Togolese representation of a white man (source)
In a previous post, I wrote that the recently published book De quelle couleur sont les Blancs ? was originally supposed to provide a new perspective on French race relations. How do the Français de souche perceive, imagine, and experience their increasingly multiracial society? What does it mean to be White in France? The “invisible majority” would thus be brought into the dialogue of race relations and given its own voice.
In this, the book has failed. From beginning to end, the Français de souche are objects, and not subjects. They are commented on, but never allowed to comment. They are analyzed at length, but given no chance to challenge this analysis. Yet one cannot hope to understand ethnic relations unless one hears both sides. This one-sidedness appears in a chapter where a man with Algerian parents recounts his childhood in Toulouse:
In the neighborhood, we had a chum who was blond with blue eyes. He was the son of a working man, of a modest background, like us, but he seemed perfect to us: beautiful, blond, white. We were subordinate to him. Until the moment when someone from our gang came and confronted him. When the blond got his first punch in the mouth, he was demystified. (Cherfi, 2013, p. 61)
It would be interesting to know how their blond “chum” perceived this demystification. North African boys like to act collectively, and such collective action takes precedence over individual ties of friendship. For French boys, individual action is the norm. No white gang comes to the blond’s defense. This is a recurring pattern, as in a case that Frantz Fanon took on as a clinical psychiatrist during the Algerian War:
Case no. 1 – Murder by two young Algerians 13 and 14 years old of their European playmate.
– We weren’t angry with him. Every Thursday we would go hunting together with slingshots, on the hill above the village. He was our good buddy. He no longer went to school because he wanted to become a mason like his father. One day we decided to kill him because the Europeans wanted to kill all the Arabs. We can’t kill the “grownups.” But him, as he was our age, we can. We didn’t know how to kill him. We wanted to throw him into a ditch, but he might have been only injured. So we took a knife from home and we killed him.
– But why did you choose him?
– Because he played with us. No other person would’ve gone up with us, up there.
– Yet he was your buddy?
– What about them wanting to kill us? His father is a militiaman, and he says we should have our throats cut.
– But he [the boy] had said nothing to you?
– Him? No.
– You know he’s dead now?
– What is death?
– It’s when it’s all over. We go to heaven.
– Did you kill him?
– Does that do anything to you to have killed someone?
– No, since they wanted to kill us, so …
– Does that bother you to be in prison?
– No. (Fanon, 1970, p. 195)
Over the past millennium, Western Europeans have created a social environment where the individual is largely free from collective ties of kinship and ethnicity. Because the State has imposed a monopoly on the use of violence, there is less need to rely on kinsmen to safeguard one’s life and property. That’s what the government is for. In many other societies, however, the State is much more recent and often foreign. Collective identity still matters most and, when the chips are down, personal ties of friendship matter little. Your real friends are your “blood.” In any case, real friendship isn’t just about sharing your recreational activities. It’s also about risking your life for someone else.
Collective identity likewise trumps the pursuit of truth. Only when the individual is freed from the collectivity does truth apply equally to everyone, whether friend or foe. Only then does true science become feasible. Did the boy’s father really say that all Arabs should have their throats cut?(1) Does that make sense at a time when the French militias relied so heavily on Arab auxiliaries?
European individualism comes up in another chapter of De quelle couleur sont les Blancs ?, where Mineke Schipper reviews African oral and written literature:
Impatience, love of money, individualism, all of these traits define Westerners for Africans: “The Whites don’t stop running, they want to stay ahead of us. We take our time. […] One day, surely, they will stop. After all, one cannot endlessly run for centuries. They will understand that two or three weeks of vacation are not enough for the kind of life they lead.”
[…] According to Matip, African solidarity is under threat of giving way to the European every-man-for-himself. In African novels, this counter-discourse is seen in remarks like “the White man has no friends” or “we aren’t Whites who couldn’t care less about the misfortunes of others.” (Schipper, 2013, pp. 100-101)
Yet individualism also seems to be part of the White man’s secret of success. In African literature, the desire to know this secret is a recurring theme, along with a feeling that Christianity is a false secret, an attempt to keep the real one hidden:
Their conversion was motivated by the promise of recompense: the Whites were stronger and the secret of the White man’s strength could only be his religion. One evening, while Father Dumont observed that the Africans, who until then had been converting in great numbers, were now abandoning the faith, his cook Zacharia explained to him: “The first of us who came rushing to religion, they came as they would to a revelation… The revelation of your secret, the secret of your strength, the strength of your planes, new railways, how can I put it … The secret of your mystery! Instead of that, you began talking to them about God, about the soul, about eternal life, and so on. Don’t you think they already knew all of that before, long before you came? Gracious me, they got the impression you were hiding something from them.” (Schipper, 2013, p. 105)
Africans have some awareness that the White man’s strengths are related to his weaknesses. Because the White man has no friends, he doesn’t have to share his wealth with them. He can invest it as he sees fit. But how can one live without friends? In Africa, you need friends to defend you and fight for you. Otherwise you’ll still have to share your wealth … but with a lot of thieving non-friends.
Christianity, too, is part of the White man’s secret—not the Christianity of the 1st century but the one that developed during the Middle Ages, the one that supported the State in its effort to punish the wicked so that the good may live and prosper in peace … in short, by executing violence-prone individuals on a large scale (see previous post). Only then did it become possible to create a high-trust society where people could better themselves through work and trade … and not through theft and plunder. But this too is both a strength and a weakness. A pacified society is dependent on a State that may, one day, refuse to do its job.
1. According to the older boy’s testimony, this threat was not heard directly from the victim’s father or from anyone within the French community: “In our community (chez nous), people said that the French had sworn to kill all of us one after another” (Fanon, 1970, p. 196).
Cherfi, M. (2013). “Quand je suis devenu blanc…” in S. Laurent and T. Leclère (eds.) De quelle couleur sont les Blancs ? Des « petits Blancs » des colonies au « racisme anti-Blancs » (pp. 58-64), Paris: La Découverte, 298 p.
Fanon, F. (1970). Les damnés de la terre, Paris: Maspero.
Schipper, M. (2013). « Le Blanc n’a pas d’amis. » L’Autre européen dans les littératures africaines orales et écrites, in S. Laurent and T. Leclère (eds.) De quelle couleur sont les Blancs ? Des « petits Blancs » des colonies au « racisme anti-Blancs » (pp. 98-109), Paris: La Découverte, 298 p.