When France won the World Cup with a team predominantly made up of black players, Trevor Noah burst into a charming little song on The Daily Show: “Africa won the World Cup! Africa won the World Cup!” he sang. “I mean, look, I get it: They have to say it’s the French team. But look at those guys. You don’t get that tan by hanging out in the south of France!”
Coming from somebody who was born and raised in Africa, this was an infectious display of joy at Kylian Mbappé, Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kanté, and many of the other Cup-winning players on the French team who have recent roots on the continent. But to many French viewers, it was rather more troubling: After all, the country’s extreme right has long griped about the fact that the national team is not “sufficiently French.” To their mind, Noah seemed to be validating a racist stance they rightly hate: the idea that being black and being French are somehow in tension with each other.
Nicolas Batum, a French shooting guard for the Charlotte Hornets, is one of the people who, even before Noah joined a growing chorus, had slammed celebratory references to the “Africanness” of the French national team for that very reason: “Sorry for my language, but all those who’re saying, ‘Congrats Africa in the World Cup’ go ‘check’ yourself,” he wrote.
Yes my dad and my last name are from Cameroon but I was born, raise[d], educated, taught basketball in France. Proud to be FRENCH. I’m playing for the youth in France who wants to be like us and make the country proud. And I’m proud of that and our 2018 world champ.
Benjamin Mendy, a member of the World Cup–winning team, put it more succinctly:
These athletes soon got the backing of his government. Gérard Araud, the French ambassador to the United States, is a rather unusual diplomat: While most of his colleagues seem to live in great fear of saying something interesting, he is admirably plain-spoken. And while many of them take the imperative of political neutrality so far that they don’t seem to stand for anything at all, he makes no secret of his hatred for far-right nationalism.
When France won the World Cup, Araud shared a New Yorker article celebrating the heritage of many players: “The French team, now the finest in the world’s most popular sport, is entirely dependent for its greatness on immigration, on the extraordinary things that only a cosmopolitan civilization can achieve,” it read. And when the New York Times reported a few days ago that a certain Steve Bannon has decamped to Europe to coordinate the activities of various far-right movements, Araud shared a tweet that attacked Marine Le Pen’s Front National for making common cause with him.
So it is perhaps unsurprising that, when Araud watched a certain comedian echo a sentiment he associates with the far right, he wrote in to put the record straight:
As many players have already stated themselves, their parents may have come from another country but the great majority of them (all but two out of 23) were born in France; they were educated in France; they are French citizens. They are proud of their country, France. The rich and various backgrounds of these players is a reflection of Africa’s diversity.
Unlike the United States of America, France does not refer to its citizens based on their race, religion or origin. To us, there is no hyphenated identity, roots are an individual reality. By calling them an African team, it seems you are denying their Frenchness. This, even in jest, legitimizes the ideology which claims whiteness as the only definition of being French.
Now, there are legitimate criticisms to be made both of Araud’s letter and of his country’s attitude toward how to make a multiethnic society work. As I myself have pointed out in multiple articles over the years, France’s reluctance to acknowledge group identity can lead to the application of “universal” standards that are actually discriminatory. While most French politicians regard the introduction of halal meat in school canteens as an intolerable violation of the separation between church and state, for example, they do not mind that most shops have to close their doors on Sundays—something that they unconvincingly claim has purely historical rather than religious reasons.
But while France hardly has a perfect record in how to make a multiethnic society work, the model we have adopted here in the United States has, as anybody who has been sentient over the past few years should know, not been working flawlessly either. And so it seems to me that, even if we don’t accept them uncritically, we should take the claims of a well-intentioned French diplomat like Araud seriously. (Given the fallibility of human reason, I don’t believe that we should accept anybody’s claims uncritically.) At the very least, his worry that a particular way of talking lends credence to some of the nastiest members of his society should make us look at our own attitudes with a healthy dose of self-skepticism.
Might we ourselves, for example, be slightly confused when we both seek to deny and to celebrate the origin of our fellow citizens? Over the past months, it has quickly been adopted as gospel on parts of the left that it is unacceptable to call anybody who was born in the United States an immigrant, even if done in a celebratory spirit. When Mirai Nagasu, whose parents were born and raised in Japan, won a bronze medal in figure skating at the Winter Olympics earlier this year, for example, New York Times columnist Bari Weiss applauded her with a quote from Hamilton: “Immigrants: They get the job done.” Ishaan Tharoor, a staff writer at the Washington Post, was one of many who criticized her: “She’s not white… so she has to be an ‘immigrant’?”
And yet, Tharoor also dismissed concerns about identifying Mbappé, Pogba, and Kanté as African immigrants out of hand: Responding to Araud’s worry that Noah’s stance implied that “you can’t be French if you are black,” he responded that this “is obviously not what he—nor literally anyone who has said this in a spirit of celebration and solidarity and also light-heartedness in recent weeks—means or intends.”
As for Noah, instead of taking this as an opportunity to reflect on the way in which different ways of thinking through the same hard problem make the same utterance unobjectionable in one context and deeply offensive in another, he never seemed to waver in his moral righteousness. Even as he read out the letter by the French ambassador with a stereotypical French accent, he seemed certain that he himself could never be on the wrong side of such a debate.
A few days later, Noah doubled down on a related topic. Over the past month, Germany has been engulfed in a major debate about Mesut Özil, once the star of the country’s soccer team and a symbol for the successful integration of the country’s Turkish immigrants. There can be no doubt that there was a big share of racism in the glee with which the far right blamed Özil for Germany’s poor performance in the tournament and insinuated that he didn’t try hard enough because of his dual loyalty: “Team spirit isn’t working with Özil … in the German team because whoever only takes part half-heartedly can’t muster the necessary fighting spirit,” a spokesman for the far-right Alternative for Germany, Jörn König, said after the team’s first match.
This is the kind of bigotry Özil, cheered on by Noah, cited when he decided to retire from the German national team on Sunday:
The problem is that, as anybody who has followed the debate in Germany would know, the situation is actually far more complicated than that. For while some of the criticism of Özil has undoubtedly been racist, many others have understandably been flabbergasted by the player’s decision to take a propaganda photo with Turkey’s dictator, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, days before the “election” in the country.
In his statement, Özil waved that photograph away as an apolitical celebration of his Turkish roots: “My mother has never let me lose sight of my ancestry, heritage and family traditions. For me, having a picture with President Erdogan wasn’t about politics or elections, it was about me respecting the highest office of my family’s country.”
But as Murat Kayman, a Turkish German lawyer and activist, responded, this explanation rings rather hollow:
Two hearts are beating in Mesut Özil’s breast. One German and one Turkish. The Turkish heart is so full of respect for the Turkish state and its offices that Özil doesn’t care what actually happens in the name of the state or in the use of these offices. Even if it is injustice, even if it arbitrarily marginalizes, victimizes, and persecutes thousands of Turkish hearts whose membership in the Turkish community is revoked. And yet, Özil, in his Turkish heart, has respect only for the highest offices of the Turkish state—not for the other, broken Turkish hearts.
Toward the end of his video, Noah acknowledged the possibility that the alt-right might use his remarks for their own purposes. “ ‘If Trevor says it, it’s not racist,’ ” he imagines them protesting. “ ‘But if we say it, it’s racist.’ Yeah, yeah. I’ll say yeah. And you know why? Because I believe context is everything. When I say to my friends: ‘What’s going on, my n****r,’ and if a white person said the same thing—yeah, there’s a big difference. When I’m saying they’re African, I’m not saying it as a way to exclude them from their Frenchness but as a way to include them in my Africanness.”
Noah has two important points here: First, we need to be able to acknowledge somebody’s origin and identity without calling in question the degree to which they belong in the society in which they now live. To my mind, Araud’s opposition to hyphenated identities falls short of that standard. But so does Noah’s forcible drafting of players who define themselves as exclusively French into the cause of Africanness: As the ambassador pointed out, there really is something off about suggesting that Mbappé, Pogba, and Kanté can’t constitute the French team because you “don’t get that tan by hanging out in the south of France.”
Second, the degree to which some utterance is objectionable does of course depend on its context. On an American television show, I see little wrong with a black host emphasizing how African the winning World Cup team was; I doubt that many regular viewers of The Daily Show somehow took Noah’s joy as a reason to harden their racist views. But by the same token, I completely understand why Araud felt moved to respond to Noah: Given the nature of the discourse in France, he had good reason to find the insistence that players born and raised in his country were somehow more African than they were French to be deeply offensive.
In that sense, there is a much larger lesson we can learn from the strange contretemps between Araud and Noah. Though advocates like Noah stand at the ready to point to the importance of context in some situations, they are oddly incurious about it in others. Once they have used the context with which they are most familiar in their own societies to draw up a list of do’s and don’ts, they can’t imagine that there might possibly be a reason why others might draw up a different list (or be unaware of the content of theirs).
But this leads to a rigid and punitive approach that perverts a genuine desire to fight injustice to an arbitrary catalogue of prohibitions. It raises the danger of a world in which people are slammed for calling Nagasu an immigrant whether they are celebrating her achievement or denigrating her, one in which a grandma who uses a term that was in common currency in her youth but is now thought to be offensive is judged as harshly as an alt-right provocateur, and one in which people, like Araud and Noah, who share a righteous hatred of racists end up in a fruitless public spat—all because they can’t see that they share the same shortcoming.