Monday, July 09, 2007

Darwin, Robespierre, and the Guillotine

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

On Saturday, Marina and I visited the Jardin des Plantes, settling in a sunny spot near the Natural History Museum where they unashamedly profess the gospel according to Darwin.

If reproduction is the key to the evolution of our species, we saw French society changing in front of our park bench. The gardens were crawling with breeders and their babies. Toddlers made their breaks for freedom down gravel paths. Babies squirmed in those belly pouches of eager fathers.

I'd forgotten heterosexuals didn't just have a different sexual orientation, but a whole host of squealing side effects. We had to wait two hours to see two other dykes, blissfully childless. As to fags, forget it.

In all that time, the only real sign of evolution was a white grandmother waiting for her brown grandkid to catch up. She stood there smiling as he reached in his trouser pockets for a tiny hanky, pretended to blow his nose then put the hanky back again. As kids will, he did it over and over and over until she in turn pretended to leave and he screamed and ran after.

It's not strange to see mixed race couples in Paris, or their offspring with white grandmothers. What with all the miscegenation, you'd almost get the idea the French have moved beyond racism.

In fact, Friday, the gay Paris mayor, Bertrand Delanoe, hitched a desperate and light-skinned Hispanic housewife to a black basketball star at City Hall, congratulating him on his work against racism. On Saturday, their nuptials continued in a cathedral near the Louvre Palace where kings used to marry their queens. That's progress, I guess.

So what if the mayor still doesn't have the right to get married himself, and the Latina housewife, Eva Longoria, represents the bigoted French cosmetics conglomerate, L'Oréal?

As she and Tony Parker were saying their "I do's," at the Hotel de Ville, L'Oréal's Garnier division was getting slammed for racial discrimination during a promotional campaign in 2000 when a company fax made it clear, if you weren't white, or "BBR," (bleu, blanc, rouge -- the colors of the French flag) they didn't want you handing out shampoo samples in France.

They may have hired Vanessa Williams, Beyoncé Knowles, and Longoria in the States, but especially in the global South, L'Oréal's "white is wonderful campaign" is still in full swing.

The TV in India is full of ads for Garnier Light, promising "fairer skin in just four weeks." In Korea, the L'Oreal brand, Vichy, touts BI-White. That print ad shows a dark-skinned face literally being unzipped to reveal fairer skin just under the surface. Black, I guess, is abominable.

As bigots, they're not alone in France. White grandparents may adore their little brown grandchildren, but they wouldn't give them a job.

Something like seventy-five percent of employers would prefer to hire whites. In fact, they not only prefer, they do. If you have the wrong name, the wrong address, they won't even read your resume. Which is why kids from the mostly black and "beur" suburbs go on sprees torching cars.

Call it a smoke signal. It's time for change, and breeding won't do it among humans. We can hold a pencil with our opposable thumbs, but in our brains we're still prehistoric beasts seeing everything as Us against Them.

Human evolution, now, is a question of society and law and politics.

Oddly, it's the right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy who seems prepped for change in France. Socialists talk about equality and social justice nonstop, but it's him that's done a Bush and stacked his cabinet with people of color.

Rachida Dati is Minister of Justice, making her the first woman of North African origin to hold a ministerial post. She's preparing to set up special departments in prosecutors' offices to handle cases of racial discrimination in hiring.

Later this month, another Sarko appointee of color, Secretary of State for Urban Policies, Fadela Amara, will visit an army recruiting office with the Minister of Defense in an attempt to address racism in the army.

The problem came to the forefront this week as France prepares to celebrate Bastille Day with a big military parade. Black activist, Patrick Lozés, published an open letter asking why you could see plenty of enlisted men of color, but almost no officers, none at all at the top. That may change under Sarkozy.

Not because he's a great guy. Critics say his appointments are just a PR ploy, stealing the thunder from the Socialists. After all, he continues to deport immigrants by the thousands.

I'm not sure his intentions matter. In the age of L'Oréal, dark faces at the top are by themselves a revolution in France.

As we bring out the bottles of blood red wine, the establishment "elephants" would do well to consider the lesson of the guillotine -- evolve or die.

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