Last week, the French parliament was in an uproar. During a regular session, deputy Carlos Martens Bilongo was questioning the government about a ship carrying hundreds of migrants rescued from the Mediterranean still stranded at sea, when he was interrupted by Gregoire de Fournas, a member of the far-right anti-immigration National. Meeting. “You should go back to Africa,” de Fournas yelled at Bilongo.
Reactions of outrage from across the political spectrum followed, as many thought the comment was directed at Bilongo himself, who is black, since the pronouns “he” and “they” are pronounced the same way in French.
De Fournas received a 15-day suspension and pay cut despite his protests that he was referring to the people on the ship and not Bilongo himself.
It’s easy to write off de Fournas as just another ignorant racist on the French far right. And he can be one too. However, he and the liberal politicians who defend Bilongo, and even Bilongo himself, may have more in common than they would like to admit. Pronouns weren’t the only thing in danger of being confused.
Apparently “African” and “black” got mixed up too. Clearly who De Fournas was referring to there would have been no question had Bilongo not been Black. And it didn’t seem to occur to anyone that the desperate immigrants trying to reach Europe could be anything other than African. However, the tropes that all and only blacks are African, and that Africans make up the majority of people who migrate to Europe, are easily debunked.
The episode also brought to mind a confrontation between South African comedian and American late-night talk show host Trevor Noah and France’s ambassador to the United States, Gerard Araud, four years ago.
Commenting on France’s World Cup win in Russia and the fact that 12 of the 23 French players were black, Noah joked, “Africa won the World Cup!” That infuriated Araud, who saw Noah’s joke as an attempt to deny the French character of the players in the same way that Bilongo’s colleagues today understand what he said of Fournas.
Now like Noah later explained, context is everything. His use of the word “Africans” to describe the French players would not be understood as a denial of his Francoism in the same way that a racist French politician might use “Africans” to do exactly that. But he went even further in criticizing the idea that French and African are mutually exclusive. One might ask, if one can be European and French, why not African and French?
By implicitly accepting Fournas’ identity premise as singular and exclusive (that the French cannot be African), liberals inside and outside the French parliament are unwittingly perpetuating an idea of Frenchness steeped in colonial attitudes of assimilation as an “act of of civilization”. They also seem to embrace the imperial perception that people on the African continent possess rigid, all-encompassing identities.
The world shaped by colonialism on both sides of the Mediterranean and beyond has come to be defined by the strict European logic of “us against them”. The French idea of assimilation sought to make Africans one-dimensional French, stripped of their alternative histories and the ideas and concepts of identity held by their ancestors.
But other colonial empires were just as obsessed with regulating and standardizing identity. As the late Professor Terence Ranger wrote in an article marking the tenth anniversary of his influential book “The Invention of Tradition”: “Before colonialism, Africa was characterized by pluralism, flexibility, multiple identity; after that, African identities of ‘tribe’, gender and generation were limited by the rigidities of invented tradition”.
The imperial boomerang effect has seen the techniques used to control populations in the colonies find their way back home. Identity has become a raging concern for both the left and the right in Europe, fueled by rising immigration. Rigid ideas about what it means to be French, English, or American, etc., are at the root of common complaints throughout the Western world about the inability of immigrants to integrate, adopt local norms, and learn local languages.
It’s ironic that all the furore in the French parliament is literally a lot of ado about nothing. It is well established in science that all members of the species homo sapiens are descendants of Africans and, rather than being encoded in genes, race, nationality, and, as we have seen, tribe, are social and political inventions. Even Africanness, and its current association with blackness codified in the analytically spurious term “Sub-Saharan Africa” or in a less politically correct “Black Africa”, is a colonial invention.
Instead of accepting imperialism’s basis for exclusive identities and the restricted versions of humanity they represent, we must dismantle them. “Today I was sent back to my skin color. I was born in France. I am a French deputy,” Bilongo protested.
What he meant was that the color of his skin was being used to deny his French status and that it didn’t have to be that way. But just as there are many ways to be French, there are many ways to be a human being. And that includes the possibility of being both African and French.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.
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