Jan 19, 2015

Politically Correct, French-style: Pecura Balsamique


We are talking to friends, recently moved over from the United States to Paris, about a girl on the gymnastics team. But which one? You know, the one in the blue leotard (that's all of them), with the ponytail (all of them), the tall one (relatively speaking, at least, that's half of them), the one who's good on beam (half of them).... It's exhausting. Finally, I simply ask, "Do you mean the black girl?" It appears I've lost my American politically-correct filter.

There's a small moment of hesitation, and they respond uncomfortably, "Well, African-American..." But no, even they realize it as they are saying it: she's not African-American. And people don't say African-French. It's just not a thing. Unless you see that somebody is culturally African -- superficially by what they're wearing (yes, like in this photo, but on the Paris metro) -- you wouldn't refer to a black person in France as African.

The black people you see here in France are French, just as French as any other color French person. In fact, many of the old black French families came to this country by way of Martinique and Guadeloupe, and while their ancestors may have come from Africa before then, the families tend to identify with the islands as their heritage, if really pressed. The only hyphenate I've heard of is Lassana Bathily, the Malian Muslim who saved 15 people during the hostage crisis here last week and who is, as a result, getting fast-tracked French citizenship -- tomorrow. He is being described by the media as Malian-French, and believe me, that's only because the French are so extraordinarily enamored of him that they can't even wait till he's actually a citizen to start claiming him as their own.

It's tricky for an American to know what to say here to not come off as a racist jackass, but it can tricky for the French, too. I've been asking around: How do French people describe race? There's some uncomfortable gray area, and a few areas of black and white, pardon the pun. But mostly, it seems that French people are more at easing addressing the elephant in the room, i.e. the fact that people have different colors of skin.

Mostly, the French describe black and dark brown-skinned people as "noir". Some like to soften the language by saying the person with "la peau noir" ("the black skin"). Funny enough, one of the ways that young people in particular -- and increasingly even the media -- softens the language of race is by saying it in English: "la petite fille black" instead of "la petite fille noir" (the little black girl).

One thing everybody agrees on is that while there are, of course, some difficulties in getting the language just right and not coming across as racist when talking about shades of black skin, the bigger problem in France for racism, racist language, and politically correct policing is with the term "Arab". It's simply too fraught with racist overtones, and you cannot describe anybody as Arab if you don't want to sound racist. This is solved by French speakers and the media who wish to be non-offensive by the use of either the specific country name (Moroccan, Tunisian, Qatari, etc.) or the region (the Middle East or, more often, the Magreb, meaning northern Africa).

People of the Jewish and Muslim faith are approached similarly, linguistically speaking, to what we say in American English: meaning, it's generally fine to refer to the religions respectfully as adjectives ("the Jewish neighborhood, the Muslim woman"), but you've got to be way more careful with them as nouns ("the Jew, the Muslim").

To refer to anybody of any Asian heritage or ethnicity, the French generally say "le type Asiatique" -- not saying "the Asian", but rather "the Asian type..." There's really no special way of talking about Latinos or Hispanic populations at all because, mostly, here in Europe, the Spanish speakers are simply Spanish people. Any other Spanish speakers would, presumably, simply be from whatever country they're from, or maybe called "South Americans" as a generalization. And none of these terms have any hint of negative association. And if they're actually Mexicans and, therefore, North Americans, remember that the French consider the Americas as one continent, so there's no inaccuracy, as far as they're concerned.

But don't even get me started on the Roma people, the travelers, what we would (offensively, apparently) call "gypsies". That is a whole can of worms I am too tired to open right now.

Interestingly, for light-skinned, mixed-race individuals, the common way to describe them in French is "métis" (meaning mixed race, used even sometimes in English, though more often I've seen "mestizo"). Using the word "mestizo" in any languages makes me extremely uncomfortable, especially because if you look up "métis" in a French-English dictionary, the results are a litany of racist horrors: "halfbreed", "mongrel". But every single French person I speak to assures me that "métis" has absolutely no racist or derogatory connotation. It's simply a way of describing light brown, mixed-race skin. When Pippa does her hidden camera ad, for which she ad-libs pretending that she believes each woman to be her mother, the director at one point pairs her with an "Asian type" mother who says "But I'm Japanese! You're not métisse! You're completely white! " You can see it in this video at 1:12.

They leave it in the final version because there's simply not the same level of difficulty in mentioning race in French, other than that very sticky problems of the Roma and "Arab" which, I assure you, was an issue well before the Charlie Hebdo attack.

Having lost my politically correct English filter, I'm afraid to offend when I go back to the US. Once in a while it pops into my head that while sometimes we Americans-in-Paris (of any race) are uncomfortable describing somebody's race as "noir", we should all just be grateful that we're not in a Spanish-speaking country, where the color is called "negro". I just don't know if I could bring myself to say it, and now I'm really wondering what the politically correct version would be for the Hispanophones.

THE CHEESE: Pecure Balsamique

This is a Corsican cheese made from raw sheep milk, then washed and aged in balsamic vinegar. It's not only a small batch farmhouse or artisanal cheese, it's only sold through the Laurent Dubois stores, up till now.

It's very firm, not quite dry and crumbly but close. Certainly the most amazing thing about this cheese, though, is the taste. It's both unique and astonishing. I expect something with a sweet balsamic vinegar tang, but in fact it's much more of a powerful saltiness, almost like the vinegar has brined it. I think it would be lovely on a salad, but since I'm given a free sample, I don't even have to buy it, which, at 44€ per kilo (to be fair, "only" $23/lb), is just fine with me.


Here's a cheese that we can, unabashedly and without fear of mis-speaking, call a mixed-color cheese. It's such a harmonious mixture of so many shades of black, brown, and white, it might just be Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream cheese.

Obviously, I've posted this story today in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. day, which reminds me of when Gigi was four years old:We were listening to a clip of the "I Have a Dream" speech, and she asked, "Is Martin Luther King still alive?" When I told her he had died young, she asked, knowingly, "Was it because he put a plastic bag over his head? Or he didn't eat his vegetables?" -- evidently the only two ways a person could die young in her mind.


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