Monday, October 18, 2010

Guerlain's Gaffe

There's been quite an uproar about Jean-Paul Guerlain's remark in a television interview, that in creating Samsara "Pour une fois, je me suis mis à travailler comme un nègre. Je ne sais pas si les nègres ont toujours tellement travaillé, enfin…"

While I lack an indepth knowledge of French cultural semantics, I'm uncertain whether the translation in the Anglo media of "nègre" as "nigger" is not somewhat misleading, the former having been common public usage through the 1960s and beyond to designate blacks, and thus not dissimilar to the English "negro" or the German "Neger." These terms were used affirmatively by Africans and African-Americans, such as Marcus Garvey (1920s), Leopold Senghore(1930s) Martin Luther King and Malcolm X (1960s), while their use by "white" societies inevitably infused them with the ubiquitous racism of those societies, leading to a (difficult) shift to alternatives (Afro-American, African American, black, noir and others) since the 1960s.

The pejorative quality of the word and the turn of phrase, with the added callousness of questioning whether any black ever worked as hard as Guerlain did, is unquestionably injurious, uncivil and racist in nature. We can safely assume that M. Guerlain's days as a publicity instrument of the Louis-Vuitton-Moet-Hennesy-owned House of Guerlain are numbered. That a number of organizations will be pressing charges against Guerlain seems exaggerated though. We are not talking about Jean Marie Le Pen here, after all, and a legal course will achieve nothing. Vigorous protest and the opportunity to use this gaffe as a starting point for a reasoned discussion of racism issues in French society would seem a more promising path. But then it is not to be expected, that anti-racist organizations are immune to the baneful effects of media hysteria any more than any other institution and perhaps targeting one politically irrelevant old man is providing some psychological compensation for their utter helplessness in the face of the rising tide of European xenophobia as embodied by pathetic fearmongers such as Geert Wilders or the highly questionable policies of the Sarkozy government, for that matter.

Personally I'm saddened rather than angered by Guerlain's gaffe (then again, I'm white). I simply can't say I'm outraged by this haughty old man's public callousness in the same way that slavery in Mauretania or labor conditions in China co-sponsored by the West's shoddy consumerism outrage me. But you'd wish that a man like Guerlain, capable of such refinement and sensibility in his artful line of work, so well-travelled and cosmopolitan, was simply incapable of harboring a worn-out racist cliché of this sort. Such an insensitive remark from an obviously cultivated mind serves as a sorrowful illustration of how segregated and selective civility may be. Monsieur Guerlain, I regret to inform you that your status as gentleman has been revoked.


Kevin Guyer said...

"But then it is not to be expected, that anti-racists organizations are immune to the baneful effects of media hysteria any more than any other institution....."
Agree. It's extremely easy to manipulate and ultimately control a group that is angry.
That said, Jean-Paul Guerlain has officially retired himself.

Le Critique de Parfum said...

At first I was upset beyond words, it's awful and so disappointing.

But he's hardly Guerlain as a whole and Corolian or Les Voyages Olfactifs are forgettable (forgotten!). Even Spiritueuse Double Vanille can't match the brilliance of L'Art et la Matière collection.

So thank you very much Monsieur Guerlain but you will not be missed.

Anonymous said...

Yes but dismissing it as an old man's rantings is simply not enough. what is important is emphatic and unambiguous condemnation in order to show that such public conversations and comments are unacceptable and impossible. It is when such comments become a "safe" opinion that things really begin to go wrong.

Angela Cox said...

Very well put , I am not black but my family is. It is hard to believe an educated man is this insensitive . I must be nuts because there are educated people galore in my country who would express these views and supporters of Pinochet eveywhere.