Of Africa writers weigh in on Trevor Noah and the World Cup9 minute read

Alright, let’s recap shall we? The video below and Trevor Noah‘s initial comments about France winning the World Cup has gained a lot of attention. Specifically, people have varied opinions on his referring to the French team, which featured a lot of players with parents who had African origins, as an ‘African team’.

We discussed the fall out in our Of Africa Writers group answering the questions:

What are our thoughts as people ‘Of Africa’? Does referring to ourselves as women ‘Of Africa’ undermine our citizenship or nationality, for those of us who hold citizenship of non African nations?

Annette Joseph-Gabriel: First time Of Africa writer, Posting from the USA

This has been a fascinating conversation. On the surface, the ambassador is wrong and Trevor is right. The thing is, there is more to it than that. I agree with some of the ambassador’s letter, specifically the last sentence that calling the team African “legitimizes the ideology which claims whiteness as the only definition of being French.” Certainly, you can be black and French, and therefore the players are not any less French because they are black. But that sentence doesn’t fit with the rest of his letter. Sure, France doesn’t have hyphenated identities but that is only true on paper. They may not call you Français-Africain but they will most certainly call you “français d’origine africaine” all day whether that is how you describe yourself or not. So really, outside of that one sentence which can be redeemed when read in a different context, the rest of the letter is garbage. But Trevor too got mad problematic, especially when he tried to argue that he called the team African in order to “celebrate the achievement” of “these Africans who can become French.” Putting Frenchness on a pedestal as something that Africans can achieve is literally the definition of the French colonial “civilizing mission.” In 5 minutes Trevor managed to both call out colonialism and reproduce its rhetoric. This happens because we still don’t have the language to talk about the complexity of citizenship that can be multiple. In my book, I show that black women (Suzanne Cesaire, Paulette Nardal, Aoua Keita, Eslanda Robeson and others) gave us a slew of definitions and terminology that would begin to capture this complexity (#citeblackwomen). So as we all sit here debating whether the team is French or African or French-African, France will continue to disavow race and religion as anything more than “an individual reality” all the while actively continuing policies that exclude and disenfranchise people BASED ON race and religion. The takeaway: the ambassador’s letter is garbage but we should not dismiss his words. Trevor is only partially right and we should be careful how much we celebrate a discourse that performatively challenges France’s colonial history while also replicating colonial ideology.

Mayada Serageldin:  Of Africa Writer, Posting from Egypt

I agree with Annette, the letter is garbage. It reeks of colonialism – Egypt was once colonized by the French, and their end-game never changes: eliminate other cultures and make them all French. I can’t speak for African-French people, but I hear narratives from African-Europeans (as in other nationalities) and they’re not pretty. I don’t want to generalize though.

As much as I love Trevor, I can’t agree with him – the players may have French origins but they chose to play for the French team, hence the win is for France. I work in regular migration and we sure used the case as an example that Europe shouldn’t be afraid of migrants. But I wouldn’t call it an African win.

Tafadzwa Zvobgo: First time Of Africa Writer, Posting from France

I think that this debate on bicultural identity is not a new issue or problem. There are many flaws in Gérard Araud’s, the French Ambassadors, letter. However, he does make some valid points. Firstly, he highlights how the members of the national team identify themselves, as French. We seem to be rushing to label them African or français d’origine africaine (French of African origin). And still, they have not yet publicly responded to this current Trevor Noah debate (to my knowledge). I believe that ignoring how the players are identifying themselves is a mistake. They see themselves as FRENCH… I agree with the Ambassador when he says “roots are an individual reality”. To give an example, a white South African who refers to themselves as being African, are they wrong in claiming they are African or are they being ignorant? The same applies to the French team, are they wrong in calling themselves French or are they being ignorant? I think they are not wrong in identifying themselves as French.

Cultural identity is assimilated, learned from experience, and adopted from the environment we find ourselves in. If they do not identify themselves as African it is because maybe they have not assimilated or adopted the African culture. Africaness is NOT just the colour of your skin. We cannot call them African because they are black or mixed race. Contemporary Africaness is also cultural. This does not mean that I am disregarding or overlooking France’s colonial history. But the current debate is more on their identity today not during France’s colonial era. This leads to my second point. Gérard Araud states at the end of the letter “by calling them African……this legitimises the ideology which claims whiteness as the only definition of being French”. And he is right. By forcing the African label upon the football team we are essentially saying that the team members are African because of the colour of their skin. We are unfortunately reverting to identity politics that is solely based on race. Having said that Trevor Noah does try to make some valid points too but his arguments are inherently flawed as Annette and Mayada have splendidly pointed out.

Stacey Mac Donald: Of Africa Writer and Editor, Posting from The Netherlands

I absolutely agree with all of the comments above! I do agree with the point that Trevor makes regarding the fact that when ‘migrants’ do good, they are included within the national identity of a country and when they do good, they often are denied that identity. You see the same thing happening in the Netherlands (especially with athletes). I find it even more troubling here at times because here people/migrants from the Dutch Caribbean already HAVE the Dutch Nationality. But as soon as they are involved in crime or something negative, they are being referred to as ‘Aruban’/’Curacao-an’ etc… Moreover, this often is not a race thing at all. That’s why my argument was – I suppose also reflected towards the media – that they should be more consistent in the way they address people in general. And like Annette mentioned – I think it is fair to mention the roots of an athlete and then ALSO refer to them as being part of the Nation they play for. In my opinion, that is a win-win, as it allows for addressing the issue of being ‘bi-cultural’, colonial legacies, individual identity, pride and inclusiveness all in one.

P.S. I wrote a piece for a Dutch newspaper a couple of years ago about pretty much the same thing. Translated into a blog in English for work! You can read it here.

Annette Joseph-Gabriel: First time Of Africa Writer, Posting from the USA

I am concerned that these responses are agreeing with what they think I have said rather than what I have actually said. I say this not to stoke any ill will but rather to practice the same level of nuance that I am asking of Trevor Noah. So let me clarify: 1) You can be French and African. Lots of people identify this. I do for goodness sake. Claiming one does not negate the other. To believe that calling the team African denies their Frenchness is to not have listened to Trevor’s argument and is to fall right back into colonial rhetoric. So to be clear, the players can be French and African and it wouldn’t make them any less French than if their parents were from Bretagne or Normandie. 2) The players have been articulating their multiple and composite identities way before Trevor ever weighed in on the debate. They have done so on their social media feeds as they film their post-match victory celebrations. They specifically choose music that delineates an Afro-diasporic geography and they include captions in French and Creole. There is more than one way to publicly articulate your identity. Those deliberately curated playlists and linguistic choices are one of those ways. So yes we have been listening (in more ways than one) to the players and they are not expressing an oversimplified flat French identity. To conclude, I agree with the core of Trevor’s message. Identities are not just one or the other. They can be complex, multiple and nuanced because…colonialism. The only thing I take issue with is some of his wording.

Naliaka Odera: Of Africa Writer and Managing Editor, Posting from Kenya

It’s the faux outrage that angers me. Having lived life as a black African European, I can say that not being perceived as European enough is par for the course. I can say that people constructing a racist and reductive biography of you is par for the course. I can say that not being seen as the ‘right type’ of European is par for the course. I call them an African French team not to take away their Frenchness, but to make sure their Africanness is not erased from the victory. In a climate that is vehemently anti-immigrant, this team won by using children of immigrants. Africans claim them as proud sons who left and prospered but did not forget their roots. It is an attempt to override the vile conversation that only emphasizes one’s ‘other’ when one is seen as negatively impacting their community. As a Kenyan who grew up in Belgium, I was so moved by Lukaku’s essay on playing for Belgium as a man of Congolese descent. I would urge everybody to read it.

Now, here is a bunch of videos of the French team dancing using a variety of African dance moves.

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