How being from a French-speaking minority helped me understand the fear behind white identity politics
I don’t think anyone likes to be called a racist. Not that I wasn’t tempted to, or that I haven’t. Calling someone a racist is probably the worst way of convincing to embrace diversity or to be more open-minded. Please stick with me.
I have reported on immigration for several years, so I’ve received hate mails on several occasions. After a while, I had to admit that I didn’t know how to talk to people with very different views. I didn’t understand them enough. I started wondering more and more about how I could get to the core of what contributes to perpetuating unequal structures and white privilege. If I was to lift layer after layer the discourse and attitudes, what would I find? Now that I’ve been in the American South for a while, I have found some keys, not to justify the fear, but to understand it better.
This past October, I went to a panel about immigration and nationalism at Duke University. The moderator was making great effort to keep it civil, if not overly tame, amid a tense political climate.
There was an abyssal gap in stakes for one panelist compared to the other. One was an undocumented immigrant who could be deported tomorrow morning to the Philippines, a country where he’s lived only the first 12 years of his life. The other panelist was born American and explored what Irish identity he had by way of his parents. I was touched by the little details he shared in his introduction. The birth of his first child triggered a more profound quest for identity. What lullabies would he sing to his son, to pass on his Irish heritage, he wondered. He felt that his character could be lost.
As a Quebecer, I can relate to this to some degree: part of me wants to preserve my French-speaking and distinct cultural identity in Canada. But the Irish-American panelist used his story to express his fear of a demographic shift: high levels of immigration that would break the United States apart, turning the white majority into a minority and Spanish replacing English as the dominant language.
I was genuinely trying to understand his position, but I kept understanding one thing: that this shift was being used as a bogeyman constructed by reactionaries.
“You might not like it, but about half of the population is afraid of this change, so we have to listen,” he said.
So, I tried to listen. Still, there was an unspoken emotion underlying all his arguments: the fear of losing whiteness. It seemed to me that he was tying his heritage to the color of his skin.
On the other side, I was sensitive to his argument about maintaining this aspect of his identity. The fear of becoming a minority in a place you call home. I thought: OK, he might not be an outright racist, but he still contributes to the perpetuation of racism. Holding onto English, as if speaking Spanish would be awful.
“You should understand, as a Québécois,” he said when I approached him after the panel. He loved Quebec, and had, in fact, studied how my province managed to build a strong, distinct identity and “protect” French — with laws and a lot of stubbornness.
What a strange bedfellow, I thought. For me, maintaining a strong identity never meant keeping our culture and skin white. But the fact that he perceived the Quebecer identity as similar to his, and with a similar taste for whiteness opened my eyes a little wider. It made me realize even more the existing tension between the desire to maintain one’s culture, and an openness to others. Is the idea of preservation simply flawed?
I personally had always chosen French over English, also sort-of sticking to my “tribe.”
I’m from Quebec, and I’ve been told all my life that we don’t want to belong to Canada fully. There were two referendums (1980 and 1995) for independence, both resulting in us sticking to the federation.
I find it painful to have to explain what a Quebecoise is in two sentences — the average attention span of my classmates in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. We are a conquered people who resisted 200 years of attempts at assimilation by a majority and stood up for our rights while being despised by English-speaking Canada. Or maybe we were just really isolated for a long time, and it was easier to stay that way in a world with much less connection than today.
We wanted to be the entrepreneurs, the doctors, the professors and the politicians. And today we are. We’re about 8 million people holding more of less firmly onto this identity, speaking our version of French in a sea of English-speakers, on a sort of island in North America. To Americans, we must be something like Cajuns on steroids, with a strong economy, powered by greener electricity, a hub for artificial intelligence, distinctive social programs and a flamboyant cultural powerhouse. And we export not only Céline Dion (but more on her later).
I’m in North Carolina to get a master’s degree. I feel both attraction and repulsion toward the U.S., my southern neighbor, a country that has always irritated and fascinated me at once.
This alienation from the familiar is at its peak every time I realize many Americans don’t know what Quebec is. “Where are you from? Do you speak French because your parents are French?” I was repeatedly asked.
“Were you really born in Canada?” I’m not sure if it’s because it’s too hard to believe that we’re still up there, in the triangle shape on the map, the province of Quebec. Or if it’s just because I look different from what they expect a Canadian to look like. Do people think it’s dumb to hold on to French when you have America right at your door?
“You grew up bilingual.” This is usually not a question, but a sympathetic recognition of the supposed bilingualism of Canada. Actually, I didn’t grow up bilingual and most Quebecers don’t (not to mention English-Canadians who are as unilingual as Americans). I grew up in a small village where my first years of English as a second-language were tape recordings. My primary school teachers didn’t speak the language more than “yes, no, toaster.”
Most of the 70 students in the primary school of Saint-Vallier had their grandparents and great-grandparents established there. They lived on farms on numbered country roads (#1,#2,#3) that were sometimes also named informally after their last name. At least three of my classmates in the second grade had the smell of cow barns infused in their clothing. Our babysitter’s son demanded that he visit his granddaddy’s horses every night.
We were the foreigners, my parents having both moved from the Montreal region. My dad was a hippie back-to-the-land-er who bought a farm without any equipment and then sold it a few years later. He bought an orchard and a maple grove, which he then also sold to set up a bakery with my mom. The bakery grew into a specialty grocery store, with artisan cheese, prosciutto, pâté, mousse, elaborate salads, curries, Chinese sauces, Lebanese delicacies — and all these products with very poor translations. My dad has been called Pedro, instead of Pierre, for almost 50 years. No one really quite know why. The employees in the store didn’t know him by any other name, so when his mother, granny Georgette, called asking for Pierre, she was turned down more than once.
So I spent my childhood surrounded by fancy food in a tiny village. Supplying the family business also involved waiting for my parents in warehouses in Montreal, with people and products from everywhere in the world. Sometimes we brought back lychees from those trips; my classmates, who had never seen such a fruit, invented a game where the punishment was to bite on the strange fruit.
We never suffered like immigrants, but we were othered. And we also considered ourselves different, somehow maybe better than other villagers because we thought knew more of the outside world, and everything else: the food we ate, the books we read, the paintings on our walls, the jazz and Brazilian music we listened to, the newspaper in the morning. (But not because of the last name Champagne. It’s not fancy at all and pretty common in Quebec. It comes from the fact that French immigrants in the 16th and 17th centuries were registered with their region of origin as the last name.)
Assimilation is a bad word these days. Rightly so when it is forced upon people by colonization, like the last nail in the coffin of lost cultures and languages. I get nostalgic about this. I’ve been taught that if a culture dies, it’s a whole vision of the world that we lose. It’s probably not something all Americans think about every day, and yet, the fear of disappearing lives somewhere inside of them.
Assimilation can also be something people choose or don’t choose if they live or migrate to a different majority culture. I never wanted to assimilate into English, even though I am now trying to gain better mastery. So why was I so puzzled that the panelist wanted to pass on his whiteness? I remember him saying he wasn’t ready to “forfeit posterity.” This expression did pinch something inside of me. Not only because I’m at the age when having babies becomes a real consideration, if not a pressing one. I want my children to speak French. If I visualize them, they probably even have my Quebecois accent. My sister moved to Belgium about five years ago. After she gave birth to her first son, it took me almost a year to realize my nephew would speak Belgian French. Not that I don’t like it. I just had a little feeling of loss when that fact finally clicked.
I feel that pinch too when I think about Cajuns in Louisiana, a state where one of my professors is from. I told him: “It’s like looking at our own ghost.”
I’d like the next generation in Quebec to speak French; my panelist wants it to be white. Are we the same? A language is not the color of the skin, and it might not have the same historical connotation to justify violent subjugation. But what about if my identity is used to exclude other people.
I think that’s why I was deeply puzzled by my panelist with his nice suit and nice words. And whiteness. My instinct was to be objective and not to jump into my distrust. Was he just trying to say that people have developed an identity as white? Or was he just being a “nice” racist?
As you can read, I was struggling to remain an observer, when my anti-racism voice was fighting inside of my brain. Most racists are probably not marching in the streets carrying guns and confederate flags, shouting the n-word. There are not as vocal David Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, who repeatedly said he was just “pro-white.” But people who will not go out and burn crosses might still hear that appeal to deep sentiments to make “white values” mainstream.
They might not express it out loud, but agree that we should “make America great again.” They might not even realize how similar to “making America white again,” this slogan is, as the KKK was saying in the 1950s. I’m not excusing them, just trying to see under their tie.
In the 2019 Canadian federal election, the party Bloc Québécois used “Quebec is us” as a slogan. The party advocates for Quebec’s independence in the federal parliament in Ottawa. After being in disarray for several years, it won 32 seats in that last election. I can’t help to wonder if Quebec is us, then who is it not?
The problem is also that this “they’re not going to replace us,” is also what the white supremacists were chanting in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11th, 2017 at the Unite the Right rally. The day after, during a protest, James Alex Fields, a self-identified white supremacist, deliberately rammed his car into the crowd, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 20 other people.
Again, it doesn’t mean that everyone with this fear will go down with torches on the street, but it might be a sign that milder versions of these thoughts contribute to reproducing racial discrimination.
Everywhere I look in the world, there are identities hardening, being weaponized and played against each other: Hindu dominance in India, far-right parties in Europe, a culture war in Brazil. Quebec just passed a secularism law, which bans public sector workers in positions of authority (teachers, judges, police officers) to wear religious symbols. A law seemingly neutral in its writing, which will overwhelmingly affect Muslim women wearing headscarves.
And here in North Carolina, and elsewhere in the United States, there is white nationalism. One weekend in September, I went down to Wilmington. I wanted to see the proliferation of Confederate monuments for myself, and the only place in the U.S. where a coup d’état against Black Americans had success. Driving from Chapel Hill, I began smelling the pine trees about 60 miles away from the seashore.
Upon arriving, I met up with a man who gives tours of the Confederate monuments. Some people would call him a revisionist, a defender of “the lost cause” of the South. I don’t know how to call him and because he is probably not someone I would agree with, I felt conflicted about meeting him.
But I still genuinely wanted to hear this confederate perspective. I wanted to understand the mechanics of it. The guy was surprisingly trustful even though I was from Quebec, one of the most leftist places in North America. He didn’t like the media and was roaring against “fake news” about five minutes into the discussion. I felt out of place, and he looked totally at ease. Then he roared about all “the Yankees” moving south for retirement and buying the nice houses of Wilmington.
What’s more, he seemed to have sympathy for the separatist movement in Quebec, asking me: “What do you call it again?” I began enumerating all the words that had been and were still used: independentist, sovereigntist… When he heard the word secession, it was like I’d confirmed something important. Us too: claiming a different identity, wanting to be apart from the “Union,” the big country. Us too: the rest of Canada pointing the finger, calling us racists. Us too: wanting to have more power to make our own laws, even when it meant forbidding women wearing a veil from being teachers, judges or police officers. I did not recognize myself in his “us.” Another strange bedfellow.
What I did recognize was the “threat” mindset: the impulse to “protect” people from an incursion of other cultures. Which brings me back to Celine Dion.
Céline Dion is a traitor. Or so some people in Quebec would say.
When the best singer in the world moved from Quebec to Nevada to have a permanent show on the strip in Las Vegas, some Québécois felt abandoned. She was giving up on us, on 400 years of resistance to preserve French, for ambition and money.
I am not Céline Dion. But in Quebec, it’s never taken lightly to choose English. When I decided to come to study in the U.S., some colleagues made me feel I was giving up. French was a gift, preserved for all these years, and I was blowing it off.
“It’s like we’re not enough for you,” one colleague told me. My choice to move to the U.S. was a form of betrayal in his eyes. And I struggle with it myself. Was it worth it? Why did I think I need English? Why couldn’t my choice just be a choice and not representative of an entire people conceding defeat?
This is what the Irish-American panelist and Confederate monuments guide knew. Québécois have a minority mindset: our identity is constantly under threat to be drowned by the majority. So, unless we defend it and protect it from “outsiders,” the assaults will defeat it.
But this narrative sets identity as eternal rather than dynamic, absolute rather than personal. As if you could pick one identity and put it under glass in a museum. It might be a comforting thought for some in the face of change, but our cultures and identities have always been shaped and reshaped. This is especially true for Québécois and Americans, whose national and cultural identities have been in existence for only a few centuries.
It’s harder for me to understand why members of a majority group, white Americans, would feel threatened by a demographic shift that is far from being finite. My panelist can rest easy; his children won’t be forced to speak Spanish.
Under it all, I guess there is one thing we all know: fear. Humans are afraid they will disappear. We see the end of our own life, so we reproduce, trying to extend individual existence beyond ourselves, and our deaths, longing for immortality. It might not be through children, but in the extended family, in the tribe, a shared culture. I feel I am getting closer to understanding that impulse, that fear. And I’d rather not trust that instinct too much.