Why Americans See Racism Where The French See No Problem
In some ways the United States and France are unusually similar nations—still enchanted with their 18th century revolutions, eager to export their ideals (via pamphlets, speeches, language schools, paratroopers, whatever it takes) so that others may live as they do. Maybe this similarity is why Franco-American incomprehension can seem so profound. Each side seems to think: How could they not get it? It should be obvious! In the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, the French were appalled by the “perp walk” (that man wasn’t convicted of anything, why shame him?) while Americans couldn’t believe that French media casually named DSK’s accuser (she didn’t do anything wrong, why shame her?). And now, as Thomas Sotinel explained recently in Le Monde, there’s a new example: Divergent reactions to the hit film Les Intouchables.
The movie is about a rich man who is paralyzed in an accident and hires an ex-con from the ‘hood as his all-purpose live-in assistant. The fish-out-water pair become friends and Mr. Rich Guy gets his mojo back thanks to the other man’s down-to-earth love of life. Poor guy learns to appreciate nice things and classical music. Rich guy learns to enjoy Earth Wind and Fire. The rich man is white, the poor guy is black.
French viewers loved it. American critics saw the servant part as a classic Magic Negro. David Denby, in The New Yorker, for example, complained that the movie is “disastrously condescending: the black man, who’s crude, sexy, and a great dancer, liberates the frozen white man. The film is an embarrassment.” Similarly Jay Weissberg in Varietywrote that Driss, the ex-con, “is treated as nothing but a performing monkey (with all the racist associations of such a term), teaching the stuck-up white folk how to get ‘down’ by replacing Vivaldi with ‘Boogie Wonderland’ and showing off his moves on the dance floor.”
The French reaction to this reaction, as described by Sotinel, must strike Americans as pretty funny. It amounts to this: Oh, yeah, that one guy is black. Leave it to you race-obsessed Americans to pick that up; we hadn’t noticed. We didn’t really notice that. (Negative French reviews of the film complained that it was hokey, Sotinel writes, but none mentioned skin color.)
To Americans, this is a willful refusal to admit the obvious, something we consider a Gallic specialty (France cannot say precisely how many Muslims live within its borders because the government is barred by law from breaking down the population by race or religion in its statistics.) To the French, the Stateside reaction is American sanctimoniousness at its worst. We’re the nation that produced, oh, Beverly Hills Cop, after all. And we invented the Magic Negro. Who are we to talk?
What explains this mutual duh (or beauf)? In a word, I think, it’s immigration, and the cultures that have evolved in response.
Both countries are nations of immigrants, but their approaches to newcomers could not be more different. Come to France, and you’re welcomed to the table—if you’re willing to speak French, eat French food, and see the world as French people do. (In the last French presidential debate, both candidates fell over each other to assure their people that there would be no halal meat offered in French school cafeterias—a bizarre note to my ear here in New York, where parking rules are suspended for Succoth, Idul-Adha, Good Friday and Diwali, and no one frets.) Assimilation in France is hierarchical, in the sense proposed by Harvard’s Jim Sidanius: Success is measured by how close people come to the summit, which is perfect Frenchness.
In the United States, though, assimilation is what Sidanius would call authoritarian. It’s not about a standard of culture or conduct or speech. It’s just a contract. There are rules, and you’re welcome if you adhere to them. What language you speak, what God you worship, aren’t relevant. That approach makes for less community but more openness of mind. Put it this way: If someone is acting in a way that is far from a French person’s idea of what is French, then said person is most definitely not French. If someone is acting in a way that is far from my idea of what is American, well, hey, you never know. The guy could still be as American as I am, in the eyes of the law and my fellow citizens.
In both nations, then, millions of people feel that it is wrong to be racist, and they make an effort not to appear so (an exquisite sensitivity to the dangers of appearing racist appears to kick in at about age 8 or 9, according to this research). However, the American version of anti-racism includes an obligation to consider how things look to the Other. After all, his view could be just as American as yours. Beverly Hills Cop, after all, made fun of all its characters, not just Eddie Murphy’s.
So, you know a joke that makes fun of people of a certain race that isn’t yours? In the U.S. you show you are enlightened by not telling it, because you know what seems funny to you could offend someone of a different background. The French version of anti-racism goes the other way: You show you are enlightened by telling the joke, because we’re all equally French. We have the same background, so if I’m not offended, how could you be?
In our cautious urge to let all differences have room to breathe, American art and culture can strike the French as flighty and childlike (the way Californians look to the rest of us Americans). In their urge to erase difference, though, the French can look, to us, condescending and close-minded. Sometimes I think the French want to say to Americans, “just because it’s strange and new doesn’t mean it’s great.” And Americans want to say to the French, “Could you just appreciate that for what it is, instead of having to make it French?”
Hence our mutual incomprehension about this movie. The French think we’re obsessed with race; we Americans think we’re just being polite. The French think the film is a buddy comedy; we think it displays a condescension that they don’t see. So near, and yet so far.
Illustration: François Cluzet and Omar Sy in The Intouchables