Monthly Archives: May 2015

Thou shall not force anyone to come out

This week is starting with the coming-out of Joey Graceffa which, for me, is indeed a major event for the gay community. His coming-out is pretty common in terms of what he says about being gay in itself. He has, like many of us, come to terms with the fact that, notwithstanding the expectations and rules of the outside world, his sexuality does not and will not define who he is, what he does. It’s just a matter of heart. However, it is important because it was seen by, at least, his four or so million subscribers.

What interests me is he mentions the fear of being outed and that’s what I want to address because it is also a major issue within and outside the community.

For all of us, coming out is much more than saying out loud to the world or just one person that we like to “get it up the arse”. This is, first and foremost, the most visible, public outcome of months, years, maybe decades of struggles with your inner self during which you are realising more or less slowly that you don’t belong to what is considered and shown as “the norm”. Not matter how tolerant your family and society you grew in might be, homosexuality is still not a norm. It has still not reached the same status of normality that heterosexuality has always had. Being gay is still tainted with many positive and negative prejudices.

So you are something else but what does that mean? What does that involve? It was easy to have girlfriends when I was a boy because I could just be like my dad and mum, like the people on TV, in books and everywhere. But what does it mean to be gay? Does it change my way of being altogether? Will I get AIDS too? I remember being terrified of it because I heard gay people get AIDS. I don’t know why or how exactly at the time but I was terrified of being sick because I would just think one of my classmate was rather cute.

Do I always choose the girls when playing video games because I am gay? Am I a feminist because I am gay? Do I own a pink tie because I am gay? Am I a good baker because I am gay? Am I close to my mother because I am gay? Are straight men never doing or being any of the above? Was I conditioned…am I still conditioned solely by my sexuality above all else? Am I just a programmed thing whereas straight people enjoy the freedom of choice, being born free of their sexuality?

Even I, who grew up in a non-homophobic family, am still struggling trying to define who I was, who I am and therefore what my place within the society could and will be. I never had to worry about what my family would think or do but I am one of the exception. Some…many people, in fact an important majority of LGBT people does not have the support of a family who treats you exactly the same as your straight relatives and they are not born in a country where mentalities are changing. People are still being hung and murdered by their own parents so coming out for them is not just question of finding out and defining who you are, it is also a question of survival. How much of the people you love you will eventually lose. How many of them will reject you, will hit you, will go as far as killing you , blinded by their faith or their eagerness to save face and remain part of the murderous community.

I never faced death. I was born in Versailles, the posh and influencial, well-educated Western suburb of Paris and yet, I did experience stones and cigarette burns on my neck and that’s when people just assume I was gay so I don’t know if I could ever be as comfortable as I am today with my sexuality if someone else had just officially outed me when I was not ready. I would have withdrawn, rejected my true nature because people would have started filling my head again with their definition of who I am supposed to be: “You are gay so you have to do, be, think, fuck and act this way”. I feel like my life would have been limited to certain jobs, certain places, certain people and I would have never been able to say: Yes, I am gay…What has it got to do with teaching German grammar?”

Outing someone without their permission is therefore not just an act of disrespect, it has deep psychological consequences that can go as far as life-threatening for we don’t know the ins and outs of someone’s private life, whether they are famous or simply a neighbour’s kid or even of our own family. There are actually very little cases of accidental outings. Most of them are acts of revenge, retaliation or simply and purely of destruction of the other and we, the LGBT community, must be able to draw from our own struggle to understand the scale of coming-out so we can protect people who are not yet ready to do so but also support our peers who wish to keep it private without shaming them, calling them “cowards”, “closeted”, “half-baked gays” and reducing to second-class gays.

If the message is that sexuality is a private matter irrelevant to public life, coming-out, the act of making one’s sexuality more or less public, shall remain a personal decision and not become a matter of social pressure.

And this goes for famous people as well. I do not buy to this tabloid-like rhetoric that they have a responsibility to be role-models, to expose their private life, to speak for the community, to educate the world. That they deserve, they should, they have a mission to have every single of their word analysed, every single of their moves followed, every single of their interviews dissected by all parties to serve the purpose each are pursuing.

I don’t believe, like some said with outrage, that Tom Daley coming out last year means he should have boycotted the competition in Moscow because of Russia’s treatment of gay people. He’s a diver and coming out has not made him a speaker for the whole community. He has not said he wanted to be a speaker for the community, he never pretended that what he did or said was a reflection on the whole gay community (whatever that is). He just felt the need to tell people that he had come to terms with a long struggle. I don’t expect him to be a speaker just because he can dive. This would be desperately foolish of me. Coming out should not force him to give up on trying to be the world’s best diver. It’s a choice he should be able to make one way or the other without being treated like a second-class gay.

I talked about his coming-out previously and why I think we still need people like him to do so. Because they are banalising being gay to irrelevance, they are showing that who they are and who they fuck are not linked and that the prejudices we are all trying to see out of are actually irrelevant, whether they are good or bad. You can be, do, think, believe anything and be gay.

However, not matter how much I believe how useful and a blessing these coming-outs are, I am appalled by the (frankly angry sometimes) endless calls, even from within the community, to famous people to come out so they can put on the supergayhero cape, fight discrimination and be role models to the rest of the world. I read newspaper where columnists are asking, even demanding famous footballers, rugby players or tennis players to “finally!” come out because they think it would stop homophobia in their respective sport. We need some high class gay footballers to come out so we can show all the idiots you can be good at football and get it up the butt. That’s the message I read, even in papers like the Guardian or Le Monde.

Why is it their responsibility to display their sexuality in order to change mentalities? Why is it the responsibility of individuals to publically talk about what kind of gender they fuck so that reactionary idiots stop abusing them? Why is it that the victims have to reveal even more of their private life so their executioners stop trying to murder them? Was it for the victims to prove themselves, to prove they don’t deserve the hits and insults to begin with?

If some people want to do so, it is a major commitment and responsibilty. We should therefore encourage them but if people do not want to do it, we should respect and accept it. After all, we have already had hundreds if not thousands of famous people in all walks of life who came out and are proving homophobes wrong on a daily basis. Some of them by just being themselves, others by taking a bigger step and campaigning, talking, raising awareness. How many more famous gay people will have to say “I like sucking dicks” before the papers and the community are satisfied? All of us? Is “out loud and proud” a prerequisite to being a “real gay”, the way “real Catholics” are only the ones going to church?

If homophobia remains strong in football or other aspects of life, it is not because gay footballers are “closeted cowards” but because there is a systematic, willful failing by the state and the relevant institutions to educate. It’s not because the famous gays have failed their community by choosing to keep their sexuality a private matter, it is because we still expect the victims to be solving the abuse they are suffering from on their own.  “Your fellow gays are being abused, it’s your responsibility to come out, help them and lead by example” is basically the mantra.

 

Not a single gay person, famous or unknown should be forced to make their sexuality public for whatever reason or purpose, good or bad, because coming out means coming to terms with a whole new vision of the world. This is not just the beginning of a new life but the end of another. It is like being forced out of your parent’s home by some strangers because they decided it was time for you to do so. What if you are not ready? The consequences can be and are often terrible and irreversible.

It is time we acknowledge the deep struggle a coming-out is putting an end to.

It is time we acknowledge that coming-out never means life is from then on going to be easy and that it can actually open the way to more existential questions if not the actual Pandora’s box.

It’s time we acknowledge that no degree of fame will ever make that struggle easier and that we need to stop begging for famous people to come out thinking they are going to solve the problem of homophobia by exposing their sexuality.

It’s time we stop forcing people to come out or simply stop outing them to begin with.

It’s time we praise and respect the ones who choose to keep their sexuality a strictly private matter as well as the ones who are using it to fight intolerance because both are serving the same purpose: to make homosexuality irrelevant to who a person is.

This is why we built the European Union

Warsaw, 1945.

I long hesitated on which city to choose and what to show: the burning pile of bodies of 1945 Dresden, the children walking in the streets of Berlin, the lone standing churches of Rotterdam, Cologne or Arras, the omnipresence of Death during the Siege of Lenigrad, the scale of destruction at Stanligrad but I decided to go for Poland for it had become, during the war, the pit of human-made horror.

This picture is why we built the European Union.

We built the European Union so we could create a place where countries were so dependent on us each that we would never be able to settle our differences by scores of death and destruction anymore.

We built the European Union on the bodies of 60 million people so that after millennia of fratricidal wars, we could finally accept that we were different yet the same. Before the EU, our autocratic regimes then nationalism and fascism had made us believe that our differences meant we would never get along and the only we had to find a solution a problem that seemed unsolvable was to take arms, mobilise men as young as 14 and throw them with ever-greater force on the top of each other for generals and leaders to see who had suffered the least damage and could therefore claim victory.

We built the European Union so we could, for the very first time in the history of humanity, find a truly civilised alternative to death as a referee to our differences of opinion, belief, ideology, form of political regime, culture, language and ruling dynasty. One will say that European countries are still using the old men-world methods outside. It’s true and I am the first one to be ashamed of it but it has also showed the world that it was possible to think and do differently and ever since it has been created, countries all over the world have decided to more or less give it a go from South American countries to the Far-East

We built European Union on the idea that by being together, we would always be stronger, individually and collectively, than by constantly trying to overcome our neighbour’s perceived power. Like a V-sign to the English-world’s 19th century conception of the laws of Nature, competition against the other powerful and destruction of the mild are not the only way forward anymore. Even in the midst of the worst economic crisis we have ever known, the European Union as an entity is still the richest, economically most powerful and geographically best-integrated and most tolerant place in the world. The erstwhile ridiculed idea of solidarity as a power has made its way for the great and the good.

Now, yes, it is not perfect. Yes, it is riddled witg forces  trying to use and abuse it for their own purpose. Yes, it has to live with the cancer of racism, intolerance and accept in its very core forces that want, and maybe will, eventually destroy it but, in that aspect, it is no different than any other democracy. These forces were, are and will always be there whether we work as one or alone within our own little, supposedly opaque and foreign-proof borders. So we may as well work as one to resist them.

Yes, it’s difficult everyday but no one said it would be easy. At the end of this memorial day, let’s remember that the European Union has managed to rethink how we deal with each other: with diplomacy, negotiation and talking. It has brought 27 countries nursing hundreds of different languages, dialects, cultures and sensibilities together in a way that has never been done before and it is getting them to finally talk to solve problems. The European Union has forced countries to accept and promote differences, cultures and languages in and out of their borders. Before the EU, these countries and regions only saw one thing in each of its neighbour and dissidence: a threat. So every single one of them only saw one possibility when it came to dealing with it: wars and destruction. Wars to get what you thought was yours, wars to protect what you believed was yours.

Yes, talking and talking and talking takes more time than getting a gun out and killing the person you are arguing with in order to win the argument. Yes, talks and talks and talks are less flashy, exciting and newsworthy than a “good old bloody war” when it comes to printing newspapers that need to attract readers. Some good old scattered bodies, dead babies in the arms of crying, blood-covered mothers is so much fancier but that’s why we built the European Union, so would never have to deal with it anymore, on our land to begin with, and maybe eventually the world.

Yes, it seems to be getting nowhere in Ukraine but it does. Believe me, as an historian, it would have taken barely a month for the WWIII to happen if we had kept our old ways of dealing with things. With all the Western Europe and all its allies up in arms against Russia and all its allies, with countries in Eastern Europe bullied into taking side and turned into an Orwellian battlefield. All because a handful of Russian separatists were more comfortable with a docile, Russia-friendly Ukraine and believe life is only worth living under the umbrella of Moscow.

The European Union has allowed someone like me to have never seen Death reaping, to have never been forced to take a gun and kill a complete stranger because I was told to and in my mind, it was him or me. It has sheltered generations of people from the trauma of killing another human being, of having to hide from oblivion and see their entire life reduced to dust. It has taught us that fighting is not the solution as it does not solve problems in the long-term, rather creating resentment and the nationalistic dream of revenge. It has taught us that laying a punch will not make your opponent admit defeat forever, just long enough make you believe you won until he thinks he has become stronger enough to lay the punch back.

On this day, when we remember that more than 20 million people from the USSR have been slaughtered to free Europe, that more than 10 million German, French, Polish, Dutch, Belgian, Danish, Czech, Russian, Ukrainian, Italian, Greek Jews, Muslims, Christians, Socialists, Communists, gypsies, gays and lesbians, young and old, men and women, healthy and disabled people were imprisoned, enslaved, starved, tortured, used as lab rats and systematically killed because they supposedly were not fitting a race, an ideology, a vision of nationalism…On this day, we shall never forget that this is why we build the European Union. So it never happens again!

It is now your mission as well as mine to protect the EU, to believe in it, to remember its true purpose.

It is essential we resist the voices of the destructive forces I mentioned earlier. These forces democracy has to tolerate and live with, the ones that could destroy it from the inside. The ones telling you that Europe is the enemy truly working against you. They are the ones who want to make you believe that the scores are already settled. They are the ones who are calling the EU a dictatorship whilst conveniently forgetting to mention to the rest of the country when the next European elections are or encourage people to vote. They are the ones loving the “political stability” of China and whose constant scaremongering has told us that the uncertainty of elections is bad for the economy*. They are the ones who are trying to discourage you from voting by saying that it is irrelevant. They are doing this because they either have a lot to lose if you were to vote or their nostalgia of a glorious past is blinding them into the reality of the lives our ancestors actually lived and they think the EU is responsible for all modern evil.

The European Union was and is being built, expanded and kept up by democracies which have not created a continent-size dictatorship but put in a place a parliament where only politicians elected by their people are sitting. No one is where they are because they were chosen by an oligarchy.

We are not China where people do not have a say on the future of their country and therefore their own. If austerity happens in China, it will indeed by forced upon them by the system they have not chosen but if austerity is “forced on us” by Brussels, it is only because people vote massively for the right-wing, conservative People’s Party who has been championing all the austerity measures that are making our lives difficult and inequality worse all across the continent. You want things to change? You think they are betraying the true purpose of the EU? As I said, it’s a democracy: change happens if you vote for change.

 

I don’t agree with everything it does but I do believe in Europe because I will never forget why we have been building it, because I believe in democracy, because I believe in working together regardless of our differences, because I am ready to accept these differences, because I believe in its ability to  be a force for good; for peace and forward thinking. And mostly because it has made me a first-class citizen by making me responsible for its future, as well as my future by giving me the right to vote after crashing to pieces the fascism it has given birth to almost a century ago.

* “According to the International Monetary Fund, which said uncertainty surrounding the election would undermine growth forecasts”  – The Guardian: IMF forecast blows hole in George Osborne’s deficit reduction plan.

The realm of the outdoors

Two weeks ago, I was at work and a colleague was telling us about her grandchildren. They were a “disgrace”, this “new generation” because the weather was beautiful and they could not even be bothered to go outside and envoy it. They would rather stay in all day playing some video games of some sort. Her problem: it was sunny and the children would not go out – like she would, presumably.

Then, a couple of day ago, the weather had changed into rainy days, right when the holidays started and she had her grandchildren staying with her. I saw her again and this time she was telling us about the weather and her “poor grandchildren” who could not even go out. I played dumb and asked her why.
“Because it’s raining!”, she said. I knew that was coming and I couldn’t stop myself, I had to be an annoying bitch.
“So?”, I asked gingerly.
“Well, I can’t let them go outside when it’s raining. They’ll get wet.” I told her she could let them go out.
“They are not made of sugar, they are not going to melt, you know. And maybe they don’t go out when it’s sunny because someone ‘s told them it was bad for their skin…”

She was outraged but I made my point about this endless complaining about the weather which is never good enough and mainly about the conflicting messages we are giving to children regarding what they can and cannot do when it comes to the outdoors.

That woman, born in the 1950s, would just not let her grand-children out because it was raining and they might wet and catch a cold. So the kids were doomed to stay inside and find a way to entertain themselves which turned out to be hours in their phones.  And she hates this. She wants them to connect with her although her childhood is probably filled with endless rainy afternoons at her own grand-parents when she had wished she was allowed to just get away from them, whichever the weather was.

I could have pointed out to her that as a child, she would not minded the rain if it meant having fun, but what got me the most was that same, endless chorus of “that new generation these days, really…Never wanting to go out. In my days…”. This business is seriously getting on my nerves, mainly because I hate the fact that the kids are being blamed for basically trying to adapt to all the scaremongering their parents have been subjecting them for generations when it comes to being outside. Your children are like this because of the education you gave them, because of the role models you were to them and your relationship with the outdoors will determine their willingness to experience it and feel at ease within it.

I am 31 now and for a long time, I have been this “new generation” but it turns out that I am not anymore. I am old enough to be the old “new generation”, judging by the ridiculously nostalgia-filled, fact-free, oblivious and conservative Facebook posts of a number of my 30-something friends. They are all describing a childhood in the 1980/1990s: free of videogames and Internet which allowed us to run free in the fields, hunt for frogs at dusk and play football outside until our kitchen-living, marriage-tamed mothers would call us for dinner. We would then beg for more time because there was nothing like spending time outdoors with our friends and nothing, not even the darkest night, would stop us. We were free. We were Laura Ingalls in the Little House in the Prairie, the wild nature was our playing field.

The problem with this vision is that it’s not what happened, it’s what most of us inspired to when we were kids.  I am not even talking about our teenage years when the Internet did arrive and we were the first generation to spent hours on consoles. I was lucky enough to be able to live this kind of running in the fields fantasy but most of us did not because something or someone would grab us by the collar and shout “Stop running!” as we were heading out.

A friend of mine, mother of a toddler boy, loves posting these nostalgic views. According to her, and many others of my still young age, the younger people today are wasting their life away by staying in, stuck on their phones, laptops and videogames. “They will never experience the joy of real life as we did”, she said. “Even with their friends, they’d prefer going to each other’s place and stay in rather than going out”.

Then I went to see her, we had lunch and a walk in the park but I discovered with shock that she was that kind of parents who is constantly warning their children about the danger of everything. In her eyes, and now the eyes of her son, the whole world is a minefield and death is lurking behind every daffodil.

It was sunny so he had to wear a hat and sun cream (in March!), every plant he touched she would snatch away from him and clean his hand with a sanitised wipe. We sat down on the grass and she took out two blankets that she put on top of each other (“sometimes germs get through the first one anyway”) and that was the only space where he could play. Any toy trespassing was swiftly taken away and put in a bag for thorough washing later at home and eventually, because he kept trying to explore his world, like every toddler, she put him on a dog leash so he just stayed there nibbling on his fingers until she gave him her Ipad with an “educational game” to play. Everything he did that meant reaching the outside world was stopped with a warning of danger even when it could have been an oppportunity to experience and learn. Instead, he went to the park and played with an Ipad. He’s 3 years old.

From a person who keeps on reminiscing on her childhood free of all constraint, she was quick to keep her own child was in a cage everytime he steps in the outdoors. I won’t be surprised if that child never wants to go out later and would prefer staying in. I won’t be surprised if he can’t tell a robin from a blackbird or a rose from lilac. I won’t be surprised if he gets grumpy when it rains and only wants to see the sun but never be exposed to it. Tanning booth and St Tropez tan, please.

And why? Because I suddenly realised that he will be exactly like his mother.  She can’t tell a robin from a black bird, she fake-tans before sunbathing because she was told it was safer and the only reason why she agreed to have lunch in the park and not in a café is because I insisted and told her I had not driving for two hours to sit behind a bloody window. I was paler than it was safe to know about and I wanted to be outside. She did put a scarf on because “the air was frisky”. It was 24° in Paris that day.

I can tell the difference between a robin and a blackbird just by listening to them. I know the names the trees and I like all kind of weather expect one (the unified light grey layered sky). I like the sun, I love the rain, the wind, hail, snow and thunderstorms. I like to go and run outside when the rain is lashing down during the summer supercell’s thunderstorms. The water is warm, the wind is strong and you let yourself drown by the power of Nature. I realised I hadn’t done it for years, going out in the middle of thunderstorms, so last year I did and no one but me was in the streets. Cars passing by looked at me like I was an alien standing in the river that the road had become.

Why me and not her? She looked horrified when I told her this. “You should never go out under a thunderstorm or you’ll get stroke by lightning!”.

Me and not her because all her childhood she heard all the following:
Don’t go out in the rain, you’ll get wet and you’ll get sick!
Don’t go out in the wind, you’ll catch a cold!
Don’t go out in the snow for too long or you’ll get too cold and you’ll get sick!
Don’t stay out in the sun for too long because you’ll get sun burned!
Don’t stay out in the heat because you’ll a fever!
Don’t go out in the sun between noon and 4pm because it is too bright and dangerous!
Don’t go out, it’s foggy and you will get run over by a car!
Don’t go swim for three hours after you ate something because of a phenomenon that no medical record has ever proved to exist!
Don’t touch this leaf! I don’t know what it is so you might get poisoned!
Don’t get go anywhere near a hedgehog, it’s full of fleas, it’s dangerous!
Don’t go look at that swan, it will get angry and break your arm!

Millions of children heard, are hearing and will hear this nonsense. Millions of children who then grow weary, scare or outright uninterested in the outdoors they see as a danger when not a complete bore or a nuisance that needs to be destroyed. No wonder, they always stay in!

I never heard any of these from my mother. Or anyone from my family as a matter of fact and everyone else looked at us weirdly. It’s not new. My grand-mother, born in 1936, and her siblings were already seen as bad seeds and daredevils by some of their classmates for they like the outdoors too much. It looks uncivilised. So at home, in a long family tradition, my mother always ridiculed my uneducated and scare-prone father and did not care for which weather we were playing under.

Maybe because we come from an enlightened family where I-heared-thats, such as cold-water drowning, have never had a place, for some of us were scientists and doctors, but all I know is that she never stopped us from going outside whichever the weather was. When it is sunny, my mother was the first to take us out and lounge with a book for hours while we were playing, all under the bright sun. She was getting looks at the time already and it was the 1980s.

So as usual, when the sun finally showed up a month ago, I went out and told a friend of mine that I was sunbathing. She said “Oh God, you shouldn’t! The first rays are always the most dangerous”.  That doesn’t even mean anything! She had been complaining about the bad weather for weeks and now that the sun was there, she was already weary of it, looking at it from the inside. “What a beautiful weather! But I am not going out, yet. It’s too dangerous”. And she is 35. How much do you bet her children will belong to this new “new generation who never goes out when it’s sunny”? Her parents were born in the early 1950 and already, they filled the heads of their children with ideas that the weather and the outdoors was full of dangers and need to be avoided.

My mother taught us to love the rain. It’s good for the garden and birds can find insects to feed their young. She would take us out to collect snails we would keep for a few days and feed herbs before realising them. Or crab that come when it rains on the beaches of Normandy. I was surprised to discover that none of my friends’ parents ever did that with them. And comes to think of it, my brother and I were almost the only ones to be out when it was raining. I remember friends of mine were forbidden from jumping in puddles of water or go near the river. We could do whatever we wanted, come back home soaking wet and covered in mud, my mother would just wash the clothes and get us in a bath. No word of having been an “irresponsible child who will deserve to catch a cold.

When it snows, she would take us out. It was not a question of yes or no from us. We would have to turn the Sega off, whatever level we were about to reach with Sonic, and go out to play with her. We did not have a sledge so we would take bin liners or kitchen trays but we had to beg to go out and it was fun. I regretted Sonic until the first sliding down.

When we don’t know a leaf, we would look at it carefully and look it up at home. She taught us that a hedgehog’s fleas are not interested in us and that every garden should have a family of hedgehogs because they are cute and they eat slugs which otherwise eat the leaves of our favourite plants.

My childhood now sounds like the ones of these Facebook posts but it has nothing to do with living in the 1980s, the 1990s or the 2010s. My family has always suffered some finger-pointing by people who would raise their children afraid and weary of all weather, all animals except for pets, all outdoor situations. Everything is a danger, everything is a risk, and everything is something their children will have to stay away from. And this has not started with the “new generation”.

You want your child to go out? Stop making them fear the outside! Let them play in the mud, the water, run in the rain. Make them love the outdoors and stop blaming everyone but yourself. It’s not your children’s fault if they can’t see the point of being outside, it’s because you never make them want to be there to begin with. My mother taught me the love of Nature and I regularly stop playing games or get off the Internet for hours just to sit still in her garden under a drizzling rain to watch sparrow, starlings, tits, blackbirds and robins feed and fight over some peanuts or bad apples we had put there for them. It took me six hours to write this piece because the sun showed its ray after four days of uninterrupted rain and I went to have a thorough tour of my mother’s garden.

Teach your child the love of the outdoors and they would gladly take their bike to ride for hours rather than sitting down at a computer. It takes nothing but to start with believing that Nature is here for us to admire and to appreciate whether it’s sunny or rainy.

t to have a thorough tour of my mother’s garden. Teach your child the love of the outdoors and they would gladly take their bike to ride for hours rather than sitting down at a computer. It takes nothing but to start with believing that Nature is here for us to admire and to appreciate whether it’s sunny or rainy.

Of differences and racism.

“Oh my God, Sir! That is so racist” is a sentence that has always put me in some ungodly rage against the one who had just accused me of being what I have been fighting against all my life. I always see the faces of my students turning white when I don’t shout – I never do – but rather go ballistic on them. These are the only times I threaten to have anyone expelled by the end of the day for smearing. They suddenly understand that they have crossed a line. A line way more important than swearing, by calling me a racist.

The problem I have today with these words (racist, sexist, homophobic…) is that it is misused and abused by everyone left, right and centre. The Right always pretends not to be any of these but “to simply be stating the truth”, the Left is terrified of being misunderstood and sounding intolerant when they are not and in the centre are all the people who suffer from some kind of intolerance, amongst whom, many will see the oppression in the simple mention of their differences.

I am always shocked by how quick people are to call everyone else a racist, a sexist, a xenophobe or a homophobe. ‘Racist’ is now a word the young people are using for everything. Do anything, mention anything about another culture or skin colour and you are “a racist”. My American friend got told she was being racist because they went a lesbian club with a slightly Asian-sounding name and then she asked the others “What did you think of the Asian club?” That was racist of her, apparently. Another friend was called a racist because we were talking about Jay-Z and she suddenly realised that she had never been really sexually attracted to any black man “so far”. The third person was outraged but what was she supposed to do? Pretend she slept with someone of each colour, religion, language, culture, country so she doesn’t sound racism. I guess not to say anything would be the answer but she was not trying to undermine anyone. It’s not like she said something like “I am not sleeping with black men because they are all rapists”. Black men don’t get her going, what’s the big deal? And she clearly said “so far” so she is clearly open to being with a black man but the other person was lost already. For her, she was a racist.

So we hear that all the time. “That’s so racist!” and for me it proves people don’t know what racism is.

What is actual racism?

I always teach my students the definition because I tell them that calling someone a racist when they are not is an insult as bad as using the N word when talking to a black person. You have to be careful and think with a cool head whether the person is just pointing out a difference or is using it against you to justify their so-called superiority, to justify intolerance and unfairness.

I tell them that factual differences between people must never mean different treatment in the face of the law. As I said many times when talking about feminism: boys and girls are biologically different but they must be equal when it comes to the whole of the society. The same is true for skin colour, sexual orientation, religion, language,  waist-size… Any kind of rhetoric that advertise otherwise are indeed racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic…

The topic is difficult because victims are the ones who call out on what others are saying or doing and the danger is to get it wrong. Once I was called a racist by some parents because a girl I was teaching, and whose family was coming from the Philippines, asked what the Spanish word for “slanting” eyes was. We were describing ourselves physically and they were outraged that I taught her how to describe her physical difference in a foreign language. For the mother, it was “bad enough that people pointed it out in English”, there was no need for me to “add insult to the injury”. And she turned to the headteacher who genuinely asked her what the problem was and the mother told her that mentioning somebody’s difference was an act of racism in itself. It meant something more otherwise, I “would not have noticed”.

What? So the fact that I saw she had slanting eyes makes me a racist because normal people are blind to that? That’s the new thinking behind people who like to say they don’t see that black people are black when they just want to say that it is irrelevant to them. Adichie talks brilliantly about these “colour-blind” people in Americanah.

Being a victim of casual racism, like I am of everyday homophobia, she has probably interiorised what racism is looking to do: to link what you are with who you are. To do what Linnaeus and others did in the 18th century and they called determinism. If you are white therefore you will be that kind of person but if you are black, you are a different kind of person entirely, just because your skin puts you in a “different race”. This is what Europeans used to justify their colonising the world, enslaving and killing the “inferior races” they came “to tame and teach civilisation to”. They were something else so they were also somebody else, somebody less than “the white, civilised man.”

As a victim she has accepted the racist idea that…well, first of all, that races themselves exist as such, but mainly that we have to erase the difference between the What you are and the Who you are. Not for the same purpose, of course.

This is a counter-racism movement slowly but surely coming in Europe from America where you act at the opposite of racism: instead of using the differences to justify unfairness, domination and exclusion (all the way to genocide and ethnic cleansing) through the creation and spreading of prejudices attached to these very differences, you deny the fact that people are factually different in hope that if you don’t mention the differences, all the prejudices will also not be mentioned and eventually become irrelevant.

Racism is using the What to reduce, enclose and undermine the Who. The new anti-racist movement wants to make the What irrelevant to being with. And this is what I find, after racism itself, to be one of the biggest threats to humanity: the denying of our differences.

For me, denying that we are all different is going to bring nothing but an industry-like standardisation of humanity as a colour-less, genderless, sexless, bland, emotionally empty, blind and mute entity. “We are all human”, yes! I agree with that, we are all on the same level. That’s why I don’t believe in “races”. We are the human race, the one and only. “So we are the same”, no! We are all different and we have to nurture these differences because they bring out the worst and the best of us, they make us move forward. They make us human.

What we have to do to fight is not to level down everybody to fit one mould but to teach people about the unknown, to allow them to see the other, the stranger, the foreigner, the different What so they can see for themselves that laziness is not some kind of black people’s monopoly, for instance or that the 65 million people born or living in France are not all rude and chain-smoking.

If children can’t experience for themselves what all city dwellers are living everyday next to people from all horizons, we then have to explain to children that there is no automatic correlation between What you are, the boxes you tick on the census, and Who you are. We have to show them that personality-wise, you will be closer to someone who lives across the Earth with a different skin colour, religion, language, culture and even gender than you are to your twin brother. If What and Who were linked, identical twins would indeed be the same people.

Declaring that black people should not be called “black” anymore because “it’s so racist” or pretending we don’t see the colour of their skin is not going to make any race-related problems disappear.  We see it in America at the moment and where mentioning someone’s colour will automatically brand you a racist. Even saying that the sky is really black will get a “That’s so racist!”.

To my point of view, it is poisoning the debate because we have to talk about something we can’t mention.  It is just going to add that extra layer of resentment, guilt, confusion and uneasiness when it comes to talking about the issues such as racism, sexism, homophobia or anti-Semitism We have to keep the debate open, clear and objective.

Saying that I am white with a darker skin tone that most people from Europe is not racist. It’s a fact.
Saying that I am French is not xenophobic, it’s a fact.
Saying that I am fat is not “fatism”, it’s a fact – uncalled for, but a fact.
Saying that I am gay is not homophobia, it’s a fact.
Saying that my mother is a woman is not sexist, it’s a fact.
Saying that my best-friends has Polish ancestry is not racism, it’s a fact.
Saying that one of my closest friend is black is not racism, it’s a fact.
Saying that my friend from Japan is Asian and has slant eyes is not racism, it’s a fact.

These facts are not the problem, they are not the intolerance, judgment and exclusion. They are not prejudices, they are not meant to undermine anyone. The following statements, however, are:

Saying that I am French therefore I am rude is not a fact, it is xenophobic.
Saying that I am fat therefore I have no will power and will make a worse employee is not a fact, it is fatism.
Saying that I am gay therefore I am unfaithful and should not be allowed to get married is not a fact, it is homophobia.
Saying that my Japanese friend is submissive because she is Asian is not a fact, it is racism.
Saying that my friend likes bananas and dancing because she is black is not a fact, it is racism.
Saying that a man is more employable than a woman because he’s man so he is career-driven whereas she is a woman so she is family-driven is not a fact, it is sexism. In both ways.

All the examples are reducing the real Who of millions of people to their What, which of course, always turns out to be less than others’ just because they are different.  The factual differences are used as a weapon against the people. There is the intention to hurt, to drag down, to justify someone else’s betterness by showing some supposedly predisposed flaws in someone else.

That’s racism and there, you can call the person a racist, a sexist, or a homophobic philistine. That’s what we have to teach the children: not to be ashamed or to hide their differences but to understand that they mean nothing when it comes to define who they are, they are just facts.

PS: As for using tongue-in-cheek sexism, racism and xenophobia used as form of humour, I do it sometimes when the kids are telling I am rude and I say “Of course, I am French! What do you expect?”. I also love Reginald D. Hunter who is using a lot of that material but it is important to understand that humour needs to be understood as a second degree by both parties, and more crucially it needs to make both parties laugh or it’s just offensive. I used to do that French-rude joke with all classes until I realised my younger classes took it seriously so now I keep it for my older students.

This is what a feminist looks like…

Xabi Alonso for the Por Ser Niña campaign – Plan España – ONG de proteccion de la infancia.