Sitting with friends at the Dominion bar in Montreal, we began talking about the question of identification, in relationship to melancholia. I came to the conclusion that I can identify as a “man,” a bookseller, an artist, a French Moroccan, a North African, a Sahraoui from my father’s side, and someone who grew up in a working-class banlieue. However, on this evening I felt that my affects and my identities were primarily melancholic. So I instead confessed to my friends that I identify as a melancholic person. Something was weird because this wasn’t “real” identity politics. By default, people will assign me as something else, a privation or a threat, because of my masculine and Brown body.
I realised that I am fighting for freedom of identity on my own terms; for an ability to negotiate my own self and paradoxes, to set my own self-determination, and take power of the words I formulate. And thus, to avoid becoming an Arab depicted as a model minority, exhausted from convincing himself of effective assimilation systems or from satisfying his self-determination with a simplification of the multiple “identitIES” that constitute us.
I understand that there is a problem, primarily linked with this irrational accusation projected towards Arabs, Blacks and people of color in France. It’s as if we became, by default, spokespeople for our supposed communities, becoming knights of a new kind of virtue. A pure virtue, white and republican, fulfilling an omnipresent colonial guilt, or a contrario, an insane “rebel” virtue claiming an anti-assimilation, that only works through respectability politics.
To dare being in the public sphere as a person of color means having to choose exactly the right terms, to avoid speech that is perceived as threatening in order not to disqualify our voices. We constantly have to negotiate the positions we take, make sure we act wisely as excellent human beings, and make ourselves up every morning. Everything becomes a “litmus test,” through every sphere in which we live, and all these components affect who we are socially, politically, intimately and professionally. This leads to a self-censorship that blinds and prevents us from speaking up or embracing our positions. And finally, we are hardly considering self-care for our weakened bodies. Our languages become trapped and betray us so we are forced to look elsewhere for new possibilities to be.
In addition to this French obsession of control over our Brown bodies, perceived as “dangerous,” I see a tendency in some anti-racist activist behaviors that consist of projecting political ideals on certain Arab public figures, despite the fact that these political ideals often do not belong to them. Strategies of hiding or not making visible certain beliefs are important if you have to navigate an existence in this white, ableist, elitist, patriarchal and heterosexual ocean called France.
I feel that the actual and violent context reinforces a certain perfectibility duty, as well as educational missions, discourses and representations. This context denatures resistance possibilities, preventing new artistic projects and alternatives. Some activist reflections and doxa overlook other forms of self-identification; although comfortable with their paradoxes and contradictions, they are however deemed as treacherous, which is often a legitimate survival process.
Arabs become interchangeable objects, always looking for validation, left with little space to live as they wish. Arabs are caught between two possibilities: the good or the bad. The good reinforces white supremacy as an idealsubject, while the bad resists by not fitting into the republican narrative. All other opportunities are deemed unthinkable and impossible to articulate, as they would lend humanity and flexibility to a group allowed no room for choice in identity.
Stop considering every successful Arab a French integration example. Stop blaming Arabs that fail to contradict prejudices that picture Arabs as terrorists, savages, rapists, thieves or monsters.
Stop thinking that every Arab who becomes visible is by default an example. They are not automatically a representative of a supposed community in France, nor an exception or award that you make visible only in order to satisfy a neocolonial superiority complex in your superficial debates and conversations.
Stop putting irrational pressure on somebody that is defined only by their racial and racialized identity. Identities are not fixed and they are not immutable; they are always in permanent crisis, escaping from words or attempting to fix them. Édouard Glissant expressed it in a wonderful way with this concept called “identité-relation.”
“We must build an instable personality, a swaying, creative, fragile one, at the crossing of the self and the others. An Identity-relation [identité-relation]. This changes from what we usually know as we think that we are authorized to speak to the other from the point of view of a fixed identity. A well-defined one. A pure one. An atavistic one. Now, it’s impossible, even for the former colonized attempting to get closer to their past or their ethnic group. It fills us with anxiety and tremors to speak without certainty, but it significantly enriches us.” (Interview in Le Monde 2, 2005)
We have nothing to prove. Nothing to apologize for. We exist as and in ourselves. In our homes, homelands, intimacies, religions, stories, boundaries, myths, loves, pains, secrets, and accomplishments.
Even though, if we go back to this question of visibility (medias, arts, politics, activism), being recognized as a legitimate voice can be considered a privilege, this privilege typically stems from a long, painful, emotional and negotiated labor. This vulnerable visibility becomes a radical tool, an empowering form. We have the right to exist outside your obsessions, your ethics, your favors, your advice, your generosities, your points of view, your multiple pressures. We have the right to not be prisoners of your gazes. We have the right to exist outside your cameras, books, articles, researches and comments.
We can all rebuild our identities on our own terms, remapping ours margins and our homelands to find the right distance against the doxa speeches that limit and reduce our Arab identites in their complexities. We can all redefine our cartographies and self-determinations. To accept our mistakes, prejudices and internalized violence is to negotiate that self-determination.
We exist as and in ourselves, in our houses, banlieues and towns, countryside, or on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea, in our peripheries, in our “elsewhere,” our songs, our poems. Across our intimacies, our religions, our (his)tories, our dignities, our myths. Our pain and accomplishments, through our solitude and wanderings. Our paradoxes, our enlightenment and our humanities.