Two authors discuss how notions of race, culture, and gender differ when we toggle between American Exceptionalism and the French Exception.
While both France and the U.S. boast a racially and culturally diverse population whose sexual orientations and identities run a broad gamut, each country conceives of this diversity and of notions of citizenship in unique ways. Laure Murat and Bruno Perreau, two scholars who have made the transatlantic journey form French academia to the ivory towers of the U.S., offer their insights on these in the dialogue below.
How has migrating from France to the US transformed your scholarly work on France?
LAURE MURAT: It’s transformed it in many ways. First, I should specify that I migrated from Paris to Los Angeles, and not from some provincial town in France to New York City or to the Midwest, for instance, which would have been different in each case. The greater distance (in miles, time difference and culture) from California makes a real difference, as well as the fact that Los Angeles is a very big and fascinating city but also the opposite extreme of Paris. It allows me reassess my vision of France and consider more accurately its limitations, its alienation from the past, but also its great qualities.
Second, I had the luck to be hired at UCLA, a great institution where intellectual life is extremely vibrant. Every week, lectures, conferences, and screenings give us the opportunity to discover new ways of thinking and work from people all over the world. My experience is of a “decolonization” of the mind and of a new openness. In particular, everything related to diversity, gender and queer theory, black feminism, racism, and the like is at the core of a complex reflection that France largely ignores. I also deeply appreciate the liberty we experience in the US when it comes to moving boundaries between disciplines.
BRUNO PERREAU: Absolutely. Living in the US and working at UCLA and MIT has allowed us to cross and transform disciplinary borders in ways that would be deemed irrelevant at most institutions in France. It’s not so much that research questions are fundamentally different there, but there’s more possibility in the US to navigate between different methods, to experiment, and discuss. What comes out of this is greater critical depth.
Now, my experience of migrating to the US is quite different from Laure’s. I was born in a small city in Burgundy. I’d already immigrated once—to Paris as a student. I had to learn a new language and get accustomed to social rites of passage I was not even aware of. Conversely, migrating to the US reinforced my ties to my roots, which were very much steeped in American popular culture—TV series, and films in particular. Since I live on the East Coast, distance is less geographic than epistemic: when I first moved here, I entered a cultural loop where transatlantic cultural fantasies and practices confront one another. Now these echoes are even more distorted in my case, because I also studied in England, and was a fellow for a few years at the University of Cambridge. My reassessment of France also emerged in the context of another form of decolonization, between England and New England!
Do you find that notions of “diversity" are framed in different ways in the French and American contexts?
LAURE MURAT: I would say that “diversity” is framed the opposite way in each country. The legacy of secularism in France, promoting the idea of a “neutral” and “universal” citizen regardless of his or her race, religion, sexual orientation, and so on, leads to a politics that is the reverse of American multiculturalism. Two recent examples illustrate the French refusal to consider differences in identities: the ban of the word “race” in the Constitution and last summer’s tentative interdiction of the burkini, the swimsuit designed for Muslim women. On the one hand, you have a utopia that would like to erase all kinds of differences and posit a neutral Republic, on the other, a society that pays lots of attention to identity differences, focusing on the rights of minorities and promoting inclusiveness. I feel closer to the American way of thinking, which is more attuned to the way people live in today’s global world. But I have to note that neither of these two societies has succeeded in eradicating racisms.
BRUNO PERREAU: You zero in on a very important problem when you use racisms in the plural. France famously welcomed Josephine Baker, and Miles Davis, even while stigmatizing its own residents and black citizens from its colonial empire. Diversity claims are not sufficient. Institutions must fight each and every specific form of racist behavior, speech, and hate-crime with unique and mobile strategies. France is very much running behind in that regard. For example, diversity is associated with the idea of safety on American campuses. Not that all campuses are totally safe, far from it. But the ideal pursued by academic institutions is to give everybody a safe space to grow personally, and thus intellectually. Somehow, in France, creativity is meant to result from insecurity, even precariousness. The more obstacles you face, the more you learn. This is largely hypocritical, because not everyone faces the same obstacles. For minorities, it’s a catch-22. They are asked to abandon who they are and what they think and to prove they can act, talk, and function like the majority. But they are permanently called out in the name of their identities and practices. This is why affirmative action matters, in France, and in the US. Too much talent has already been lost!
What has recently caught your attention when it comes to the articulation of race, gender, sex, and sexuality?
LAURE MURAT: A few years ago, I wrote a preface to the French edition of Passing by Nella Larsen, a beautiful novel of the Harlem Renaissance movement about a “legally Black” woman passing as white. I was struck last year when I discovered the case of Rachel Dolezal, a white anti-racist woman who passed as Black for a decade and who was finally “outed.” Dolezal has two Black kids who see their mother as “racially white and culturally black.” The whole story addresses the fascinating question about self-determination. Am I just as entitled to choose my race as my gender?
A month ago, I also discovered The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson, a groundbreaking work integrating theory into autobiographical narrative, a technique the author calls “autotheory.” I’ve never read such a beautifully crafted account about what a queer family is and what questions are at stake when it comes to gender (non) binarism in today’s society. I should add that it is mostly a book about love, a crucial word we too often forget.
BRUNO PERREAU: A few weeks ago, Pope Francis explained that using the notion of “gender” in schools amounts to “ideological colonization.” In Queer Theory: The French Response, I show how in France, this fear has taken on the spectral form of an American invasion. One aspect of this that interests me is how race becomes a vehicle for expressing this fear. Christiane Taubira, Minister of Justice at the time and herself originally from French Guyana, defended the bill on gay marriage before the parliament by quoting celebrated poets of Negritude, such as Léon-Gontran Damas and Aimé Césaire. She became not only the spokesperson, but also the embodiment of a singular minority presence. For a brief moment, it seemed unnecessary to don the clothes of the majority in order to participate in a public debate: gay and lesbian voices could resonate through the voice of the Minister of Justice.
Taubira was also the author of a 2001 law that recognized slavery as a crime against humanity. The law’s adoption caused a big stir, mobilized by cries that France should not have to repent, that clinging to the past only fed the flames of racism. Christiane Taubira was thus accused of weakening France, of sacrificing it on the altar of communitarian interests, which the French associate with multicultural societies like the US. This example shows that intersectionality doesn’t suffice as a way of understanding the articulation of race, gender, sex, sexuality, and class. Taubira accomplished a form of “crossing” of identities, a “passing” if you will, a notion whose fluidity lies at the very heart of what “queer” means.