Wednesday, January 6, 2010

White Guilt and Racial Fantasies in Southern France [a testimony, a guest post]



[As I posted/linked this article by Annalee Newitz about race fantasies, science fiction and Avatar a couple of weeks ago, the reaction was just as explosive as I expected. I received a particularly rich and insightful reaction from a young French reader. Since he agreed to sharing his 'comment' as a guest blog-entry, here it goes.]

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By Pascal
Aix-en-Provence
France

I remember making an essay at the end of Junior High School on sci-fi. You had to pretend you were the chief editor in a magazine and, in your column, you had to give a "political" opinion on a cultural subject. I wrote something clumsy about sci-fi movies being racist, because they were always about bad, weird-looking, aggressive invaders. My opinion was that since it was frowned upon to create menacing Arab characters (yes, white guilt, in Southern France, focuses on Maghreb more than sub-Saharan Africa), we transposed our natural hatred of the "unknown" on aliens.

The headmistress liked my piece but regretted that I had qualified these ideas as 'far-right', meaning in my mind, 'racist', especially because the French Nationalist Party had dramatically shaken the French political scene with their breakthrough at the 2002 presidential elections, throwing away the Socialists for the first time in thirty years. And the Sacré-Cœur School did not worship socialism.

White guilt will not disappear so easily. I was raised with it in mind, in a village where Arab children took different buses to go to the faraway barracks they had to call 'home'. There were two sinks in the school-yard where kids could drink, and one of them was the robinet des Arabes (the tap of Arabs) where the French-born kids never drank for fear of getting a disease or something. This was, of course, no initiative from the teachers, but from the children themselves. Racist jokes were daily ways of expression, although we all had an Arab friend somewhere in the school, and sometimes we made these jokes in their presence, saying at the same time: "Well, except for you, Ismail, you're not like this, haha," and Ismail laughed in an attempt to better integrate himself. [Apartheid, South Africa, 1960s? No. Southern France, 1990s.]

In this context, my family forbade these jokes and behaviors; parents taught us that racism was the worst thing ever, that we should love and respect everyone in the same way.

As I was the one in school who always got mocked and laughed at because I was weird (understand: gay, but not knowing about that yet), I was bullied by nearly everyone. I always shouted and hit back, which made me even more attractive as a victim because there always was some show.

There was this one boy I did not hit back, though. I nearly gave him the other cheek as a present. He was Walid and lived behind the hill, where most Arab families had moved to after their 'barracks' had been dismantled. And I did not hit back because I thought: "He's Arab, so he must be poor and be a victim of racism from White people like me. I gotta show him I'm different." (I didn't know at the time that Walid was rich as hell with a big villa and a pool.)

I was nine, he was seven, I had never heard the word "colonial" in my life. And still, as Walid would kick me hard in the leg, slap me in the face and laugh, I barely made a move.

So, getting rid of "white guilt" may take some time, especially in France where President Sarkozy would like to highlight the "positive effects" of colonialism in the French History schoolbooks.

1 comment:

feralgeographer said...

Just a couple months back, when telling my friend Sum about some idiotic homophobic remark I'd dealt with that day at school, I expressed frustration over the fact that the person I'd had to tell off was the one person of colour in my program. Sum, who is a person of colour, laughed, and mocked me: "Us brown people can hate the gays too, you know!" Well deserved.

But it's not that I thought honkies had a monopoly on hate, so much as the years I spent at the local university accumstomed me to working with people of colour who either were queer themselves, or were active allies who believed in the intersectionality of all oppressions.  At trade school, where I seem to be the only out queer in a student body composed mostly of straight white 18 year old boys,  it made sense to me that there'd be solidarity among the minorities, be they queer or people of colour or women or (dis)abled folks.  But maybe there's too few of us for that to happen?  Or is it a question of education, and life experience?  As usual, I'm asking questions and starting to think of this as a thesis topic, so I'll leave off now. 

By the way, I just wrote a blog post in response to your question re: Montreal!