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Trevor Noah is thinking black and white in a colourful world

Monday 23rd July 2018

One reason moderates are unwilling to discuss racism is they’re going to be misunderstood by both extremes. They’ll be called a racist for opposing it in all forms and be welcomed as long lost friends by people whose views they despise. It’s inevitable, which is why I’m not going to worry about it. Do your worst.

Racism is insidious. It’s like a stain on your trousers you don’t know how you came by and that won’t come out no matter how hard you scrub. You can change trousers but they too will be stained as soon as you look the other way. It’s a sticky substance that is difficult to wash off your skin. It gets absorbed into your bloodstream and makes it boil. The people on the right half of the world revel in the sensation. Those on the left frantically try to suppress it. Sooner or later, however, it spills over.

I’m saying racism is a disease that inflicts 100% of humanity. All of us, whether we deny it or not, are racist to some degree. We’re wired [or we learn, take your pick; it’s irrelevant to this conversation] to fear and distrust that which is different, to embrace and love that which is the same. It’s so ingrained in our minds we can’t see the irrationality in our arguments, even when we’re trying to support unity and diversity.

Trevor Noah went down that road with his remark that “Africa won the World Cup.” He was referring to all the black players on the French team and didn’t think it through. Not because we shouldn’t celebrate black athletes’ success. We should celebrate any athlete’s success. It’s because he attacked a country that, more than most, champions the same ideals he does.

Gerard Araud, the French Ambassador to the United States, wrote a long, rational, but impassioned letter to Noah, emphasising every Les Bleus player is French regardless of their birthright. All but two were born in the country. All spent their childhoods there. Their heritage is valued and respected but above all they are French.

Like AFCON, the World Cup is a cup of nations. Not continents. Not races. Many countries now field multicultural, multi-ethnic teams. The defeated World Cup finalist, Croatia, is one that doesn’t. The Balkan state is so focused on sameness that everyone is not just white but, as the American political and sports journalist Charles Pierce noted, “all their names rhyme.” Rather than celebrating the triumph of diversity over racism and nationalism [which is not to paint every Croatian with the same brush], Noah made it about black and white.

Noah argued he was promoting diversity because the French players he celebrated could be both French and African. They can, but not equally so in the context of a diverse team in an international competition. The French players' African heritage was secondary to their nationality. They were playing as Frenchmen with compatriots who were not black and others who had no ties to Africa. Trevor Noah and Africa can and should share in France's joy. The continent has influenced the majority of the squad's lives and the comedian is from Jo'burg. Every African should celebrate their ability to excel, that they can not only be equal but often the best.

It goes too far, however, to claim a victory that isn't yours. There's a difference between honouring and appropriating. It's like saying the kids who played football in Rosario, Argentina with Lionel Messi have all won the Ballon d'Or five times. They feel that anyone can if one of their own did, but when they can't leave it at that, it goes too far.  

Noah replied directly to Monsieur Araud, claiming he did not deny Les Bleus players’ nationality but was revelling "they shared my African-ness.” One could take that at face value and not underscore Noah's use of first person. His Africa? The fact is the continent is diverse. North Africa comprises mostly Berbers, Egyptians, and Lebanese. A significant portion of the population can be categorised as [no, not white, thank you, that's not where I'm going with this] brown.

Of the five CAF nations who qualified for the World Cup, three were North African. Herve Renard regularly rotated at least one black player into Morocco’s lineup during the World Cup but Tunisia’s Nabil Maaloul and Egypt’s Hector Cuper did not. Simple math tells you that black footballers were in the overall minority on 2018 African World Cup rosters. Brown players represented the continent in greater numbers, demonstrating Africa’s diversity. But the North Africans couldn't progress on their own. Nor could Senegal or Nigeria.

Didier Deschamps’ roster for France featured two players of North African descent, Abdil Rami and Nabil Fekir. Three white players were important but it was black players who dominated the squad. Whether or not he accepts it, Trevor Noah was revelling not in the diversity France shares with Africa but in the French team’s blackness at the expense of those other ethnicities, note the plural form, who contributed. His offhand joke about some players not "getting that tan by hanging out in the South of France" makes his context plain. That isn't helpful when you have made your name as a champion of diversity.

Not so long ago, Laurent Blanc managed France. His reputation was damaged by his argument that Clairefontaine, the national academy, was too focused on black players for their athleticism and overlooked intelligent white players. Trevor Noah's focus on black players does much the same for the rest of the France squad.

I think there are few more intelligent players in the game in every sense of the word than Paul Pogba but I understand the difference between athleticism and skill. Laurent didn’t want to miss the next Andrea Pirlo. Nevertheless, he couldn't have been more wrong to equate either ability with one race. Pogba learned from Pirlo at Juventus, can match his vision and imagination, and does replicate Il Maestro's sublime technique with those pinpoint diagonal passes that travel half the pitch directly to a teammate's foot.

Trevor Noah’s rationale parallels Blanc’s from the other side of the tracks. You can argue that while everyone can be racist, whites tend to be so out of insecurity and greed whereas the black strain is rooted in experience and distrust of their treatment by whites. I won’t disagree. That doesn’t make either acceptable. Is there any form of cancer you would welcome into your body? Any form of poison you would drink every night at dinner?

Deflecting criticism directed his way, Noah goes to great pains to point out France's faults as a nation. He's not lying. They exist. 

France was a colonial force involved in the slave trade and exploited African natural resources as much as any country. There are nationalists and racists in France who believe in white supremacy and speak out in its favour, just as such people still demonstrate here in America, where Noah claims we at least allow people to commemorate their heritage. Americans discriminate against minorities as much if not more than the French but there are also numerous festivals held in France that celebrate various ethnicities, as there are here.

Double standards based on socio-economic status injure both nations. African-American gold medalists are draped in the Stars and Stripes while police shoot their neighbours far more often than whites. Les Bleus stars are placed on French pedestals while unemployed minorities are referred to as immigrants. Even though foolish laws against hijabs and burqas have been passed, France takes far greater pain than America to enforce non-discrimination laws. Noah accepts the US isn't perfect. Why can't he do the same for France? 

But I've let Trevor Noah drag me like a straw man down a road I didn't want to travel. This isn't about France's faults, America's or mine. It's about his because no number of wrongs makes anything right. 

All I'm saying, Trevor Noah, is you went too far in boasting that Africa won the World Cup. You can and should celebrate that most French players share your heritage. Regardless, it doesn't make you or anyone who isn't French the reigning World Cup champion. Like it or not, that matters. Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi, N'Golo Kante, Kylian Mbappe, Nabil Fekir, Hugo Lloris, Antoine Griezmann, Benjamin Pavard, the rest of the squad and coaching staff, and not anyone else, completed that journey in Russia. Acting as Frenchmen, they proved the past can be put to bed and diverse peoples can work together in the present to improve tomorrow. You tried to lift one group above the rest. That didn't work for Croatia or any of the African nations in the tournament. In fact, it's exactly how we fell into this mess. 

As a species, we have a long way to go. Football can help us get there if we allow it. It would be wonderfully overdue if an African side, or an Asian, North American or Oceanian, won the World Cup. Europe and South America’s grip on the trophy makes Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo’s hold on the Ballon d’Or seem the blink of an eye. But trying to claim someone else’s victory as your own because their parents, grandparents or other ancestors lived in your neighbourhood at one time or another is cheap and disrespectful to who those champions were in their moment.

It’s also cherry picking. I mean, how far back in time do you want to go? If you know your anthropology, we’re all African. Therefore, we’ve all won the World Cup.

Vive le Monde.

Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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