Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Ye Olde Racisme

I watched the World Cup game yesterday between Germany and Italy with a very silly woman. She happened to have been from Spain, but that's only important inasfar as it explained her accent, gave an excuse for some of her conversational cluelessness, and provides some insight into the genesis of her more appalling ideas. She's lived in New York City for some ten years, though. Once she left our party, once I stopped feeling as though I had to try to find a way to be hospitable to her, my temporary buttressing of justifications for her opinions lost all appeal.

What set me off initially was her complaint against the French national team, who wasn't even playing at the time, mind you. "Look at them! They're not French; they're African!" To which, I instantly responded: "The darker-skinned players are second-generation French, I think." "But look at their complexions! It's the Africa-continent team!" she replied. I don't think she was even conscious of what she was saying. Every time she repeated this idea about the French team's being some stealth African team, I repeated my counterpoint: "it's the passport they hold, not the color of their skin." Maybe, if she hadn't been so atavistic and incoherent, we could have entered into a discussion about hyphenated identities.

As it was, however, and as she was an invited friend of a very kind person invited by my honey, I resorting to calling up the kind of patience that one uses with children and the mentally disabled.

Yes, at one point lateish in the afternoon, she asked me if I was "a Jew." I hesitated a long time before responding, but then decided that lying to her wouldn't fix anything. (I admitted much later, and rather reluctantly, that I was raised Mormon, and she asked me whether Mormons sucked snake venom.)

But back to my point, if I had one. I think that the French team, with its multi-racial players holding French citizenship, is one of more beautiful incarnations of globalism. I don't fool myself: Zidane's family was Kabyle Algerian, and they ended up in Marseilles to give birth to le Zizou for either political or economic reasons that have everything to do with the former French Empire.

Still, any version of nationalism that wouldn't embrace a born-citizen like Zidane seems very wrong to me. Or a Thierry Henry, or a Claude Makélélé. Sure, they don't "look French," or as the French themselves euphemistically put it, they're not "français-français."

You know what this Danish-Canadian-Scottish-Irish-Welsh-German-Presbyterian-Anglican-Mormon-American always wants to say to this sort of racializing European, who wants to put people into neat categories to be contemned or exoticized?

Get the fuck over it.


Anonymous Anonymous:

It's the apparent obliviousness, as if we all knew this was true and really thought this way, whatever we were supposed to think, that seems to have gotten under your skin.

And yet, would an ironic awareness, that the genie couldn't be put back in the bottle, but that francais-francais was what we meant, and the costs of turning our backs on racial feeling hadn't been fully totaled, really be better?

We all imagine the reactionaries/racists we'd like to have that discussion with; have you ever met them? Or is that person a creation of our own, a way of imagining, and in fact expressing our own doubts?

7/06/2006 08:51:00 AM  
Blogger Marilee Scott:

Have I ever met them? Oh, yes. In France, I heard people say things that just left me open-mouthed.

(I was utterly unsurprised by the riots in Paris last winter, btw, and believe they have everything to do with systematic discrimination, and little to do with Islam, so far.)

7/06/2006 09:19:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous:

Meaning you met people who had a self-aware, articulate, realistic willingness to express racism?

Intelligent Americans are usually much more circumspect. I'm reminded of a passage in Lionel Trilling's preface to Homage to Catalonia:

"Santayana, when he visited England, quite gave up the common notion that Dickens' characters are caricatures. One can still meet an English snob so thunderingly shameless in his worship of the aristocracy, so explicit and demonstrative in his adoration, that a careful, modest, ironic American snob would be quite bewildered by him."

Which is better?

7/06/2006 09:53:00 AM  
Blogger Marilee Scott:

I know what you're trying to say--that there's a submerged racializing worry in the American leftists' dismay at overt racism. And I rather agree with that point.

But yes, I have met people quite willing to articulate racist ideas. Some of these people were self-aware, knew that their ideas would be condemned by many as racist. (Herr Doktor Professor H----n, I'm thinking of you!) More of them, not so self-aware, I'd say. Or at least not by my standards.

Which is better? Obviously circumspect racism is still racism, but what really struck me from some of the old-school European racists was how, well, un-self-aware their ideas were. It's as though they hadn't yet begun to think about these questions reflectively.

7/06/2006 11:24:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous:

The brilliant-if-aging (and dishy) French defender Lilian Thuram, who was born in Guadaloupe, responded to Le Pen's similar complaint about France not being able to "recognize itself" in the French side:

Clearly, he is unaware that there are Frenchmen who are black, Frenchmen who are white, Frenchmen who are brown. I think that reflects particularly badly on a man who has aspirations to be president of France but yet clearly doesn't know anything about French history or society.

That about sums it up, I think. Le Pen also complained about Barthez not singing "La Marseilles", but as Barthez was born in Marseilles I suppose he's just a self-hating "recognizable".

7/06/2006 03:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous:

That first was supposed to be "La Marseillaise", of course, and a Wikipedia check reveals that Barthez was actually born in Ariège, although he first played professionally in Marseilles. Stupid facts getting in the way of an amusing story.

7/06/2006 04:00:00 PM  
Blogger Marilee Scott:

The LePenistes have done such awful damage in France. I actually do think that politicians should have been talking more about immigration there--not about how to close the borders but about how to ease integration, about how to increase access to good education and housing for the immigrant population, about effective ways to address some of the persistant racism immigrants face, as the problems are very real. However, with Le Pen running around, any discussion of immigration and multiculturalism was associated with the rabid nationalist wing. Everyone I knew lifted their noses at Le Pen and professed universal ideals, which I always believed was terribly naive.

But, yes, Thuram is dead right about how to respond to people like Le Pen. Now the society has to figure out how to make those universal ideals more real in everyday life.

7/06/2006 07:58:00 PM  
Blogger Gary Farber:

"It's the apparent obliviousness, as if we all knew this was true and really thought this way, whatever we were supposed to think, that seems to have gotten under your skin."

That sort of thing always drives me crazy, even when it's about very mild stuff. (Shades of this reaction came out with my recent two comments at Unfogged to two different people explaining how everyone else would or had react(ed) the way they did.)

My question is what's a good and polite way to respond to that sort of thing from a a friend, or someone one would like to be friendly with, that clearly communicates that their generalization is false and that they shouldn't be making it, let alone announcing it to other people, but that doesn't come across as particularly judgmental or offensive or condescending?

(I have a blogging friend who, although blogging little in recent times, has a history of doing this, and while I've reacted strongly on occasion, mostly I've just kept my mouth shut and not responded, because I'm sure I would have seemed as if I were over-reacting, but it still drives me crazy, and I'd really like to find a way to politely, and in friendly -- but firm! -- fashion, say "no, damnit, we're not all full of what you say are middle-class prejudices that every in group X shares about A, B, and C! My common reaction is the reverse of the one you claim we all "secretly" feel! Damnit!")

So: advice?

7/06/2006 09:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous:

"What do you mean 'we,' white man?" works pretty well.

7/06/2006 10:31:00 PM  
Blogger Marilee Scott:

It's so hard to say.

In conversation, over time, you eventually find an opening to say something like--"you know, I really hope you're kidding about that, because what you're saying is pretty awful. Oh, and I'm not finding it very funny, if you are kidding." I said this recently--with all kinds of non-confrontational body-language--to someone who was making hip ironic jokes about black people. It led to a decent conversation, but I'm not sure it convinced him to stop talking that way. He does it less around me, which is okay, for now.

Blog-friends are different in that the appeals to comfort--"it makes me feel uncomfortable when, I'd be happier if, I don't like it when"--usually don't have anything near the same kind of force. The default response in blogland still is "if you don't like it, don't come by," which would be near sociopathic at, say, a dinner party.

Still, if it's someone you otherwise respect, a brief, gentle exclamation of discomfort should elicit some kind of response, which would give more clues about how to proceed. The way the woman I talked about in my post responded to very gentle remonstrances showed me that I could never respect her as an adult human being. The way the guy above responded showed me that he's aware and adult and that we could argue productively, even though I still think that ironic racism is pretty much still racism.

(And no, that guy is not my honey. I don't think I could ever date anyone who had a tendency to make racializing remarks, from whatever motivation.)

7/06/2006 10:49:00 PM  
Blogger CharleyCarp:

I linked this at the other place, and toss it in here for good measure.

7/07/2006 07:25:00 AM  
Blogger Marilee Scott:

Great article, she says, noting with approval that it echoes all of my points.

Have I mentioned that I stormed the Bastille in '98? As in, climbed to the top of the monument, drank wine from the bottle someone had tossed up, and kissed a complete stranger up there in the general glee? It was one of the best nights of my life.

(As for the other place, I haven't quite worked out all the kinks in the cross-posting...)

7/07/2006 09:50:00 AM  
Blogger CharleyCarp:

You've echoed my point at the OP: nationalism can feel really good.

7/07/2006 12:51:00 PM  
Blogger Gary Farber:

"'What do you mean 'we,' white man?' works pretty well."

It's a bit overly blunt when one is trying to avoid being overly confrontational/argumentative/challenging.

JM: "Still, if it's someone you otherwise respect, a brief, gentle exclamation of discomfort should elicit some kind of response, which would give more clues about how to proceed."

I wasn't actually meaning to imply it was stuff that I think is "awful," actually, so much as just not-applicable-to-me, and somewhat wrongheaded. For instance, stating that "everyone" "really" is uncomfortable living with lots of dark-skinned people in the neighborhood/building.

And it might be problematic if one is eliciting a response at, say, a blog where the norm is joking allusiveness.

But thanks for the suggestions.

"...even though I still think that ironic racism is pretty much still racism."

This tends to be the along the lines of the sort of thing I have in mind.

Another aspect is that I made a number of such responses in the past, when the person used to regularly blog, and I don't want to be a nag about it.

At the moment, this is largely academic; but I'd like to find a better response/approach for the general future. (If you think you can figure out who/where I'm talking about, you're probably right.)

7/10/2006 11:27:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous:

It's a bit overly blunt when one is trying to avoid being overly confrontational/argumentative/challenging.

It's not meant to be, really; the "white man" part indicates that the bluntness is part of the allusion rather than a reflection of your own attitude. Obviously, it's not necessarily going to be universally understood. You can also cross out "white man" and replace it with a (suitably lighthearted) descriptor for your addressee that is more appropriate in context, as LB recently did here.

7/15/2006 12:30:00 AM  

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