Why Americans See Racism Where The French See No Problem

Why Americans See Racism Where The French See No Problem

In some ways the United States and France are unusually similar nations—still enchanted with their 18th century revolutions, eager to export their ideals (via pamphlets, speeches, language schools, paratroopers, whatever it takes) so that others may live as they do. Maybe this similarity is why Franco-American incomprehension can seem so profound. Each side seems to think: How could they not get it? It should be obvious! In the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, the French were appalled by the "perp walk" (that man wasn't convicted of anything, why shame him?) while Americans couldn't believe that French media casually named DSK's accuser (she didn't do anything wrong, why shame her?). And now, as Thomas Sotinel explained recently in Le Monde, there's a new example: Divergent reactions to the hit film Les Intouchables.


The movie is about a rich man who is paralyzed in an accident and hires an ex-con from the 'hood as his all-purpose live-in assistant. The fish-out-water pair become friends and Mr. Rich Guy gets his mojo back thanks to the other man's down-to-earth love of life. Poor guy learns to appreciate nice things and classical music. Rich guy learns to enjoy Earth Wind and Fire. The rich man is white, the poor guy is black.

French viewers loved it. American critics saw the servant part as a classic Magic Negro. David Denby, in The New Yorker, for example, complained that the movie is "disastrously condescending: the black man, who’s crude, sexy, and a great dancer, liberates the frozen white man. The film is an embarrassment." Similarly Jay Weissberg in Variety wrote that Driss, the ex-con, "is treated as nothing but a performing monkey (with all the racist associations of such a term), teaching the stuck-up white folk how to get 'down' by replacing Vivaldi with 'Boogie Wonderland' and showing off his moves on the dance floor."

The French reaction to this reaction, as described by Sotinel, must strike Americans as pretty funny. It amounts to this: Oh, yeah, that one guy is black. Leave it to you race-obsessed Americans to pick that up; we hadn't noticed. We didn't really notice that. (Negative French reviews of the film complained that it was hokey, Sotinel writes, but none mentioned skin color.)

To Americans, this is a willful refusal to admit the obvious, something we consider a Gallic specialty (France cannot say precisely how many Muslims live within its borders because the government is barred by law from breaking down the population by race or religion in its statistics.) To the French, the Stateside reaction is American sanctimoniousness at its worst. We're the nation that produced, oh, Beverly Hills Cop, after all. And we invented the Magic Negro. Who are we to talk?

What explains this mutual duh (or beauf)? In a word, I think, it's immigration, and the cultures that have evolved in response.

Both countries are nations of immigrants, but their approaches to newcomers could not be more different. Come to France, and you're welcomed to the table—if you're willing to speak French, eat French food, and see the world as French people do. (In the last French presidential debate, both candidates fell over each other to assure their people that there would be no halal meat offered in French school cafeterias—a bizarre note to my ear here in New York, where parking rules are suspended for Succoth, Idul-Adha, Good Friday and Diwali, and no one frets.) Assimilation in France is hierarchical, in the sense proposed by Harvard's Jim Sidanius: Success is measured by how close people come to the summit, which is perfect Frenchness.

In the United States, though, assimilation is what Sidanius would call authoritarian. It's not about a standard of culture or conduct or speech. It's just a contract. There are rules, and you're welcome if you adhere to them. What language you speak, what God you worship, aren't relevant. That approach makes for less community but more openness of mind. Put it this way: If someone is acting in a way that is far from a French person's idea of what is French, then said person is most definitely not French. If someone is acting in a way that is far from my idea of what is American, well, hey, you never know. The guy could still be as American as I am, in the eyes of the law and my fellow citizens.

In both nations, then, millions of people feel that it is wrong to be racist, and they make an effort not to appear so (an exquisite sensitivity to the dangers of appearing racist appears to kick in at about age 8 or 9, according to this research). However, the American version of anti-racism includes an obligation to consider how things look to the Other. After all, his view could be just as American as yours. Beverly Hills Cop, after all, made fun of all its characters, not just Eddie Murphy's.

So, you know a joke that makes fun of people of a certain race that isn't yours? In the U.S. you show you are enlightened by not telling it, because you know what seems funny to you could offend someone of a different background. The French version of anti-racism goes the other way: You show you are enlightened by telling the joke, because we're all equally French. We have the same background, so if I'm not offended, how could you be?

In our cautious urge to let all differences have room to breathe, American art and culture can strike the French as flighty and childlike (the way Californians look to the rest of us Americans). In their urge to erase difference, though, the French can look, to us, condescending and close-minded. Sometimes I think the French want to say to Americans, "just because it's strange and new doesn't mean it's great." And Americans want to say to the French, "Could you just appreciate that for what it is, instead of having to make it French?"

Hence our mutual incomprehension about this movie. The French think we're obsessed with race; we Americans think we're just being polite. The French think the film is a buddy comedy; we think it displays a condescension that they don't see. So near, and yet so far.

Illustration: François Cluzet and Omar Sy in The Intouchables

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A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
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The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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