Being Black at Cannes versus POC Experience in France

On my first read of Valerie Complex’s commentary, “Valerie Complex on Being Black at Cannes: How Microaggressions Marred My Festival Experience,” I had to  overcome my shock. Deadline sent someone to Cannes who couldn’t speak French?

This reminded me of a conversation I had with a fellow student during my graduate program in print journalism at the University of Southern California in the late 1990s. The woman was from Japan and studying in English. According to her, for journalists in Japan, it wasn’t enough just to know English, especially if one wanted to cover high profile news and especially if one wanted an international assignment. The program, however, unlike many other other graduate programs did not have a foreign (or non-English language) requirement.

However, it was my knowledge of French that had made me standout amongst the interns at a now-defunct magazine during a summer internship because I caught an error that had been overlooked by the other interns, the fact-checker and the on-staff copy editors. I haven’t taken French since my undergraduate program and it is not my strongest foreign language. 

While Complex writes that she was “prepared for the challenge” of greater access because she was with “a powerful platform” and that she expected her “workload would double in size,” I’d argue that without any working knowledge of French she was not prepared. As a US citizen, she was, in many respects, entering Cannes with a macroaggression commonly associated with the stereotype of the ugly American tourist. In this paper (“Deconstructing Macroaggressions, Microaggressions, and Structural Racism in Education: Developing a Conceptual Model for the Intersection of Social Justice Practice and Intercultural Education“), a macro aggression is described as “participation in big systems of oppression” and expecting people in foreign countries to cater to your American English seems to be a type of cultural imperialism. One is acting as the dominant cultural group by expecting others to understand you despite your lack of willingness to understand them. 

One way I would have prepared is by reading all of the literature available. That would have prevented her chewing gum incident she describes here: 

When the security guard found a pack of gum, the man immediately began to scream at me in French. I don’t understand French, but I know aggression. “Why are you yelling?” I asked. His demeanor changed to shock — like he was surprised I spoke English. 

If gum is not listed in the literature, then if she had researched she might have found this article: “8 Surprising Things That Are Actually Offensive in Europe.”  According to this 2015 article: 

In Europe, walking around with a wad of chewing gum in your jaw isn’t just uncommon, it’s often regarded as impolite. Most Europeans chew gum briefly after a meal, and spit it out in short order. In the Netherlands, chewing gum while talking is considered rude, and in Belgium and France, chewing gum at all is considered vulgar.

I learned this decades ago and so, before writing this essay, checked on it. Things could have changed. In my high school Spanish language class as well as my French language class, I learned about European thoughts about chewing gum. We read a short story in Spanish about manners with one couple discussing the bad manners of another couple. It was an exercise in understanding cross cultural misunderstandings.

I am also aware of the attitudes in Singapore. I have not been to Spain or Singapore. I have been to France. But I have spent more time in East Asia, specifically Japan. I have taught English conversation in Japan and I know that Japanese (as well as South Korean and Chinese) business people study the etiquette of the place they expect to do business before they go. This is normal research and preparation.

I have not been to the Cannes Film Festival, but in the 1990s, I did cycle through Cannes while on a trip that began in Nice (after a detour to Monte Carlo) and ended in Arles. The person I was with did not speak or understand French, but he was bilingual (Japanese and American English). The person I spent time with in Paris one New Year’s (without bicycles) was also bilingual (Japanese and English). I spent time translating for both people, with the harder one being from French into Japanese. That was truly exhausting.

My actual experience in France is that because I was trying to speak French, people were very helpful. When I was cycling, people, especially older men were extremely helpful. They would stop and ask questions about my bicycle (all-terrain) and even emphasize the best way to get somewhere by bicycle. I was amazed at how patient the truck drivers were, even compared to those in South Yorkshire or London. We cycled down a narrow road in many towns, holding up traffic temporarily. While I did have some difficult exchanges in Paris, I thought of Parisians as more confrontational than other French people. However, this was like the New Yorkers I met while in NYC. I did not take offense. And in New York and in France, I did fine, even with my limited and painfully childish French. 

I am not saying that the French are not racist. Most certainly they are and I can say that as someone who isn’t Black although I have to question just what does “Black” mean in Europe. The Moors were considered “Black“, but they were North African. I must confess that going through the Arab District of Marseilles was anxiety-producing because I could not understand what people were saying. But even the French warned me about Marseilles (in French) in general and not the Arab Quarter specifically.

Complex, as a film critic, likely has seen the film, “Downton Abbey: A New Era.” In that film, the retired butler, Carson, is brought out of retirement to accompany Robert Crawley and his wife and some of their children to the South of France (and Cannes is in the South of France).  Carson, like Complex, doesn’t speak French, but says: “When dealing with foreigners, if one speaks loudly and slowly, they’ll bend to your will.” Oh, the English can be Ugly Tourists as well and Carson is characterized by his stodginess and support of imperialism. We are meant to understand this as folly or at least that’s how I understood it. Macroaggressions are state, national sociocultural interactions, but it would seem that Carson’s attitude about “foreigners” in their own country is cultural imperialism and it should be a concern that journalists are being sent to countries to cover major events without knowledge of the language, especially one with courses readily available at most colleges and universities. 

I find this kind of yelling is true for people in almost all countries. And I have had people speak loudly and slowly to me in Japanese, Korean, Chinese (both Mandarin and Cantonese), French and Spanish. Sometimes, though, they just didn’t understand the situation like the Parisienne sales associate who would not comprehend that as an adult, I still wear children’s clothing. However, I’ve had that problem in the US as well and I’ve even witnessed examples of other things Complex complained about in the US. 

Complex thought this was also a micro aggression: 

If that wasn’t humiliating enough, I ran into a moviegoer who said something shocking to me the following day. I went to an early-morning screening of Mati Diop’s Atlantics. When the film was over and I was standing outside the theater getting my bearings, an older French White woman came up to me, put her arm on my shoulder — without permission — and said, “Wow! You did such a good job, you should be proud,” and walked off. “What was that about?” I thought. After 30 minutes, it dawned on me: This woman thought I was in the movie and probably thought I was the leading actress (Mame Bineta Sane). By now, I wasn’t angry, more disappointed than anything.

The very day I was reading this article, I was talking to my husband about this TikTok video by Honolulu-born actor Eric Elizaga. Elizaga was commenting about an incident in the United States. In his case, he was “recognized” when he was wearing a face mask. The person thought he was an actor from “The Squid Game.” Elizaga was not in that Korean miniseries. My hapa (Chinese-Japanese) husband had a similar incident when he was NOT face masked (before COVID-19). He was one of the few people of East Asian descent at a reception in Hollywood. He was “recognized” by someone as an actor in the film we had just seen before the reception. My husband is a scientist and not an actor. I did confess in my comment to Elizaga that I had on occasion used this inability for some people (and this is NOT limited to White people) to differentiate between people of East Asian descent to use someone else’s photo ID. So again, this isn’t something limited to the French or the people attending Cannes.

I have recently written about racism in France in my commentary of “Paris, 13th District” and in the case of “The Intouchables” where the casting changed dialogue about racism from something more subtle but still important to the binary of Black and White because as Britannica notes, “the population in most parts of North Africa differs little in physical appearance from that of southern Europe (in Morocco, for example, red and blonde hair are relatively common).” 

Although Complex mentions Canadian Kelvin Redvers and the incident about wearing moccasins, that just reminded me how I’ve thought that Cannes was weirdly sexist because of the “unofficial” high heel rule.

That was in the news in 2018 because of another US citizen: Kristen Stewart.  

The people at Cannes seem more focused on footwear than say, Quentin Tarantino? 

It was somewhat comforting to know that in this instance, the people behind the Cannes Film Festival weren’t sexist, but there were also some restrictions placed on men’s footwear. Cultural sensitivity is one thing, and I totally approve of wearing dressy moccasins, but unless I’m dancing, I’m also for comfortable shoes for women. 

I would have been more impressed with the article by Complex if it had expanded to include other people of color instead of just giving a side note reference to someone like Redvers without any followup. There was an official apology. But did Redvers experience any other microaggressions? According to the Hollywood Reporter, Redvers was there with “a delegation of First Nation filmmakers.” 

Certainly there must be other people of color at Cannes, including people of East Asian descent who are feeling their forever foreign status in France as well as the US under COVID-19 restrictions and elevated anti-East Asian prejudices (individuals blaming East Asians for COVID-19 would be macroaggressions).  While despite not speaking French, Complex assumed a French person was shocked by her ability to speak English, I can assure her that it is a common experience of people of East Asian descent…in the US. So many people are pleasantly surprised that I and others who look like me speak English so well. There are many people of East Asian descent (and of other ethnicities) in the US who are like many White and Black US citizens, monolingual in American English.

While I enjoyed my trips to France decades ago, I was highly aware of the stereotypes and racism there toward East Asians. I was aware that East Asians where thought to carry cash and were thus targeted by pickpockets and robbers. I did have a few sketchy moments in Nice where I felt we were being followed by a team of two. And much like in the US mainland and the UK, the French hyper sexualize East Asian women. It was a French man who originated the Madame Butterfly stereotype (Pierre Loti with his “Madame Chrysanthème”) and then brought it back into contemporary times with “Miss Saigon.” I was targeted as an East Asian woman by men in England and France. In England, there was no mistaking the co-relation because I was called “Miss Saigon.” In the UK as in France, I was rarely seen as a US citizen and that could be helpful at times such as when the British or US citizens thought I didn’t speak English.

Mostly I write this remembering a time decades ago when I was in Taiwan and grouped with the “French” women. The French-speaking women were all complaining about the rude behavior of the US members of the tour. For that evening, because I spoke some French and because I was roomed together with them, the women told me that for that evening, I was “French.” It wasn’t only the French-speaking women who were complaining about the behavior of the US citizens, the sole Japanese man also opined about their rudeness. 

Yes, there is racism in France, just as there is racism in the US. Let’s put everything in perspective. Getting more Black directors, actors or journalists at Cannes will not resolve racism because racism in France just as in the US isn’t a binary of Black and White. And if you don’t understand the language, you are missing out on an important and essential means communication and journalism should be about communication. If going to France, learn to speak French. 

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.