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Quebec's uncomfortable use of "blackface humor."
May 29, 2013 9:26 AM   Subscribe

Recently, Quebec's annual comedy award show, Le Gala les Oliver opened with its host, Mario Jean, coming out in blackface to imitate a black comedian. Of course, there has been considerable stunned and angry editorials. But this is not the first incident of the use of "blackface" in high profile in the province. In 2011, a McGill student filed a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights commission after his classmates donned blackface and imitated Jamaican stereotypes.

In 2008, CEO Paul Desmarais threw his wife a birthday party that included a woman in blackface singing Al Jolson. (Anonymous released the video some time ago but it has since disappeared.)

Lamentably, most French newspapers have been decrying the outrage as "Quebec-bashing", "it is better known in America to have a problem with minstrelsy, not here."


(the latter two links are in French)
posted by Kitteh (77 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
It doesn't surprise me (sadly) that there are still dickheads who think blackface is acceptable, but you'd expect more from somebody who actually hosts an award show. How dumb do you have to be to think that a fairly high profile gig like that is the venue to try out a bit of uncomfortable racist mummery like that?
posted by MartinWisse at 9:52 AM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


At least Billy Crystal dumb.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:05 AM on May 29, 2013


I had never heard of the "blackface" before falling on this post appeared in the Huffington Post Canada .

This just goes to show you that having a syndicated newspaper column does not necessarily mean one is particularly informed, intelligent, or otherwise worth paying attention to.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:06 AM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


The most charitable thing I can say is that you really can't project American ideas of race relations onto Quebec. Which isn't to say that blackface is somehow magically cool in la belle province, but when the provincial majority culture is simultaneously a historically oppressed culture in the rest of the country, things are somewhat harder to parse.
posted by GuyZero at 10:13 AM on May 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


Oh yay, more blackface apologists!
posted by elsietheeel at 10:14 AM on May 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


oh good grief, I'm hardly a blackface apologist. don't go on stage, anywhere, in blackface unless you're interested in being pilloried in major newspapers. My sole point is that race relations in Quebec are not race relations in the US.
posted by GuyZero at 10:18 AM on May 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


I don't get what is supposed to be funny about blackface. Is it like some sort of Benny Hill thing in which stepping over a fence gate which you can't open will hurt your balls and then open after you have hurt your balls is funny or like where he's playing maracas and a half naked woman walks past and then the maracas are like boobs kind of funny?
posted by Pyrogenesis at 10:21 AM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


What’s new in South America? Blackface is okay in Peru
Peruvian media have revived the debate regarding Negro Mama, a popular character of the prime time TV show El Especial del Humor. The show, aired on one of the country’s main TV channels, Frecuencia Latina, features actor Jose Benavides in blackface, wearing a prosthetic nose and lips as well as black, hairy gloves on his hands. His motto is “I might be a blacky, but I have my little brain” (Podré ser negrito, pero tengo mi cerebrito).
posted by Golden Eternity at 10:24 AM on May 29, 2013


when the provincial majority culture is simultaneously a historically oppressed culture in the rest of the country,

As a French Canadian (by ancestry) I feel compelled to point out the extent of the oppression: French as an official language, Multiple french Canadian prime ministers, 60+% of the civil service being french speaking and special recognition in the constitution. French Canadian oppression in Canada pretty much tickles. I often joke that the French won Canada by losing.
posted by srboisvert at 10:27 AM on May 29, 2013 [18 favorites]


Kokuryu: Which article are you quoting there? Or is it a comment
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 10:28 AM on May 29, 2013


GuyZero, that was bad comment timing. Your comment hadn't been posted when I wrote mine -- I meant the people in the article, not you!
posted by elsietheeel at 10:28 AM on May 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


The most charitable thing I can say is that you really can't project American ideas of race relations onto Quebec.

I think we can project American ideas of minstrelry onto Quebec. This use of blackface is absolutely consistent with American use of blackface, and its not surprising -- there was a circuit of American and Canadian minstrels during the 1800s, with performers traveling back and forth; Canadian minstrel performers mostly centered in Ontario, but frequently performed in Quebec, and it was the same act as American minstrels provided -- so-called coon songs, Tam and Bones, an Interlocuter.

This is the history being references, and it is a shared reference. Quebec may not have America's history of racism (but who would have America's specific history but for America?), but they participated in institutions that normalized racist representations of blacks, and this is what is happening here.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:28 AM on May 29, 2013 [14 favorites]


I think what really bothered me by the Francophone reaction to this issue is saying that minstrelsy/blackface is an American hang-up and being a Quebecker, they didn't start it so it's totally okay for them to do it.

Which totally triggered my "What the hell are you talking about?" face.
posted by Kitteh at 10:30 AM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


srboisvert: All of that happened after the 1960s. Historically oppressed means just that.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 10:30 AM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


they participated in institutions that normalized racist representations of blacks, and this is what is happening here.

I did preface my comment by saying that that was the most charitable thing I could say. The least charitable thing I could say is that the dude is a crazy racist without any sense of introspection at all, which isn't a winning combination for a professional comedian.
posted by GuyZero at 10:31 AM on May 29, 2013


I did preface my comment by saying that that was the most charitable thing I could say.

I didn't intend my comment as a rebuttal of your comment, but an elaboration. Apologies for lack of clarity.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:32 AM on May 29, 2013


I often joke that the French won Canada by losing.

Yeah, I was indeed talking about the 100+ years of losing where provincial governments outside of Quebec systematically drove out French-speaking populations. I am biased by having just watched a bunch of Canada: A People's History on DVD the other night.
posted by GuyZero at 10:33 AM on May 29, 2013


No offense to Kitteh but I'd love to hear from a Francophone Quebecker who isn't a transplanted American.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 10:33 AM on May 29, 2013


ok, so apparently I have misread pretty much every comment in here so far. Apologies from me as well. Not a good day for me to be posting in blackface.

kidding!
posted by GuyZero at 10:34 AM on May 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


Pruitt-Igoe, no offense taken. I would love to hear from a Francophone Quebecker too. But here? It probably will not be on the blue, sadly.
posted by Kitteh at 10:49 AM on May 29, 2013


Blah, blah, blah, yeah I realize that Canada didn't get the internet until 15 minutes ago, but honestly, stop apologizing for the racist asshats who live there.
posted by Kokopuff at 10:52 AM on May 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Nydia Dauphin responds to the criticism of "Quebec-bashing" in HuffPost.
posted by Kabanos at 11:02 AM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think we can project American ideas of minstrelry onto Quebec.

Having waded through the op-eds with my high-school french I can actually sincerely accept that there are Quebecers who are totally ignorant of the history of minstrelry. I think the writer in the Montreal metro is a bit naive in saying that she can't be racist if she ner heard of it, but I think she's being sincere in that it's new to her.
posted by GuyZero at 11:02 AM on May 29, 2013


I lived and worked in the US for a number of years - so when I went back to Canada, I am really surprised by how people are blind to how racist black face is. My boss went black face for Halloween, and pictures were posted of him on the intranet (which I promptly asked to be pulled down), and local bakery owner (who is a super awesome guy) went black face for Christmas to dress up as the Jamaican Bob sled team. I almost took a picture of it - but thought the better of it.

Really, how can you not think that this is a bad thing? My analogy in Vancouver would be for white people to dress up in yellow face and be super Chinese looking. Believe me, the local media and Chinese leaders would have a field day.
posted by helmutdog at 11:03 AM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Having waded through the op-eds with my high-school french I can actually sincerely accept that there are Quebecers who are totally ignorant of the history of minstrelry. I think the writer in the Montreal metro is a bit naive in saying that she can't be racist if she ner heard of it, but I think she's being sincere in that it's new to her.

Oh, sure. I also believe the Americans who naively used monkey and watermelon imagery to protest Obama and then were genuinely startled to discover that these images are seen as racist. But when, for instance, you have someone in blackface singing Al Jolson, there's no doubt what the antecedents are, even if some Quebecers are ignorant.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:07 AM on May 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


I have a friend who was TAing in the English department at McGill in Montreal this last term. He's gay and black. He said it was "a little amusing" but actually more like terrifying. The undergrads were being assigned queer and racialized authors. Several white Francos were using in their papers the N-word to describe some of the writers or characters. When he pointed out that this was unacceptable, they would argue, "I don't think so! I think it's A-OK!" instead of just, you know, shutting up and feeling embarrassed. He was happy when one student actually apologized profusely - but then she used the N-word again on her next paper. Quebec is strange. And racist in rather baffling ways. You hear stories like that at least once a week. The language thing only reinforces it.
posted by TheGoodBlood at 11:07 AM on May 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


All these apologies. You'd think we were in Canada.
posted by hanoixan at 11:09 AM on May 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Someone rang?

Canadien Français Québécois Américain d'Amérique du Nord Français here. I hadn't heard of the thing. Haven't seen the sketch. From what I know of Jean, not likely a racist, just clueless, partly because slavery was abolished a long time ago and Jim Crow didn't live here (though racism has existed and still exists).

The last instances of blackface in media I can recall are a weird episode of a children's show (Robin et Stella, c. 1991) where a character used a "potion" to turn his skin black, because he wanted to have their "rhythm", and a sketch involving Normand Brathwaithe, a Black comedian (though he mostly does radio these days) and his "twin". I don't recall any reaction to these, though I might have been too young.

According to Lagacé in La Presse, the parodied comedian (Boucar Diouf) didn't know what blackface was. I don't think very many people in my circle know what blackface is.

Lagacé argues that in the context, where Jean was parodying various comedians over the course of the show, using makeup to darken his skin was appropriate (I don't know if Jean altered his appearance to imitate the other comedians).
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 11:09 AM on May 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


So glad to see a Francophone on the blue!!
posted by Kitteh at 11:10 AM on May 29, 2013


I'm not a transplanted American nor a Francophone Quebecker, but an English Ontarian who grew up in part along the Quebec border and has lived in a part of Quebec that's about 80% French for almost the last 20 years.

Full disclosure: I'm married to Kitteh. That being said, we often disagree on these sorts of things.

I think it's fair to say that there's a lot more latent racism in Quebec than I've seen in Ontario, or in my travels through the northern U.S., but that it's also of a different character -- it's uninformed racism borne of a general lack of experience and exposure, not informed racism that's borne of active malice. If you're a racist in South Carolina, you're generally making a choice to be super shitty. Here, there's a much higher chance you've never had a meaningful conversation with a non-white person, and/or you just don't... get it.

I work in an office full of university-educated, left-leaning, generally very liberal Francophones. Casual racism isn't an everyday event, but I find myself raising my eyebrows at least once a month at something that's said in all sincerity and that goes completely unchallenged.

An example that sprang immediately to mind was something that happened five or six years ago; the leader of one of our main provincial parties (the traditional Quebec-must-separate party, and YMMV on the relevance of that) visited his alma mater, an American Ivy League school, looked around, and said "well, there sure are a lot more slanty eyes in here than there were in my day!"

This caused a bit of an uproar among the Asian and non-Francophone communities. In the French press, and among French people in general, though, this wasn't even a thing. Searching on this for about 10 seconds turned up this blog post from back then, and it almost perfectly mirrors the general attitude of even the most left-leaning and self-declared anti-racist Quebecers: "Well, he didn't mean anything mean by it, so it's not racism." So many words were exchanged attempting to explain that no, reducing human individuals to only a single physical characteristic is pretty much the definition of racism, even if you don't think in your own head it's being super harmful.

More recently, our local paper -- again, very editorially left-leaning and generally pro-social-causes -- ran a series of articles on a recent influx of Roma immigrants in the area. One headline, liberally translated, parses as "Cunning and manipulative thieves". Again, this wasn't really seen as a big deal -- the article focuses on some recent thefts by recent immigrants from within that community, and the fact that this was glossing onto an entire category of people didn't seem to register.

Last bit of pointless anecdata – talking to an acquaintance with a very similar history to mine, working in a very similar environment, recently, and out of the blue he asks me "Hey, are your co-workers kind of... harmlessly racist?" He'd had a similar conversation about the Roma thing. Our aggregate take on it is that it's kind of like what I see when I watch American TV shows from the '70s: there's a lot of well-intentioned overt anti-racism, but also a kind of broad culture of Polack jokes and not-really-equal-but-they're-okay-I-guess othering that is slowly tapering off with time.

It's got its flaws, but I mentally head-check the "How to tell people they sound racist" thing on a surprisingly frequent basis. Because I have to.

It's intensely uncomfortable for me to talk about these things, because I'm acutely aware that I'm a white middle-class anglo from Ontario, and here I am dicking around and talking about French culture in Quebec like I'm King Sociologist, and also like I'm from some advanced land of racial parity and kumbaya wonders. All I can say is that based on two decades of observation, this is where I've landed.
posted by Shepherd at 11:12 AM on May 29, 2013 [19 favorites]


There's no such a thing as harmless racism.
posted by TheGoodBlood at 11:25 AM on May 29, 2013 [8 favorites]


Shepherd, your take on quebec's racism was very similar to my take on my hometown's, long ago. I hope you're right. I wasn't.
posted by gorestainedrunes at 11:34 AM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here's Rachel Décoste's take: Le blackface et les valeurs québécoises [in French] - in short, she also decries the practice.
posted by TheGoodBlood at 11:34 AM on May 29, 2013


I know two wrongs don't make a right, and this post will probably be seen as a derail. However I want to illustrate why French-Canadians may sometimes sound like they have a chip on their shoulder and why they're prompt to invoke Québec-bashing when they're criticised by (British-) Canadians or North Americans in general.
I present to you exhibit A: Triumph the insult comic dog in Québec.

Disclaimer: I'm French.
posted by surrendering monkey at 11:34 AM on May 29, 2013


I think I should be clear--in case I wasn't--that I am very much not Quebec-bashing. But as a transplanted Southerner with Hispanic mom and a glaringly come-to-Jesus white Christian side of the family who toss around the N-word like it's no big thang (and believe me, I call them out on it), I want Quebec to realize that "harmless racism" is still racism. I get that outside of Montreal a lot of Quebeckers don't often interact with minorities--when I moved here, I had never lived in an area that was so white--but being upfront, kind, and firm with folks who think because this is not something they have dealt with culturally it isn't racist is what I would like to see.
posted by Kitteh at 11:45 AM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


re harmless racism in Quebec: https://www.google.ca/search?q=montreal+police+racism
posted by fredludd at 12:00 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Another French Québécoise here. Pure laine, even! Or maybe that's a racist way to label myself? (sorry in advance for all the wiki links, it's not easy to find decent supporting material in English)

Let me start by stating the obvious: Québécois are racist. Like people everywhere are racist. There's racism borne of ignorance, and there's racism borne of straight up hate. There's also racism that arises from the overwhelming fear of assimilation that's one of the defining characteristics of our culture.

The comedian who was being parodied wrote to La Presse not only to say he was fine with it (I believe he approved the bit in advance) but to excoriate "racial fanatics" and "those constipated by intercultural japery". He notes that the last time he spoke out on the subject, he was called a "house slave" by those ardent crusaders against racism. But obviously, just because one person is fine with it doesn't mean it's not racist.

Is blackface considered racist here? Eeeh. I'd say it's a lot more context-dependent than it would be in the US. We share a history of horrific racism with the rest of North America, but we haven't really processed it the same way. The watermelon thing, for example; nobody who hasn't been exposed to racism as practiced in the southern US would parse that as racist here. Different cultures, different signifiers, which is why you see such a disparity in how the story gets treated in English and French media.

That's where things get tricky to unpack. Just like there is a history of racism in the province, there is also a history of English-Canadian media gleefully pointing out incidents of racism in Quebec. The concern, however, seems to be less about members of ethnic minorities in Quebec, and more about that most oppressed of linguistic minorities... the Anglo-Canadian.

By making the leap from the obvious racism of blackface to the insidious racism of our language policy, the dominant majority gets to align itself with victimized populations. It's an odious trick that gets repeated over and over, especially now that the PQ is back in power.

That's what dog-whistle politics look like, over here.
posted by Freyja at 12:05 PM on May 29, 2013 [6 favorites]


Section II in this report, Historical Perspectives on Racism in Quebec, can be helpful to those not too familiar with the history of Quebec to understand the context and complexity of the issue in the province. The French in North America have been both colonizers and oppressed peoples. To this day Quebecers have this sort of dual nature.
Francophones in Quebec have a double status: they are a minority in North America and in Canada, and they are the majority in Quebec. Quebec’s minorities must therefore take into account two majorities. One real concern is that some elements of the nationalist movement might come to see minorities as a hindrance to the cultural unity and social solidarity that the struggle for national emancipation requires, an obstacle to the achievement of its collective destiny and its full culmination.
None of this is an excuse for the blackface of course. You can argue that it is the result of a sort of isolated Nationalism rather than outright xenophobia or racism, but given the international outrage about prominent incidents like this in 2011: (Montreal Students Blackface Stunt Backfires; Université de Montréal Expresses Regret), at some point you kinda have to stop saying, "Oh, I didn't know!"
posted by Kabanos at 12:10 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


You'd expect more from somebody who actually hosts an award show

Not if you'd seen other Quebec-based shows (like Bye-Bye, the yearly NYE show).

I agree with others, that there's a certain "Wow, I've never met a [person who is different from me] before" aspect to the racism, but there's also some amount of digging in of feet, which is perhaps part of the assimilation concern. A bunch of non-Quebecois saying "What you're doing here is racist" is never going to have the effect we want it to have, and as a general rule, anyone who cannot trace their lineage back to les filles du roi is not really considered a Quebecois (something which pisses me off on other levels).
posted by jeather at 12:13 PM on May 29, 2013


Tangetially related: if anyone's wondering how a person can do blackface without meaning to1, I might be able to explain....because I have done so.

I grew up in western Newfoundland, which was, as Kitteh says, so white. I was in one of 2-3 Jewish families; our high school's "token black guy" was also our "token asian guy" (he was Filipino).

When I went to university, in second year, a friend was going to summer in S. Africa (I think? Can't remember exactly which country) to do some nursing-thing and had an "Africa"-themed party. Which has tons of dangerous potential. I decided to go as a diamond miner - something about them was in the news, it seemed fun.

So y'know, get the helmet with a light, a fake pickaxe made of cardboard & tape, coveralls. But every video of miners I had ever seen has them coming out of the mine covered in dust or soot. Admittedly that's because most of the videos are about coal mining, but still. So I got some charcoal dust or something at the art supply store, and dusted up my arms & face.

Let me tell you, after sweat from the heat merged with the dust, it looked a lot darker than I would have planned. And especially as the night gets drunker and people lose costume parts, the photos of me (that may still exist) look a lot like I'm just in generic blackface, rather than my intention of skin-colour-irrelevant-miner. That's one way in which it happens. Poor planning and generalizations. I am, frankly, still ashamed of that, even though I know I wasn't even trying to do blackface, let alone cause offence.

1: The difference, of course, is that the host in the linked situation intended to do blackface without meaning to cause offence, whereas I did it because I'm an idiot who didn't realize what my costume would look like. I don't think that's a big gap.

Ok back to the issue at hand


In general, as an anglo who's lived all over the country, including my present location very near the quebec border in a rural-ish area, Quebec as an institution has had some problematic interactions with race. They've been the prime driver in some of the "muslim women removing burqas to get gov't services" hassles, there have been a surprisingly high number of vandalism/attacks on synagogues, there was that small town that posted the "here is how Canadian/Quebecois values are" for immigrants. Not all of it is intentionally or overtly racist, but there's a weird feeling of the government being concerned about immigrants that I don't see elsewhere.

I am sure that, person-for-person, Quebecers are roughly as racist as the rest of Canada. But that's a possible partial explanation for some of the lack of censure they're getting; the structural/bureaucratic support that comes down.
posted by Lemurrhea at 12:23 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


So, like, the Quebecois won't be overly offended if we start doing French Canadian minstrelry? I know its bad form for Canadians but I'm from California who doesn't have a significant Quebecois history...

Sadly, since most Californian's don't have a good scope on what it means to be French Canadian I think we'll have to mostly do French + Canadian stereotypes. Like Inspector Cluseau in a plaid jacket and some Molsons. We can call ourselves "Les Aristocrats, eh no?"

Can't see any problems there.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 12:30 PM on May 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


...as a general rule, anyone who cannot trace their lineage back to les filles du roi is not really considered a Quebecois.

I was going to tl;dr my post with "It's not about race, it's always about language", which would be my response here as well. You'll find tons of public personalities that were born outside of Quebec and fully embraced as "one of us": Dany Laferrière, Anthony Kavanagh, Luke Mervil, Bruny Surin from Haiti, Rachid Badouri from Moroccan parents, Zachary Richard from Louisiana, Roch Voisine from the Maritimes, all the awesome Anglo bands and so SO many "French from France"... All of them beloved and proudly perceived as Quebecois.

It's not whether you have a certain surname or can trace your ancestry back to France. It's whether you make the effort to appreciate and participate in the culture you're soaking in that determines whether you belong. That includes speaking the language, but also trying to understand the history, the politics and the arts that make the province distinct.
posted by Freyja at 12:31 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


and as a general rule, anyone who cannot trace their lineage back to les filles du roi is not really considered a Quebecois

Where do you get that impression from? For most of my peers, the Filles du Roy are an half-remembered notion from their high school history class.

The Burqa thing was dogwhistling to the ti-coune set, trying to Sarkoze-it-up a little bit. AFAIK, that and the "ostentatious" religious symbol (people panicked because a Sikh boy brought his Kirpan to school) thing are the only (and unfortunate) times the government has whistled that way.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 12:35 PM on May 29, 2013


For those who haven't lived there, the Quebecois are pretty assimilationist in their view of multiculturalism, which is at odds with how the rest of the country tends to view things.

This is the province where they seek to ban Italian words on menus... in Italian restaurants. Which is itself a pretty small and nearly irrelevant detail of the long history of Quebec language laws. The notion of skin-colour based racism will always play second fiddle to French (both as a language and as a culture) vs everything else in Quebec.

So, like, the Quebecois won't be overly offended if we start doing French Canadian minstrelry?

They would hate it.

But you know when people say things like "I don't see race?" In Quebec is almost true (well, except for the police, or Muslim people, or a lot of things)- the average Quebecer sees culture and language. They see Boucar Diouf as a French person who happens to be black. And since he's black if you were going to dress up as him you'd clearly do it in blackface.

I'm not saying it's right, I'm just trying to frame the thought process from a Quebecer's point of view. It's not the same world view.
posted by GuyZero at 12:36 PM on May 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


Yeeeeah, the Pastagate thing was quite embarrassing here in terms of how it made Quebec look on the world stage. (Seriously, the two things my friends back home in Atlanta took away from where I've lived in the past four years are the student protests--they were curious and not mocking about that--and the Pastagate thing--which they were mocking.)

But even the PQ knew that was going too far. The head of OQLF stepped down, IIRC, and they have promised to be less stringent and more understanding.

I suppose it came with marrying an Anglophone Canadian and moving to Francophone province, but I was simply not prepared--and to an extent, still not--to have my everyday life be affected by something so simple as language. And when I say everyday life, I am not talking about how I go about my daily activities, I am talking how it is a never-ending subject in the news. It exhausts me, frankly.
posted by Kitteh at 12:44 PM on May 29, 2013


It's not whether you have a certain surname or can trace your ancestry back to France. It's whether you make the effort to appreciate and participate in the culture you're soaking in that determines whether you belong. That includes speaking the language, but also trying to understand the history, the politics and the arts that make the province distinct.

No. That's neither necessary nor sufficient. Saying that famous people get embraced doesn't say much about the general concerns of integrating (or not) people who are not somewhat lapsed Catholics who speak French without an accent and look white, but who choose to live in (or were born in) Quebec.

I love living here and I don't want to live elsewhere, but it's more complex than "speak French and watch our movies and we will include you".

Where do you get that impression from? For most of my peers, the Filles du Roy are an half-remembered notion from their high school history class.

It was just a way of referring to pur laines. If you think that other people are generally considered Quebecois, you're living in a different world than I am.

Montreal is rather different than the rest of Quebec, though, too.

that and the "ostentatious" religious symbol (people panicked because a Sikh boy brought his Kirpan to school) thing are the only (and unfortunate) times the government has whistled that way.

Unlike the "no religious symbols anywhere in the government or on government employees, except for the crucifix in the National Assembly and a cross on a necklace" dogwhistle? Maybe that was more overt than dogwhistle.

I was simply not prepared--and to an extent, still not--to have my everyday life be affected by something so simple as language.


It comes and goes. It was a big thing in the mid 90s, then died down until a few years ago. But in my experience, it pretty much only shows up as news items and doesn't affect my day-to-day life, where people live and function happily in a bilingual city. And when I'm outside Montreal, I don't feel any tension coming from people that here I am, an anglophone coming to attack their culture. It's in many ways a problem created and perpetuated by the media and politicians.
posted by jeather at 12:50 PM on May 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


It's in many ways a problem created and perpetuated by the media and politicians.

Oh, I didn't mean that I feel excluded or shunned because I am an Anglophone. I just meant what you said; the constant repetition in the news of language laws, the Angryphones, the rhetoric of any of our three sovereigntist/separatist political parties. That's what's exhausting!

Shepherd's cousin got married the weekend before the last election; we were in the Laurentians for it and during the massively fun reception, the talk inevitably turned to Anglo-Montrealers' fears of a majority PQ government. Asking them legitimate questions about their fears, they said to me, "I wouldn't worry if I were you. You're an American. They don't expect you to know French. But we don't have that excuse."
posted by Kitteh at 12:56 PM on May 29, 2013


Hey Kitteh! Don't forget Option Nationale! They're a party too.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 12:58 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


(and usually there's a maoist-communist-marxist-leninist group that's in favor of Quebec independence, while another says Quebec nationalism is a product of bourgeois capitalism).
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 1:00 PM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


since most Californian's don't have a good scope on what it means to be French Canadian

Oh... on this, since it is actually kind of hard to define lacking a universal stereotype and any easy signifiers... it's Celine Dion staring in every episode of "Just For Laughs Gags."

Eating poutine.
posted by GuyZero at 1:08 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wow, this is fascinating. I've been fighting my temptation say something despite not actually understanding much about Quebec.

(I find that the moment I start thinking about Quebec, I start hearing my grandfather's voice in my head. He lived in northern Vermont, visited Montreal regularly, tended to sympathize with the complaints of the anglophone community, and claimed that he knew of FLQ members who sent their children to his summer camp in Vermont in order to keep them out of harms way during part of the 1960s. He was entitled to his opinion, but I don't think I am. I really know nothing.)
posted by Area Man at 1:15 PM on May 29, 2013


It was just a way of referring to pur laines. If you think that other people are generally considered Quebecois, you're living in a different world than I am.

Possibly; I'm an from a family of inbred but relatively well-to-do farmers from the North. I've seen ordinary people who aren't pur laine embraced by the community. White skin and native accent optional.

It's not super common, but then until recently rural Quebec was very, very homogeneous.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 1:17 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've been fighting my temptation say something despite not actually understanding much about Quebec.

I dunno, feel free. For better or worse I've learned a lot by saying dumb things on Metafilter.
posted by GuyZero at 1:22 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hey Kitteh! Don't forget Option Nationale! They're a party too.

I know. They're one of the three I mentioned in my previous comment!
posted by Kitteh at 1:22 PM on May 29, 2013


Pyrogenesis: I don't get what is supposed to be funny about blackface. Is it like some sort of Benny Hill thing in which stepping over a fence gate which you can't open will hurt your balls and then open after you have hurt your balls is funny or like where he's playing maracas and a half naked woman walks past and then the maracas are like boobs kind of funny?
Yes. And the people who laugh also think Benny Hill was an original comedic genius.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:23 PM on May 29, 2013


So.. CAQ, ON, QS, PQ... that makes 4, no?
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 1:23 PM on May 29, 2013


The CAQ no longer aligns themselves with sovereignty; or at least that's what Francois LeGeault would have us believe.
posted by Kitteh at 1:25 PM on May 29, 2013


('cause even if it hasn't put separation in its programme, l'Équipe Lucien Bouchard a.k.a. la CAQ is, and remains, a separatist party)
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 1:25 PM on May 29, 2013


Regardless, their rhetoric tends to be less toxic than the PQ/ON/the other one I totally always forget about.
posted by Kitteh at 1:26 PM on May 29, 2013


I agree with others, that there's a certain "Wow, I've never met a [person who is different from me] before" aspect to the racism, but there's also some amount of digging in of feet, which is perhaps part of the assimilation concern.

Yeah, it reminds me of what we have over here, with the whole Zwarte Pieten thing: innocent folk entertainment that just coincidently features white men blacked up, or perhaps it is offensive and othering to actually existing Dutch Black people. Most white people don't think about it until confronted with complaints, then dig in their heels.

Meanwhile a more toxic form of racism against the growing Muslim population is also present and finding some cover under the former sort.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:37 PM on May 29, 2013


I attended University of Vt in the late 80s, and we were regaled with stories of how there used to be a fo real Kake Walk as part of the Winter Carnival tradition as recently as 1969. Blackface and evrything. Dunno if it means anything that Quebec is right over the border.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 1:44 PM on May 29, 2013


The concern, however, seems to be less about members of ethnic minorities in Quebec, and more about that most oppressed of linguistic minorities... the Anglo-Canadian.

By making the leap from the obvious racism of blackface to the insidious racism of our language policy, the dominant majority gets to align itself with victimized populations. It's an odious trick that gets repeated over and over, especially now that the PQ is back in power.


I don't wholly disagree with you, Freyja, but I think there are two parallel narratives that appeal to two different sets of people. One, the "Francophone Quebecers are xenophobic and this expresses itself through language laws," story, which can and does happen in the national media (especially the more right-leaning media); and two, the "Francophone Quebecers are picked on and scrutinized unfairly as part of an overarching agenda to diminish them" story, which tends to repeat itself in provincial media.

Even the articles you link to don't seem to support the "odious trick" of linking racism to language policies, and I think you have to be strongly predisposed toward the latter story to get that from, for instance, the Nora Loreto piece you link to.

Both of these narratives -- Quebecers are xenophobic and oppress minorities through language laws, and nefarious forces are conspiring to keep French Quebec down by focusing on its every misstep -- feel regressive to me. The first because it's a shitty way to tar an entire culture with a simplistic and unfair brush, but also the second because it others and disempowers anyone who doesn't meet the nebulous criteria of a "true Quebecer" from ever having a voice in conversations about rights, race and identity. If I -- or, more to the point, my neighbour, whose Scottish-ancestry family has lived in the same town for 400 years, or the guy next to him, who moved here from Bangladesh 15 years ago -- can't discuss these issues without being dismissed as part of the "odious trick," it doesn't say much for any hope of improvement.

Things are different outside of Montreal and Quebec City as well. I live out in the Townships, where non-Francophones have a pervasive "poor us" narrative as well that can poison genuinely useful conversations, but have also legitimately seen a 400-year-old subculture built on Loyalist, Scottish and Irish immigration get systematically demolished by provincial language policy.

The whole thing is tangled and weird. I live a daily contradiction where I'll fight for mandatory-local-content laws in the media until my dying breath, but get livid when the mosque up the street is told it has to change all its signs because the Arabic script on them is 60% the size of the French and not the mandated 50%.
posted by Shepherd at 1:49 PM on May 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


The thing about Zwarte Piet to me is that the black face of the Wild Wan who presides over the Winter Solstice orgy is an ancient pagan tradition. The horned, humpback, furry forest god with his big, phallic club had a black face LONG before there were even chimneys for Santa Claus to go down.

The idea of Moor in Spanish clothing and bright make up as the assistant to St. Nicholas (who took over the winter gift giving from the Wild Man) is a reaction to the period when Spain ruled over the Netherlands. Piet-as-black-man started as a Dutch thumb in the eye of their former Spanish masters. (The idea of multiple Pieten seems to have come from American troops in WWII who brought a "Fuck it, Santa needs more than one elf & we all wanna dress up" attitude to post-liberation Christmas).

Outright minstrelry as performance? That really seems to come from a nastier root.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 2:19 PM on May 29, 2013


Just want to say - this is a great discussion. I'm a xth (5+) generation anglo-QCer (Gatinueau Valley & Maniwaki mostly) who was nevertheless raised in ON but has lived in Montreal for 25 years and was married to a Quebec-City woman and consequently had in-french-only relationships with a whole bunch of people (iow I was functionally a francophone when in Quebec City though still a little bit "other")...

Needless to say I *get* and am somewhat sympathetic to all arguments all around this discussion EXCEPT the angry-anglo reaction, which was (predictably) something like, "see, these hicks don't have a clue, these f'n racists are Hitler".

The one thing I will add to the discussion that I haven't *quite* seen yet is this: in parts of the Quebecois elite, I think there is the feeling that NO ONE should dictate to them what they should or should not find offensive. This springs out of a (rightful, perhaps) attitude that 40 years ago this was to a great extent a theocracy and from the sweat of Quebeckers' brows and a ton of hard work they defined and brought into existence a modern society - with little help from (and a lot of hindrance from) anglos outside of Quebec. In this view the Modern Quebec has no directly relevant history beyond 1960.

There's a birth date for this culture, and a big part of the growth of the culture involved having the confidence to NOT be dominated by others. And so you're bound to get strange reactions when those others try and do something that LOOKS like try to dominate once again.

Personally I don't agree, and I don't think this mindset adequately accounts for how culture works... but still...

(An aside - anyone who things QC is innately racist should spend a Saturday or Sunday afternoon at Simons on Ste-Catherine. At its best, QC is among the most anti-racist places I've ever encountered).
posted by mikel at 2:27 PM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Shepherd, I'm from Magog. Townships power!

I'll readily admit that my post was oversimplified, far from comprehensive or well researched. I would love to put together a proper Quebec 101 post some day. The race/language/culture thing really is weird and tangled, and it's hard to explain to Americans (and to a different extent, Anglo-Canadians) because the frames of reference are juuuuuust off-kilter enough that it's easy to sound as though you're defending the indefensible.

The heel-digging is a real problem, but it can't be resolved by "outsiders" (ugh) sniping at the culture in English publications. Let me try to support this with a personal anecdote instead of cursory googling. My unilingual French parents are outrageously racist for real, but they view themselves as progressives. They define progressive as "not like those Harper-loving Anglo conservatives", mainly on cultural and linguistic grounds, while echoing a lot of the same discourse.

To them, the blackface thing was a sign that the culture is open, tolerant and inclusive of minorities. It was a celebration of Boucar Diouf's success, we tease those we love, etc. They're unlikely to change their mind because some Anglo (who are notoriously prudish and humorless, don't you know) is scolding them in a language they don't understand.

It's MADDENING. It's impossible to get through to them and show them their progressivism is stuck in the 60s, because my sources of criticism come from a culture they find alien and alienating. It's the exact same bash-head-against-wall feeling I get when I try to convince my Anglo-only coworkers that the people here aren't out to get them personally just cause they speak French in meetings.

On preview, what Mikel is getting at.
posted by Freyja at 2:29 PM on May 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


When was this? Oh, 2011? Wow.

The Black and White Minstrel Show.
posted by marienbad at 2:43 PM on May 29, 2013


It's always frustrating to find that, although we may be through with the past, the past isn't through with us.

In Quebec, it means the language and national question is everywhere, even where it seemingly doesn't make sense.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 2:47 PM on May 29, 2013


Kokuryu: Which article are you quoting there? Or is it a comment

Whoops, sorry for the delayed response. See the "Quebec-bashing" link up above.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:07 PM on May 29, 2013


This is really interesting: "To them, the blackface thing was a sign that the culture is open, tolerant and inclusive of minorities. It was a celebration of Boucar Diouf's success, we tease those we love, etc." (by Freyja just above).

I think to a lot of people it's not very different than putting on a parisien accent or using joual or whatever - it's a simple caricature, no more no less. Not all that different than a man putting on a wig as a comedic device, really.

There are very specific cultural reasons behind such an attitude. As much as I think it's embarrassing that this comes up in 2013, it is 100% possible that in this culture there are people see it differently and even those who understand the minstrel-show-hard-racist connotations in the anglo world could believe that if done "just-so" it can pass in QC at the current time. Again I don't agree with them, but I can understand it.

Similarly, in a lot of segments of Montreal we're (in a way) in an almost post-homophobic society. I see (occasionally) people making silly jokes not out of hatred or homophobia but out of the feeling that we're past all that so we can have fun with the stereotypes. Gay or straight, people who would go to the barricades to defend equal rights - making silly light jokes (like upon seeing a man with a white iPhone, "oh, I didn't know you were gay!"). Definitely subverting the stereotype in an unsubtle way and rendering it neuter in the process - but also potentially very shocking and hurtful taken out of context.

Would that shock outsiders? Damn right. Are those people neo-homophobes? No way.
posted by mikel at 3:20 PM on May 29, 2013


But therein lies the problem. I realize the Quebec cultural context is completely unlike that of most of North America, but that doesn't mean it gets a pass. But as Freyja pointed out, it's hard to say anything if you're not French. Anyone other than a Francophone calling these acts racists will get shouted down. It's a lose-lose situation.
posted by Kitteh at 4:13 PM on May 29, 2013


It doesn't surprise me (sadly) that there are still dickheads who think blackface is acceptable, but you'd expect more from somebody who actually hosts an award show. How dumb do you have to be to think that a fairly high profile gig like that is the venue to try out a bit of uncomfortable racist mummery like that?

Its the same problem Australia has - they don't have the cultural context, so they think its okay.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 6:23 PM on May 29, 2013



I think what really bothered me by the Francophone reaction to this issue is saying that minstrelsy/blackface is an American hang-up and being a Quebecker, they didn't start it so it's totally okay for them to do it.

Which totally triggered my "What the hell are you talking about?" face.


I've heard this argument even from my most progressive friends every time another popular Australian celeb gets 'blacked up'.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 6:23 PM on May 29, 2013


When I was in high school during the mid-90's in rural Manitoba, a kid did himself up in blackface for the airband competition. The kid also wore one of those rastacaps with attached dreads; to him, blackface was just part of the costume. Similar to this situation, there wasn't malice behind it, just a contextual/cultural clueless racism. Not excusing, but some people are just that oblivious.

He performed this song. He did not win.

And no, the kid was not me. I did play a plaid-shirted Benny Andersson in a tribute to Dancing Queen, though. We did not win either.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:10 PM on May 29, 2013


I've heard this argument even from my most progressive friends every time another popular Australian celeb gets 'blacked up'.

"argument" is a somewhat ambiguous word in this context. Sometimes people are defending things, sometimes they're just explaining things.
posted by GuyZero at 8:58 AM on May 30, 2013


Hmm.. the argument I'm about to make kind be construed as a kind of tone argument; but bear with me please.

The problem seems to be the importation of a cultural norm, which is very strong in the United States due to their history and fairly strong in other English-speaking cultures because of the common language and the commonality of culture.

As I see it, the cultural norm can be stated as: "the use of make-up to darken the skin of a white performer so that they can appear to be black is taboo, because it is a reference to the blackface makeup used in racist minstrel shows".

Should the cultural norm be imported? I think it should, because racism is wrong, and additionally because French Quebec culture is close to American culture: minstrel shows have existed in Quebec, and the province is host to many people of American descent, some of whom are Black.

But you have to mind the gap; you're telling unaware people that something they're doing without second thought is taboo. To you, it's obvious and appalling. To them, it's no big deal.

So there's a certain response that won't work, where you berate people for not knowing about a taboo from another culture, especially if the culture in question has historically been imposed on the culture of the taboo-infringer, as English-language culture has in Quebec.

You can't blame those who are appalled for being appalled in "the wrong context", or you'll end up like in these feminist debates where it's never the right time to talk about the problem or you can never use the right tone to talk about them. Nydia Dauphin is right to be angry at the use of blackface and exasperated that she has to explain yet again why it is taboo.

But ideally, you would really need to focus on education, since even Black people in Quebec don't always know what blackface is.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 11:42 AM on May 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


Bollywood also seems to take a "What, is this somehow not cool?" attitude towards blackface (See pts 5 & 6).

About a month or so ago Lexica & I were in an Indian restaurant and suddenly the (recent) music video on the TV has the back-up dancers in full blackface and Afro wigs. Tripped me the fuck out.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 12:05 PM on May 30, 2013


Unrelated, from Reddit: this guy is not in blackface
posted by GuyZero at 2:19 PM on June 4, 2013


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