On French and American Whiteness
As a French white man, I find my whiteness aches like a phantom limb. My whiteness is a blank, an origin without origin, an Icloud, storage of data without apparent meaning.
On the other hand, whiteness gave birth to an empire of sufferings.
Violence has come from my whiteness and continues to do so. Innocuous to me, whiteness poses a lethal threat to others. As whites have gone undetected, non-whites have been coated by centuries of negative representation like a gangue of amber. White supremacy is the toxic center that still holds.
One must investigate whiteness. One must garner clues on whiteness – sentences, situations, personal memories: clues as thin as stems, and fiercely cling to them with the hope they would end up shedding light on whiteness. One has to be a ventriloquist to make whiteness speak. One should not feel overwhelmed or shame to speak about whiteness. (Sometimes, talking about whiteness feels like swallowing a mouthful of salt.)
Pieces of evidence on whiteness are contradictory. There is whiteness as “the place of safety” (James Baldwin), as supremacy, and as an “intimidating world” (phrase seen at the exhibit, “Speeches/Acts” at the Institute of Contemporary at University of Pennsylvania.) This is the whiteness of the “blonde brute”, of the American mass shooters. That is the whiteness of the line drawn around the corpses of African-Americans killed by the police.
Then, there is white fragility. “My daughter is blonde with blue eyes and I’m worried about her safety”, said a mother from Twin Falls, Idaho. She was afraid of Syrian refugees that were supposed to come en masse to Twin Falls but never materialized, since it was “fake news” propagated by conservative outlets. (New York Times magazine, October 1, 2017).
Whiteness as a besieged fortress.
White fear created the monster in the other: the legend of Willie Horton in American politics, the superpredator, the hoodie of Trayvon Martin. James Baldwin asks “Why did the white man need to create a monster?”.
That monster has been created both in the U.S. and in France. French and American whiteness are twin whiteness. In “Playing in the Dark”, Toni Morisson evokes the book “The words to say it” by Marie Cardinale, a white French author who blames her intense anxiety to the loss of French Algeria.
Both French and American whiteness were informed by two traumatic historical experiences, two “crime scenes” : the crime scene of colonization and slavery by France and the crime scene of slavery in the United States.
We have not left those crime scenes. We may still be there, as both descendants of victims and perpetrators. These two crime scenes act as a trauma that informs the interactions between whites and non-whites, making their relationship pathological.
The occurrences of that pathological relationship are innumerable in the United States: police brutality, “black face”, jungle fever, essentialism, cultural appropriation, new Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration.
The occurrences are subtler in France. After all, race doesn’t exist in France.
French Schizophrenia About Race
France is officially colorblind. Every French citizen is placed at equal distance from the law, regardless of their origin, religion, or skin color. From this romantic theoretical basis, France chooses to ignore ethnicity and skin color, since it knows only citizens governed by reason.
This position may be surprising: even if race does not naturally exist as a scientific concept, surely it exists as a social construct. If race exists as a social construct in Britain and the United States, why would it not exist in France? Is it possible to have racial discrimination in France without race?
Despite the impossibility of resorting to ethnic statistics, racial discrimination is well documented in France. Thus, an Arab man is eight times more likely to be detained by the police than a white man, a Black man, six times more. 60 percent of French prison inmates are Muslim, despite representing only 8 percent of the French population. Racist policies are prevalent in France, forming a true French apartheid, but France doesn’t want to see that. By ignoring race, the country is in denial about reality. Several years ago, a draft law suggested amending the French constitution to erase the word “race.”
Magical thinking is at work. In France, principles replace reality. The underlying idea is that what cannot be named does not exist. It is, of course, easier to declare that race does not exist than to eradicate deeply entrenched discrimination. That explains the immense French embarrassment around the subject of race.
In France, the English word “Black” is often used to describe a black person, instead of the French word “Noir.” Using the English term seems to be the only way to neutralize the unbearable racial charge that the French word “Noir” carries. White people are not referred to as white in France, but rather as “French natives”, “natives”, or the derogatory “little white” (petit Blanc), which shares the connotations of “redneck.” The official word for “whiteness” has not yet been agreed upon in France, “blancheur” and “blanchité” being most popularly used.
Despite what it claims, the French Republic is deeply intimate with the concept of race. Race is a part of the country’s DNA because France was a colonial empire for more than 130 years. The French Republic was necessarily built in racial terms.
Therefore, the official definition of the French nation as a “civic community” (Ernest Renan), as opposed to the German model, perceived as an ethnic community, (Johann Herder) is a myth, a magical principle brandished by the French Republic to hide its true nature : an ethnic community of citizens.
Because France is ashamed of this too familiar notion of race, the country has made race a taboo. It has pushed race to the back of its consciousness, hoping that it will cease to exert its effects. But race has continued to radiate, almost like a radioactive component, contaminating mentalities and gazes. France thinks itself as a white country and could not elevate Arabs and Blacks, still viewed through a colonial lens, to the dignity of citizens, even though they are French.
French children of immigrants from the Maghreb and Africa are still considered foreigners. They are viewed as second-class non-citizens and will never be considered “really French.” Only slightly concealed by the veil of the French Republicanism, white supremacy is active in France.
A missing dignity
There seems to be a difference however between descendants of the perpetrators and its victims in France and in the United States. There has been intense disclosure of the crime scene among African-Americans. This constant disclosure helped to forge the “monumental dignity” of the black community that James Baldwin refers to. This monumental dignity has help to expand the human dignity. There was disclosure of the crime scene of French colonization in Algerian literature after independence. There are the beginnings of such a disclosure among French writers of black and Arab origin.
There is very little mainstream disclosure among whites in both countries. That’s why there is always something lurking, always something subliminal, that lies within the state of whiteness. There seems to be a black consciousness and a white unconsciousness.
Whites in France and America seldom talk about whiteness. Talking about whiteness would be like talking about the state of the air. We breathe whiteness without finding it problematic. Few months ago, in the New York Times, its executive director, Dean Baquet, and Jay-Z, both successful African-Americans, were having a conversation about their experiences as black men in America. I cannot imagine two successful white Americans, say, Jimmy Fallon, and Paul Ryan, having the same conversation about being a white man in America. In France, talking about whiteness is even further off, since whiteness doesn’t exist. Whiteness in France pertains to snow or to unicorn, not to race.
White unconsciousness is a powerful force though, that rages beneath the surface of the “racially charged” speech of white politicians. (“These are guys with the name of D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty – these types of guys – they come from Connecticut and New York, they come up here, they sell their heroin, they go back home. Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young white girl “Governor of Maine LePage). This is the subliminal whiteness of Republicans and of Donald Trump. This is the subliminal whiteness of the French far-right and of certain political leaders. In 2009, a video of Manuel Valls – Prime Minister of France from 2014 until 2016 -, filmed him as mayor of Evry, a city outside Paris, walking through a local flea market complaining about black immigrants and commenting, “Now this is a nice picture of Évry. Come on, give me a few whites, a few blancos, a few blancs.”
There is a white silence, a lack of white stories, of white voices on whiteness, a dearth of a serious investigation of whiteness by whites.
What is wrong with us?
Is it possible to invent a white consciousness that is neither the whiteness of white supremacists nor that of the white savior?
Is it possible to harness whiteness not to subjugate others, as it has been done for centuries, but to increase the human dignity as a whole?
In the same time, voices in France and in the United States seem to be predominantly white. Most stories seem to be about white people, written by white people. Storytelling of whiteness is both dormant and pervasive. There is too much whiteness and not enough whiteness (Maboula Soumahoro).
What is missing is a critical whiteness, a “shrunk” and disempowered whiteness, that can accommodate the dignified living and storytelling of other human experiences. Is such a critical whiteness possible though? Has whiteness not be informed by violence and exclusion for too long that such a peaceful, self-conscious and disarmed whiteness could not exist?
The source of the gaze
The West has cast a look upon what was not him through history. One hypothesis: the white gaze is merciless for vulnerability.
Centuries ago, whites left European shores and met the others. They didn’t see the eyes of the other as human. They threw their bodies into the great fire of capitalism. They didn’t see human life where there was human life.
They were not stopped by any display of beauty, by any display of emotion.
British, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, all white. Heartless were my people.
In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn recalled what Columbus wrote in his journal after being greeted by the Arawaks: “They…brought us parrots and balls of cottons and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…(…)They would make fine servants…With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”
The comet of white violence passed through centuries.
Later, blacks were hanged from trees in the southern United States. Dogs, crowds and flames were let loose on them. Dr. Sims conducted research surgery on black women without anesthesia. In pictures from colonial times, the French displayed a shimmering whiteness and stood tall and proud in new-minted African countries with black bodies chained at their feet. White violence got refined and destroyed the European Jews and Gypsies.
Scientific whiteness emerged, scientific engineering of purity. 99 drops of whiteness were not enough. Whiteness as the Russian stacking dolls. Which kind of nightmarish whiteness does the smallest one contain?
White violence should have its museum of horrors.
There should be a memorial for the millions of faces crushed by it, the millions of crushed bodies, the millions of eyes flecked like candles, the millions of their descendants who were not born.
“The blonde brute”
A crime scene within the crime scene
The primary crime scene within the context of slavery in the United States is the hanging of a black man or child (Emmett Till) by a white crowd to crush the sexual threat he was allegedly posing to the purity of the white woman.
It is a scene centered around the white woman, from which the black woman is conspicuously absent. (This absence could mirror the invisibility of the black woman in American society today, including in the cascade of sexual harassment claims brought up against powerful men.) This haunted scene, as the cornerstone of the white patriarchal heterosexual order we are still living in.
The crime scene could explain some American pathological views on sexuality but also the gaze of the white man on the black body. There is no indifference towards sex and / or interracial love in America, especially between a black man and a white woman. The US is a country where love is pathology.
In France, the primary crime scene within the crime scene of colonization was the six month Colonial Exhibition held Paris in 1931. Indigenous bodies, Asian, Black, Arab bodies, coming from every corner of the French empire were locked in cages, as the white French public gawked. There was thus a physical separation between whites and non-whites. Others, non-whites, were locked within their otherness. This is why French blacks and Arabs are not seen as French citizens today. Even when they are French, blacks and Arabs are viewed from the other side of the line of citizenship. “They” are “them” while “we” are “us”.
The “monsterization” of others finds its legacy in the French essentialization of what it is not white. The title of the novel by Zora Neale Hurston “Their eyes were watching at God” was thus translated by the French publisher as “Une femme noire” (a black woman). The French title of “Between the world and me” by Ta-Nehesi Coates is “Une colère noire” (a black anger). The movie “ The Untouchables”, which became the second biggest bow-office in France after its release in 2011, is clearly condescending to Black people.
Another crime scene was the public unveiling by force of Algerian Muslim women in Algeria by French soldiers in 1961. That explains the perennial French malaise around Islam and Islamic veil. A temptation still lies in the French psyche to tear the Islamic veil off the faces of Muslim women. It is not done by the means of violence anymore, but by the means of law. A 2010 law banned the full veil – niqab – in public places. In 2016, a number of French cities banned the burkini. The ban of the regular veil in universities has been floating around too in the political debate. Unlike the United States, the body of the “other woman”, the Muslim woman, is a major issue. According to the Economist and Liberation, the most popular pornographic videos downloaded in France are those involving “beurettes” (French word to design French girl with Arabic background)
Despite being at the top of the food chain, the white man is anxious and angry. His king’s crown is too heavy to carry on his head. He knows it was paid for with the blood of others. ”Our crown has already been bought and paid for. All we have to do is wear it.”(James Baldwin) “Their money bleed black blood” (Ralph Ellison, Invisible man)
The white man lives in fear of the non-white man. He sees him as physically oversized (in the recent biography “The Kardashians”, the author, Jerry Oppenheimer, wrote that Khloe “apparently had a real thing about romancing giant-size African-American hoop stars”) and powerful and prone to exact revenge against him.
In “The Bonfire of Vanities”, Tom Wolfe wrote that a black teenager in the New York subway is “the American nightmare”. Fear of the presence of Arabs and Blacks bathes Michel Houellebecq’s books like amniotic fluid. In his novel Platform, the narrator states: “From the moment whites began to consider blacks as equals, it was clear that they would come sooner or later to consider them as superiors.”
In France, the word “racaille” (scum) is used as a byword to designate youngsters of Black and Arab origin living in the infamous “banlieues” suburbs, in the same way the word “superpredator” was coined by Hillary Clinton.
The white man lives in fear of his “decommissioning” (Trump, Brexit).
Fear of disappearance haunts whiteness in France and in the United States.
Fear of “The big replacement” (le grand remplacement) of white Frenchmen by Arabs and Blacks (Renaud Camus).
Fear of the flooding of the white fortress by a sea of brown and black people in the book, revered by Steve Bannon, “The camp of the saints” by Jean Raspail.
Fear in the14 words of the white supremacists “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children”.
Fear in the cries of white supremacists marching in the University of Charlottesville. “Jews, you will not replace us”.
“In The Great Gatsby, “F. Scott Fitzgerald reflected the way the ideas of Grant and other scientific racists worked their way into mainstream thought. “Have you read ‘The Rise of the Colored Empires’ by this man Goddard?” Tom Buchanan asks, in a thinly masked allusion to Grant. “It’s a fine book, and everybody should read it. The idea is if we do not look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved. ” (Kelly Baker in the New York Times)
“The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive”. (Trump)
Those symptoms might, perhaps, all circle back to sexual anxiety in some white men.
Some white men could harbor a homoerotic desire of the black man, while wanting to crush him in the same time. Robert Mapplethorpe had a well-documented obsession with the penis of black men with no name. Perhaps, Truman Capote’s apocryphal phrase “all American literature is about the presence of the black man in the white woman’s room.” Animalization of the black man by white propaganda has been a resounding success through the centuries. A recent interview with a sex worker exposed how her white powerful clients frequently talk about how obsessed they are with “big” black penises.
In France too. The French essayist Eric Zemmour, condemned by the French courts as racist, praises French Arab and black manhood. “There is a sexual despair among young white men who could not match the virility of young Arabs”, he wrote. Racial and sexual struggles haunt the work of Michel Houellebecq. In his first novel, “Extension du domaine de la lutte” (Whatever in English), the main character, a sexually frustrated white man, called Raphaël Tisserand, saw himself competing with a mixed-race man on a club’s dance floor to get the attention of a presumably white woman. After she chose the other man, he followed the couple outside and watched their sexual intercourse behind a dune. In “The outsider”, by Albert Camus, the Arab with no name is killed because of his implication in an earlier brawl that started with the disrespect of a European white woman by Arabs.
On the other hand, the black man’s sexual interactions with white women are viewed as unbearable challenges to the white man, especially in America. Joe Johnson is his perennial bête noire. White men have harnessed the American criminal justice system to keep controlling black bodies. American criminal justice is another form of lynching of the black man, especially when the victim is a white woman. It is no coincidence that Willie Horton who twice raped a white woman after gagging her fiancé was thrown by Republicans to feed the racial imaginary of white people and destroy the chances of Michael Dukakis.
American institutions are charged with the destruction of the black body (Coates). This was supposed to be the historical duty too of the “blonde brute” (Jack London) or never found “great white hope” in boxing. Prominent blacks could be commissioned too to police and contain the black body. White conservatives were delighted when Obama said to young blacks “Pull up your pants, bro”.
Sexual defilement could be the only way for some white men to cut the Gordian knot of fear and desire for the black and Arab body. Théo Luhaka, a 22-year-old black Frenchman, was raped by white police in the Paris suburbs in 2017. A truncheon was stuck in his rectum. In 1997, a white New York police stuck a broomstick into Abner Louima’s rectum. At the end of the 19th century, in what is now the Republic of Congo, two drunken French colonial officers put a firecracker in the rectum of a young black servant after a diner.
Anxiety could be constitutive of white identity, as pride is the core of a black, brown or Muslim identity. This anxiety might come from the fact that whiteness is viewed as a place of purity besieged by impurity, a “one-drop” always under the threat to be diluted. The fight for whiteness is always defensive, negative. What are the origins of this idea of purity among white Westerners? Why do Westerners see the purity of their white skin as something that needs to mercilessly promoted and protected?
White supremacy/white fragility
Of course, that anxiety is nothing compared to the anxiety felt by minorities in France or in the United states, as victims of racism. Black mothers and babies are more than twice as likely to die than their white counterparts, a gulf that researchers attribute to the lifelong stresses of enduring racism.
In Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, whiteness is associated with danger and death. It is the whiteness of Moby Dick, of the human skull. There is indeed something morbid in whiteness, in the marmoreal whiteness of Hitchcock heroines. There is something morbid in the white American suburbs, vast lethal electric fields that a black child can only cross at its own risk.
There is the specific violence of American mass shooters. Almost all of them are white heterosexual men. It is a white violence, a senseless, literally meaningless violence that claims nothing but itself. The impossibility of labeling this violence shows that it is the most extreme manifestation of white privilege.
This violence comes from the depths of whiteness, from its void. White rage is like road rage. Enigma of that violence mirrors the enigma of whiteness. If the terrorist label to these white serial killers doesn’t seem to stick, it is because there is no political agenda behind that violence. It is a pure disorder. That rage is perhaps the most incandescent point of whiteness, the ugly triumph of its emptiness.
Why this rage does feel close to home?
As a white man, I have been noticing that I expect to be served rapidly.
As a white man, I have been noticing that when things don’t go my way I experience a mild form of rage.
As a white man, I have been noticing that I cannot tolerate rejections.
As white man, I have not learned nor become a better person from my rejections.
“Whites do not have a community,” says Baldwin. If there is no white community, there is no white culture then. There is no white community to lift up, to give back or to protect.
Gentrified New York neighborhoods lose their soul as soon as whites move in. Soullessness creeps in BedStuy, Fort Greene, Harlem and Crown Heights. Music that filled the streets disappears. People do not hang out in the street anymore. Demands for silence and order become pressing.
There is an expression in France to design white people, “petit blanc”, literally “small white” (a French equivalent of redneck), that renders that white anomy. There is this attempt by American and European white supremacists to recreate artificially a white community by giving it symbols (Celtic runes), religion (pagan rites) and some founding myths (Whites as children of sun, as said Richard Spencer).
White malaise keeps growing, the hole of the white malaise that neither OxyContin, rage nor power seem capable to fulfill.
Whites might have a “thin identity” compared to the “thick identity” (or perceived by them as such) of non-whites. Whites seem attracted by identity, by thicker cultures, by rites. Fanon’ sentence “Negroes in the face of whites are, in a way, the assurance of humanity. When whites feel too mechanized, they turn to men of color and ask for some human food”. The number of white mutinies to whiteness is growing.
White culture could be an empty place, but also an iconoclastic one. Whiteness, as the cathedral of capitalism. Whiteness is then the place of commodification and degradation of meaning and human dignity.
According to the French psychoanalyst, Fethi Benslama, the Muslim jihadist, the “supermusulman” (“supermuslim”), as he called him, rebels against the commodification of everything in Western societies, the negation of meaning. In a demented way, he argues, they are fighting for some kind of collective dignity.
African-Americans too are fighting to regain their collective dignity – Kehinde Wiley’s paintings where Blacks are painted like old European generals. African-Americans have been erecting a monumental dignity that whites keep degrading or ignoring. They have been crafting spaces of meaning and dignity that whites keep invading.
There is a white apathy. A performance of ignorance, as said the artist Kenya (Robinson). Otherwise, whites would have put an end to police violence in the United States and in France a long time ago. Whites would have put an end to systemic economic discrimination against non-whites in the United States and in France a long time ago. Whites would have taken the stories of non-whites seriously a long time ago. Whites would have stopped the objectification of the black body and the appopriation of black culture a long time ago. Whites would have policed their imagination (Claudia Rankine) a long time ago. Whites would have cared a long time ago.
It is time to do just that.
It is time to be daily traitor to white supremacy.
It is time to forge a critical whiteness that expands human dignity.