Virginie Despentes and Michel Houellebecq are not really two French writers whose names go hand in hand. In fact, it’s highly likely that the former despises the latter for his unapologetic brand of chauvinism and the latter despises the former for her “feminist bullshit.” And yet, her recent statement on the problem of racism in an open letter called “Lettre adressée à mes amis blancs qui ne voient pas où est le problème…” has echoes of Houellebecq’s venomous comments on coronavirus before that narrative got toppled by the conversation of racism as summer dawned on us (though, one imagines, corona will soon be a major concern yet again by the season’s end).
While Europe is frequently left out of the conversation in Americans’ minds with regard to police brutality and the similar problems it bears, particularly in the banlieues of Paris, the fact that the George Floyd protests have even spread to a country like Italy, where Italians are known for being casually racist in just about every dialogue, is telling that this revolution has struck a chord everywhere. Because, in case you didn’t know, black people live everywhere (even Berlin, much to Hitler’s dismay–even China, for that matter, where a discriminatory incident at McDonald’s caused outrage earlier this year). And though, to the remaining sane Americans, Europe might seem like a promised land in comparison to the cesspool that is the United States, the continent is not without its own need of addressing a past rooted in the economic gains of slavery. And how such treatment mutated in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries into black people being targeted and harassed by police.
Despentes’ mention of Adama Traoré, who died in the summer of 2016 while in police custody, will not stoke any old wounds, for these traumas have never gone away long enough to be flared up anew. And, yes, the French have protested many times before the reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement, finding plenty of fault within the infrastructure of their own gendarmerie and Police Nationale. Of the tireless commitment to fighting against the “it is what it is” treatment of black and Arab French residents, Despentes bills Traoré’s justice-seeking sister, Assa, as Antigone, only this time, “Antigone does not allow herself to be buried alive after having dared to say no. Antigone is no longer alone. She raised an army.” For those who don’t remember, the story of Antigone centers on the eponymous heroine seeking, at the very least, a dignified burial for her brother, Polynices, after going to war with Eteocles (their other sibling–because yeah, it’s Greek shit).
Using anaphora in the style of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, Despentes goads her government and all those who would deign to deny the existence of white privilege as she rails, “In France we are not racists, but I do not remember having ever seen a black prime minister. Yet I’m fifty years old, and I have seen plenty of governments. In France we are not racists, but in the prison population blacks and Arabs are over-represented. In France we are not racists, but for the past twenty-five years that I have been publishing books I have answered the questions of a black journalist only once. I was photographed only once by a woman of Algerian origin. In France we are not racists, but the last time that they refused to serve me on a restaurant terrace, I was with an Arab. The last time I was asked for my papers, I was with an Arab. The last time the person I was waiting for almost missed the train, it was because he was stopped by the police at the station; he was black. In France we are not racists, but during the confinement the mothers who we saw being tasered on the ground for not having the little paper that allowed us to go out were women of color, in popular neighborhoods. The white women, meanwhile, were seen jogging or at the market in the seventh arrondissement. In France we are not racists, but when we announced that the death rate in Seine-Saint-Denis was sixty times higher than the national average, not only did we not give a damn but we said amongst ourselves, “It’s because they aren’t self-isolating carefully.” It is in Seine-Saint-Denis that there are the fewest doctors per inhabitant of the whole territory. They took the RER every day to maintain the essential work for our common life. In the Center, it was a “garden party” every day, by stroller, by bicycle, by car, on foot…only scooters were missing. But we had to comment: “It’s because they aren’t self-isolating carefully.”
Despentes’ indignation over the way in which France seeks to ignore its own issues with racism solely because the predominant population is white (particularly outside of Paris) is a relatively new battle in Europe. Mainly because Europeans have not had to grapple with the contentions involved in race disparity as a result of how long it has housed primarily Caucasian populations. When the refugees and migrants began to pour in more frequently starting in the mid-twentieth century is arguably when Europe’s modern issues with racism began (though let us not forget that the French Revolution and all it stood for was completely negated by Napoleon deciding to reinstate slavery in certain French overseas territories). Of course, the old origins remain steeped in colonialism. And perhaps France’s neighbor, Italy, hasn’t yet had to endure as much of a reckoning with the stench of racism throughout its land as a result of coming late to the colonizing game (acquiring what many other European countries viewed as the “lesser” African territories such as Libya, imprisoning many in concentration camps and bombing cities under Mussolini’s fascist regime).
Then, of course, there is Paris’ troubled history with Islamic terrorism, most recently the attacks at Charlie Hebdo, Porte de Vincennes and the Bataclan theatre–all in 2015. It has undeniably begat further racism from that specific sense of mistrust. That sense of effortless racial profiling that makes it easier for one group of people to say to another: you’re all the same. Capable of the same. The knee-jerk bristling that comes with that fear of someone bearing the same ethnic background–Arab–being just as prone to terrorism or other nefarious acts has manifested in increasingly insidious ways–including the police’s liberties with how they treat “criminals.”
So yes, it is expressly to the French that Despentes is not so roundaboutly asking anyone who is white to consider what that has actually meant for their advantages in life, as so many are content to shop blithely at the Bon Marché or delight in an apéro on an aforementioned terrace without ever considering how powerful that has been–just to have been born into the circumstances of having the “right” skin tone, therefore never having to look behind one’s back in paranoia. Despentes concludes, “I was born white as others were born men. The problem is not to be able to declare, ‘But I have never killed anyone,’ the same way one says, ‘But I am not a rapist.’ Because privilege is having the choice to think about it, or not. I cannot forget that I am a woman. But I can forget that I am white. That is what it is to be white. To think about it, or not think about it, depending on the mood. In France we are not racists, but I do not know a single black or Arab person who has this choice.” The French haven’t taken too kindly to the letter.