On The French, Trevor Noah, and Hyphenated Identity

Yesterday, I saw a lot of friends sharing the statement from the French ambassador to Trevor Noah’s joke about the African-ness of the French World Cup-winning squad, figured I’d share the response (and mine). While I saw the French statement mostly as an opportunity for the Macron government to score easy points razzing a country whose President went to Europe and repeated white supremacist talking points, some of my friends seemed to take the French position at face value, decrying hyphenated identity as a positive thing.

Here’s Trevor Noah’s response:

What do y’all think about Noah’s point that duality and the acknowledgement and integration of separate identities is a good thing? And separately, how do you all respond to the fact that despite the French statement’s hilariously stereotypical nose-thumbing, France also has a long history of using non-whiteness as a tool of social control and enforced stratification?
Broadly, I don’t think insisting on unitary national identity is accurate as a matter of human psychology or useful as a political – it is a problem, of course, is when such divisions become a priori rationales to further divide us from one another, but papering over the complexities of how history and law and power have made us who we are by taking the Chief Justice Roberts “Parents Involved” approach (and simply refusing to talk about race) is a superficial solution that doesn’t solve anything. It’s like electing a black president and thinking we solved racism forever.

Being afraid that hyphenated identity is more a force for division than unity misunderstands both the intent of the ones asserting that identity, as well as the status quo. In a nation where racism and xenophobia continue to perpetrate systems of disproportionate violence and denial of opportunity against minorities, hyphenated American identity has been a tool for Footnote Four minority groups not to reduce or qualify their American-ness, but to insist on the fullness of it. It’s an argument for a bigger definition of what being American means, and who gets to claim it.

To some extent, it’s the same mistake that people make about Black Lives Matter. Saying “Black Lives Matter” doesn’t mean other lives matter less – it’s a rallying cry to call attention to the ways our nation’s culture and policies have intentionally targeted and destroyed black lives because of their blackness. The way to fix this isn’t to insist that minorities drop the hyphenate when they describe who they are. The real solution, the hard solution, is to foster a culture of empathy and solidarity that has a clear-eyed view of history, but also incorporates the complexity of identity with the shared goal of working diligently toward the perfection of our union.

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