First published as an editorial on the Collegium for African American Research (CAAR) website in April 2014 (http://caar-web.org/aprilmay-2014/). Reviewed and edited in February 2022.
At a time when I was still a high school teacher, I—by chance—came to hear a conversation between two of my 11th grade students. Since it was the end of the last class before spring break, I let myself be carried along one of those lengthy and amusing talks that are so dear to teenagers. They were talking about everything and nothing; well, clothes were definitely in the conversation. As I was listening to their chatters, one of them suddenly spoke about “that fa**ot brand,” that is Desigual, a Spanish fashion label that is mostly known by its garments with vivid colors.
It must be known that I used to teach in one of the disadvantaged banlieues of Paris, and that a great majority of my pupils were of North African descent. The disadvantages they faced were at once monetary (since, for most of them, their parents were working class), cultural (as they felt rejected from the main cultural stream and therefore rejected most of its traits), and above all, social. In addition to working hard to help them graduate, I would also strive to make them think and get away from their stereotypes, representations and other platitudes—which was not so simple a task.
Because many of these students were part of the North African community and since most of them were Muslims, they generally suffer both from Islamophobia and a certain hostility from a part of the French population that has unfortunately been growing larger and larger: they were those who were “unknown” (understand the strangers), those who “take our jobs,” or those who “only take advantage of our welfare system.” Thus they felt concerned about their integration in French society and, generally speaking, they responded to such attacks with a stronger communitarianism and a well-felt and understandable pride as for their origins.
It was not the first time that I had heard this kind of homophobic slurs among the students in this high school. Homophobia was part of their favorite conversations, along with misogyny. They even sometimes relied on their social, religious and cultural backgrounds to explain those positions—which is another matter. This was what echoed in my mind as it raised the very question of the relationship between members of and from different minorities.
Quoting his former philosophy teacher, Frantz Fanon, in Peau noire, masques blancs (Black Skin, White Masks), writes:
« Quand vous entendez dire du mal des Juifs, dressez l’oreille, on parle de vous. » ( 1)
As a member of said minority, it is evident that one has inevitably suffered from discrimination in a way or another. It is therefore of paramount importance to put yourself in the other’s shoes. Only in this way can things evolve. And this is where, for instance, I do not agree with certain thoughts that other scholars have had. This empathy seems to be necessary for, in my sense, if as a member of a smaller group you hate the members of another minority, you are using the same arguments as those you hate your own group in return.
Of course, it is easy to understand that by loathing another group, there is also this unspoken intention of fitting in the dominant party by acting like them concerning another community. But that is what I made my student understand about her assertion. When I head on and purposely changed her argument and replaced “fa**ot” with “Arab” so that she could understand my point, she thought about the meaning of her previous sentence. She became aware that she could not discriminate against another minority group since what she said could be turned against her. She also realized that by diminishing the value of people from the homosexual community, she recognized that they were not human and by doing so, she accepted that the people who saw her as a non-human were right.
We will celebrate what would have been James Baldwin’s one hundredth birthday in just two years and we must remember and continue to spread his ideas about the acceptance of people from the minorities. The writer of Giovanni’s Room himself knew how a group could dislike another one. Being at once gay and Black, he was not fully accepted by many African American leaders who particularly viewed homosexuality as a vice. This shows a singular relationship between two minorities—one of race, the other of sexuality—and how they can demean each other. Yet, despite their individual struggles, I am quite sure that by uniting together, they can achieve great things.
(1) Frantz Fanon, Peau noire, masques blancs, Paris: Seuil, 1952, p. 98. “When you hear someone speaking ill of the Jews, prick up your ears, they are talking about you.”