“White Supremacy Ate My French Homework”

by Phoebe Maltz Bovy

Like Bill McKibben, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay on learning French with interest. I did so both because French, and because of how powerful and prescient I’d found his reparations article. I read this latest essay as a reflection on the ways that studying a highbrow, so-called universal subject can bring about deeper insights on more particular struggles. While I came to the piece with as good a sense as anyone of how studying French can impact Jewish identity (that being, in a roundabout way, the subject of my doctoral dissertation), I had very little idea of what effect it might have on black identity. But it seemed natural enough to me that it might have one. It didn’t, then, seem out-there to me that Coates would take the opportunity of describing his adult-ed French classes to segue into musings on the state of education for African-American children.

Rod Dreher has a somewhat different take. A part of Dreher’s critique of Coates makes sense. Another part of it, however, does not, and then there’s Dreher’s witticism in the comments to his own post: “The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that TNC’s essay amounts to ‘white supremacy ate my French homework.'”

The more I think about that sentence, the more I think that it expresses exactly the sort of breezily-expressed viewpoint – not quite racist (although I’ll leave that for readers of the race in question to decide), but definitively insensitive – that gives conservatism a not entirely fair reputation as… less than ideal, let’s say, when it comes to issues regarding race.

But first, the bit that made perfect sense:

Dreher takes Coates to task for conflating “white” childhoods with ones steeped in cultural capital. This is a common problem with “privilege” critiques – people often round up how easy those who have it relatively easy actually have it. I’ve heard variants of this that are about class, not race – where those who didn’t grow up with college-educated parents assume that those who did spent their dinners discussing Ideas, not squabbling over nonsense, or watching bad television. This gets at a problem I’ve long had with the word “privilege” – while the concept it refers to is sound, the word itself has a tendency to give the impression that anyone with one form of privilege is privileged in the colloquial sense, i.e. all-around advantaged.

On the one hand, it’s part and parcel of lack-of-privilege that you don’t know how it goes for the more privileged in whichever area. On the other, if the end goal is highlighting actual injustices, then it should be pointed out where advantages actually lie. It’s completely fair to point out that some aspects of Coates’ struggle with French are related less to racism than to his class background, or to the fact that he was older than his classmates. Next, the not-so-fair:

Then TNC goes on to draw some sort of black nationalist lesson from his summer at French camp, culminating in this line: “Sometimes you do need the master’s tools to dismantle his house.” OK. Whatever. Reparations scholarships to Middlebury for all!

I snark, but honestly, the idea that the enormous privilege of spending a summer studying a foreign language at a verdant Vermont college should conclude with a resolution to become even more of a militant race man is depressing. Exactly whose house will TNC be burning down as a result of the tools he acquired this summer at Middlebury? François Hollande’s? I don’t get it. I seriously don’t. Seems to me that learning French as a middle-aged American can only do one worthwhile thing: make you more of a humanist.

Agreed that Coates doesn’t end on a particularly upbeat note, but why exactly shouldn’t studying French lead Coates to reflect on racial injustice? Because anyone who gets to go to a language summer school somewhere “verdant” should be so busy expressing gratitude that they wouldn’t even find the time?

Dreher proceeds to dig himself into a deeper hole in a follow-up post. “Ignore the author’s tendentious race politics,” writes Dreher, “and there’s a deeply human lesson in that essay.” Dreher, in other words, instructs readers to ignore the point of the essay. More frustratingly, he constructs a dichotomy between the black and “human” aspects of it: “What he discovered at Middlebury was not the effects of white supremacy, but the limits inherent within himself — limits all of us will eventually discover about ourselves, one way or another.”

Dreher seems oddly attached to the idea that Coates could only possibly have been talking about a universal experience – as if anything particular to Coates’ experience as an African-American was something that a better editor would have thought to take out. There’s a certain irony in this, given that Coates’ essay inspired Dreher, in turn, to discuss the particularities of his own upbringing.

Dreher remains committed to calling out Coates’ “privilege”… when what he’s actually calling out are achievements Coates has earned.

From his initial response:

He is part of the Establishment now. He writes for a well-respected national magazine, about things he enjoys. He takes summers to go to language camp to learn French. That’s great! Why is he such a sore winner? Feeling guilty about one’s privilege doesn’t mitigate it.

And the second:

He’s a senior editor at one of the most respected magazines in the richest and most powerful nation on the planet, he writes for top publications … and he has the luxury of spending his summer studying French at Middlebury. And is embittered because of circumstances in his youth, circumstances he attributes to white supremacy, he’s probably not going to ever master French, at least not to his satisfaction.

We should all be fortunate enough to have such problems.

I suppose Coates is privileged in the it’s-been-a-privilege sense. Unearned advantage, though, is a tough case to make.