we are all French” and dismiss the complexity of power struggle in cultural dominance that the establishment of cultural majority groups attempt to thrust upon racial/ethnic minorities as subjugation and segregation.

          Why am I focusing on this man? It’s all about his behavior. That resembles with some Japanese ambassadors or MOFA officials who make a catcall over negative portrait of Japan or any Japanese establishment.

        • @ JIm, #2 is the biggest culture clash with westerners, and western style business.
          Oh, plus the unspoken money under the table corruption of course, like with Woodford and Olympus.

      • Even if we are a bit unfair or wrong, Japan deserves the possibly unfair judgement we give, as are plenty of unfair policies being enacted there!

        Once again though, my point goes way beyond defensive play.

        Japan played to LOSE. Not to retain a lead or a draw. And it was also ridiculous because in the other simultaneous game, Senegal couldve easily scored another goal, making Japan’s strategy all for naught.

        Japan might as well have tried for an equalizer. Same odds. The fact they didnt proves a completely defeatist, risk averse, lose rather than try attitude.
        Or arguably, as some Japanese have argued with me, “long term thinking” as they lost the battle to win…..well, to lose in the next round. Perhaps that is similar to long term business planning and investment Japan Inc was renowned for?

        But it was not honourable. And I expected Japan to act with honour. Perhaps that is a cliche,but they are called “Samurai Blue” arent they?

        Must be yet another postmodern J sign that has become meaningless. Their play was dishonourable.

        So next time a J person slags off South Korea for 2002 world cup fixing etc etc, just remind them that the news headlines around the world were how shameful the Japanese tactic was.

  • I disagree with T.Noah on many levels.

    No one is denying or whitewashing history at all. Only those that feel they do not belong to something that they covet/need wish to seek some common ground and they do this by identifying common groups – to be, just like “them”. But, as they seek a common ground with others it becomes a group mentality and an US against THEM when pushed to extremes. And the person is no longer able to speak as an individual or see themselves as an equal individual (which ultimately is what they are after); they must speak as THE group, the group they feel associated with. So it polorizes the debate even further.

    My passport says…British. It doesn’t show/cite/refer to any ancestry at all – why should it?

    Those that feel victimised or persecuted will always seek something bigger than themselves in order to “push back” to feel they mean something. But the irony is, when they do, they do not realise they are doing exactly to others what they dislike being done to them, and forcing others to be identified as groups.

    If Noah did “get it” he would have stopped at reading the letter politely and clammily and say…yes, fair point, but I disagree. With perhaps some objective reasons why.

    But he doesn’t he reads the letter in a mock-French accent which is racist and condescending – everything he has accusing the French of, and continues as HE now feels HE must explain himself, because he is of African decent, thus he feels chagrined.

    I have no problems with agreeing to disagree, but when someone steps over the lines of my Group way of thinking is better than your individual way…aaah…that’s where the nonsense must be countered.

    Everyone/country has at sometime has been subjugated by others….how far back do you want to go…the issue is whether one can move forwards rather than keep looking backwards. Doing such means one never moves forward. The only difference between, say the British being overrun by the Romans or later the Vikings and anything today…is time. Only time and the means of dealing with the invasion by them.

    If anyone “gets it”, it is Obama, and with real humour too:
    Former US President Barack Obama has also waded into the debate about the identity of the French football squad. During his Nelson Mandela lecture in Johannesburg earlier this week, he pointed to the positive side of immigration: “Just look at the French football team. Not all of those folks looked like Gauls to me, but they are French – they are French.” Noting, they may not classically French anymore, but – they are French! **

    So, to be true to T.Noah’s sense of outrage, to bance this. Why doe she not call the US 100m Sprint relay team African..or the US Basketball team African and so on??…double standards at play here! But a sense of his own moral outrage – genuine, but misguided as it may be.

    ** https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-44885923

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    Whilst I agree with Dr. Debito’s stance on this issue, I can’t help wandering if there aren’t specific cultural/social in both French and American society, that have caused this situation to escalate beyond its relative importance. For example, from Noah’s standpoint, given the current political climate and level of discourse in mainstream US society (which has demonstrated that legally enshrined ideas of racial equality have been thrown down the toilet by the Trump presidency ; a kind of ‘You’ve had a black president already, now stop your whining’ attitude that reveals US society is not as advanced in this area as it thought it was 8 years ago), I can understand Noah’s initial joke about France ‘claiming’ blacks of African descent ‘if they are famous’ (after all, Japan does the same to NJ).
    However, Noah’s mocking attitude towards the French government complaint for cheap laughs makes him seem condescending and frankly racist. He should know better since his initial joke was based on the premise of blacks being a discredited minority in the USA.
    His inability to predict that circumstances for black French citizens *could* be better than that of black Americans and therefore he would offend the French (N.B.) in an era where the internet means nothing stays within national borders, shows his typically ‘ugly American’ parochialism, which is ironic, since it’s that kind of ‘red-neck’ unworldlyness that would most likely be attributed to those Americans who may choose to discriminate against Noah based on his skin color.
    Perhaps he is (as are many Japanese) oblivious to the idea that people of any color are just as capable of racism towards whites, just as whites are to others themselves?
    Or perhaps it is because the whites in this case are foreigners (French) and therefore Noah doesn’t see why they should enjoy protection from race-based exploitation; does he see himself as placed lower in US social hierarchy as a black man due to institutional racism, but (at least!) as an American, higher up in the hierarchy that a foreigner?
    If so, it’s a disturbing world view that Japan cognoscenti such as us would recognize.
    Additionally, from the French perspective, whilst their complaint may indeed seem to deny the soccer players essential ‘blackness’ and associated cultural heritage, we must see it in the context of the rise of far-right groups in Europe of late, and the rash of extreme Islamic terror attacks, especially in France in the last few years. Bearing this in mind, the French ministers assertion that the players are absolutely French should be seen as a strong public declaration by the French government to make clear to the world that French nationality is not a matter of birthplace or skin color, but a legal status, and France is a country of law. It’s a move intended to send messages of inclusion to visible minority French citizens, and to warn those nationalists that Bannon recently travelled to inspire, that their ideas are on the edge of legality and marginalize them.
    Ultimately, comedy doesn’t travel well.

  • To bring this topic back to Japan, which hurriedly and cynically gives Japanese nationality to recent arrivals like Rui Ramos (I am going back a bit, I know) purely as a means to the end of raising the level of the J team, those French players of African descent are at least born and raised in France. Zidane was “half” Algerian, or of Algerian descent, but he is still a national hero in France…a Frenchman.

    Call it French Community, but it is way more integrated than Japan. Wasnt there a recent case where a referee referred to a half NJ player as a gaijin?

    Here’s what you’re referring to.

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