My class at Alliance Française is international. The students come from Italy, Spain, Japan, Korea, Kazakhstan, Portugal, Brazil, Venezuela, Germany, China, Australia and everywhere else. Virtually everyone here is learning their third language--and many are on their fourth. There was a young lady in my class a few weeks ago who spoke Spanish, Catalan and English. All I could think about was how 10 years ago I didn't even know what Catalan was, how I thought that all European countries were united in language. They are white so (unlike us) they must be united, n'est-ce pas?
In his lectures, the historian John Merriman said that as late as 1789, only 50 percent of the people in France spoke "French." In the west along the Atlantic coast, it might have been Breton. In Normandy it might have been a patois. Further north it could have been Flemish. In Alsace or Lorraine, Merriman says you could have asked someone "What are you?" and they might reply "I am French"--in German. These are the sorts of things you miss when you can only picture Europe as a unified unerring mass of white folks.
I am the only person in the class who speaks only one language. I tell my friends there that I wish more people in America spoke two or three languages. They can't understand. They tell me English is the international language. Why would an American need to know anything else? Their pursuit of language is not abstract intellectualism. A command of English opens job opportunities.
I am getting some small notion of what it feels like to be white in America. What my classmates are telling me is that the Anglophone world is the international power. It dominates. Thus knowledge is tangibly necessary for them in a way that it is not for me. Of course the flip-side of this calculus is that power enables ignorance. Black people know this well. We live in a white world. We know the ways of white folks because a failure to master them is akin to the failure of my classmates to learn English. Your future dims a little. The good slave will always know the master in ways that the good master can never know the slave.
I think this is the seed of the "We don't have any white history month!" syndrome. Through conquest the ways of whiteness become the air. That is the whole point of conquest. But once those ways are apprehended by the conquered--as they must be--they are no longer the strict property of the conqueror. On the contrary you find the conquered mixing, cutting, folding, and flipping the ways of the conqueror into something that he barely recognizes and yet finds oddly compelling. And all the while the conquered still enjoys her own private home. She need not be amnesiac, only bilingual. The phrase "code-switching" is overdone, but there is no cultural code from which all white people can "switch" from. It's not even a code. It's just the world.
The historical upshot of this is that Frederick Douglass necessarily belongs to black people in a way that Benjamin Franklin can never belong to democratic-thinking white people. On similar terms Susan B. Anthony will always belong to women, in a way that Ralph Waldo Emerson can never belong to a democratic-thinking me. We see this in our vocabulary. It is the reason why my friends hear "I'll fight ever nigger here" one way when it comes out of my mouth, and another way coming out of Riley Cooper's. It is the reason why "bitch" sounds one way coming out Samantha Jones' mouth, and another way out of mine. Why "poor white trash" sounds one way coming out of Toby Keith's mouth, and another way out of mine.
Language without context is babbling. In the context of France, je suis américan. I am an aspect of the great power. There is no "nigger" for me, no private language, no private way of being all my own. And with that comes a great feeling of weakness and shame. I feel exposed. People tell jokes that I can't understand, and I am sure they are laughing at me. They are not. But it doesn't matter.
My friend Jelani Cobb talks about how the literature of slavemasters is filled with exasperation over their slaves laughing at invisible jokes. So from time to time you will see people come here and say, "Don't you ever write about something other than race?" I do. But that's beside the point. What they're really saying is, "Will you please stop speaking in a language which I must struggle to understand?"
I know the feeling. English dominates the world. Contrary to popular belief, it does not dominate Paris. The other day I was in our favorite épicerie. A family of Americans came in, enthralled and confused. They were marveling at the breads, at the spices, the wines, the champagnes and the prepared dishes behind the counter. At the same time it was not clear how the family was supposed to get service. Could they touch the breads? Could they reach in and grab a tart? The cases were open. What were the rituals here? The mother, a bit flummoxed walked over to a counter and said to a man working behind it. "DO YOU SPEAK ANY ENGLISH?"
I have talked to this man before. We always start in French and go to English if there's a problem. I know he speaks a little English. But he looked at this woman, shook his head, and went right back to work.
The woman was being very rude, and I don't fault the man's response. But you must understand the impulse. You are the cultural conqueror. You wield the biggest guns. Somewhere in your home there is button which could erase civilization. And then you come to this place and find yourself disarmed. You see that it has its own culture, its own ages and venerable traditions, that the people do not tremble before you. And then you understand that there is not just intelligent life in outer space, but life so graceful that it shames you into silence.
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is a national correspondent for The Atlantic
, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of The Beautiful Struggle
, Between the World and Me,
and We Were Eight Years in Power