Speak White – Nicholas Little with F.C.


A few months ago, while answering guys’ questions in a local bathhouse for the AIDS Committee of Ottawa, a man I guessed to be in his late 70s stopped by my room to say hi and see what I was up to. Wearing dark, boxy, wraparound sunglasses – entirely unnecessary in the already dim sauna – and dress pants with a button down shirt that made him look like Yves Saint-Laurent circa 1975, he certainly stood out from the other men roaming around in their threadbare towels. He spoke entirely in French, which is not unusual as about a quarter of the guys I chatted with were Francophones.

As is often the case (and one of the reasons I enjoyed the work so much), he was happy to find a good listener and went from one story to the next, most of them about what it was like coming of age in 1950s rural Quebec and how he got from that place then to an older gentleman in the baths in 2009.

He told one story about working as a federal civil servant in the English-dominated office culture of the 1960s. He said his boss put a sign outside his office reminding employees that they were welcome to speak any language they liked in their own office, but that they would only speak English in his. “Si jamais je m’adressais à lui en français, il me disait : Speak white!”

That caught me off guard. His boss had ordered him to ‘speak white’? I’d never heard the phrase and I didn’t understand what he meant. So I asked. And he explained to me in French that growing up he had frequently been told by Anglophones to ‘speak white’.

The phrase puzzled me. It seemed to suggest race, not language. Language has traditionally been a bone of contention in Quebec history. Culture and religion too. But race? While race is certainly a contentious subject in Quebec today, I was surprised that it might have been as important four decades ago.

“No, it wasn’t so much race,” he told me. It was a bit of everything. While the phrase itself is thought to have been borrowed from the southern United States, it was apparently used almost as a catch-all rebuke against anything not Anglo, not white, not born-and-bred. He said it could be used not only against French speakers (though it mostly was), but against anyone speaking something other than English. It could be used against immigrants but also against fifth generation Canadians who, nevertheless, seemed ‘other’. He told me that as a grown man and young professional he was told to ‘speak white’ at work as often as at the grocery store.

The earliest recorded use of the phrase was supposedly in the Canadian Parliament of 1899 as Henri Bourassa was booed by English-speaking Members of Parliament while attempting to address the legislature in French against the engagement of the Dominion in the Second Boer War.

That bathhouse conversation fascinated me. Anyone who has lived in or loved Quebec can probably relate to the fact that its complicated, conflict-ridden evolution is both part of the fascination and the frustration. I was amazed that what this man described as a common command had never been mentioned by any Francophone friends in all the years I’d lived in Quebec.

So I began asking Quebecois pals about it and, each time I did, their eyes would widen knowingly and they’d say, “Yes, I know that phrase.” Most people said it would be unusual to hear it today, but it still seemed to carry a legacy and a history and a potency.

One friend told me that part of the potency for her was a poem written by Michèle Lalonde in 1968, invoking the phrase as a collective complaint against the English. In 1980, Pierre Falardeau and Julien Poulin made a short film for the National Film Board, featuring Canada actress Marie Eykel reciting Lalonde’s poem. The film is posted below and the English translation of Lalonde’s poem follows.

I wondered whether I was a naive oddball for not knowing this part of Quebec history or whether a story that clearly holds a lot of weight for some people had somehow slipped under the collective radar. Spending six years with a Francophone boyfriend taught me that, just as many wounds are silently remembered by queer people (missing generation of men, anyone?…), so too is this true of any marginalized group.

Are people today still told to ‘speak white’? Or have Quebec and Canada truly changed in the 40 years since that man worked in a ‘speak white’ government office? I decided to ask a Francophone co-worker at the AIDS Committee of Ottawa her opinion. F.C. grew up in Montreal before moving to Ottawa in her mid-twenties to study and find work.

Nicholas Little: F.C., how does a concept like “speak white” play out in the life of a young French woman whose daily life is mostly spent in an Anglo world?

FC: I am not from a generation that was ever told to “speak white”, but does that mean that I never get told to do so in more pervasive ways? Absolutely not. It is still something that connects me to my fellow Quebecois because we share a similar bitterness about how we are made to start in life at a lower standpoint. It is certainly a command that is felt when I interact with Anglophones. That openly racist command is never uttered anymore. But the fact that I still feel like I am asked to conform to certain Anglo standards in a subdued and often unconscious way makes it more difficult to even name the discomfort I feel as a French woman who prides herself on having a foot in both the English and French worlds.

I feel like I am making the most out of the fact that I am lucky enough to live in a city where two cultures and languages coexist. It made it possible for me to understand two very different worlds. But I still feel like one of those two worlds is considered of lesser value.

NL: So what has replaced “speak white” in contemporary Quebec and Canada? How does it play out today?

FC: In comments such as “You’re quite cool for a French girl”. People think they are complimenting me when saying that. In reality, they are telling me how profoundly ingrained it is that French people are evaluated according to English standards of what is needed to succeed in the world. Or when they say, “You have good style for a French girl,” which speaks to how, as a French person, as soon as I walk in, an image is projected onto me. It is an image of the unfortunate, ugly, style-less, slightly clueless, “Queb”. And it speaks to the fact that they celebrate how I transcend my French-ness because I don’t fit the mold of what they think a Quebecois looks like.

While it seems pretty silly to get hurt by comments about clothes or how I carry myself in my social circle, it highlights how “French-ness” is not celebrated and how good it is to grow into a less French person. I am celebrated for how good my spoken English is and how, because of it, I can pass as “not French” upon first sight. Then add to that English friends lovingly making fun of my accent and laughing all together about how funny some French people sound when they attempt to speak English. They try to include me in the laughter as if I too get the joke since I am not considered to be “just French” anymore. I find myself feeling bitter about how us French, we always switch to English to accommodate an English person, even when there are ten of us in the room. Or how people don’t understand that we’ll never be able to perfectly reproduce some English sounds because they simply don’t exist in our language.

NL: In 2005, soon after her appointment as Canada’s 27th Governor General, Michaëlle Jean claimed that the time of the ‘two solitudes’ had passed. She argued that “[t]oday’s world … demands that we learn to see beyond our wounds, beyond our differences for the good of all.”

FC: I am always amazed at how these two cultures are still so secluded from one another, each camp having a clear picture of what the other is. But it is a picture that is rooted in nothing but the history of hierarchy between Anglos and French on this continent. Is it recognized that up until the 1960s, our level of education was lower than that of African Americans in the United States? No. They easily name how African Americans were oppressed, but it is still not named that we too come from such a place. It is not named that, as a group, we young Quebecois have to negotiate this reality as a part of our script. That we have to grow out of our own feeling of inadequacy. That we have to negotiate our entry into an Anglo world without wanting to reject that which is considered a less valuable part of our identity (despite that it’s at the core of it!). So speak white. Act white. You’ll be celebrated for starting from an unfortunate place but managing to grow out of it.

NL: It is as a gay man that I relate to your description of the daily pressure to renounce what is at the core of your identity in order to gain entry into a more privileged world. I often struggle to resist cynicism because of it. I have to work at cultivating hope because I want to realize my dreams despite that daily pressure.

FC: Do I sound bitter? That’s not how I feel at all times. I also enjoy navigating my two worlds, one of them being at the core of who I am and having defined how I tackle the world. But I took this opportunity here to name all of this and to be angry because this dynamic so often goes unnamed in everyday life.

The racism I feel is not as openly expressed as it once was. There is much more space for young English and French people to interact, which is a good thing. There is now much more space for French people to exist – we have access to education, white collar jobs, money, all of those things. So the situation is better than it was in previous generations but there is still a lot to work on. The task is to make it a space in which we are celebrated because we are French, not despite it.

Italian-Quebecois journalist and playwright Marco Micone wrote a critical response to Michèle Lalonde’s poem. Entitled “Speak What?”, it suggests that Francophones have now replaced Anglophone dominance in Quebec, and that allophones (who speak neither English nor French as a first language) now find themselves under the Francophone thumb. Micone’s recrimination includes:

speak what
comment parlez-vous dans vos salons huppés
vous souvenez-vous du vacarme des usines
and of the voice des contremaîtres
you sound like them more and morespeak what now
que personne ne vous comprend
ni à St-Henri ni à Montréal-Nord
nous y parlons la langue du silence
et de l’impuissance

… imposez-nous votre langue
nous vous raconterons la guerre, la torture et la misère
nous dirons notre trépas avec vos mots
pour que vous ne mourriez pas

… speak what
nous sommes cent peuples venus de loin
pour vous dire que vous n’êtes pas seuls.

Of course, there is only one group that has ever truly “been alone” here. Which reminds me of a research project I did one summer with Inuit elders in Nunavik, arctic Quebec. The oldest generation in the small village I visited tend to speak Inuktitut amongst themselves but a mix of English and Inuktitut with their children. When their children went to school in the 1970s, they were typically speaking Inuktitut at home with their parents but had to attend school in English, leaving them somewhere in between. And the newest generation typically speaks a mix of Inuktitut and English at home with their parents and grandparents and attend school in Inuktitut until second grade, when they must choose whether to continue their education in either English or French. As one elder put it to me: “We have created a generation that speaks three languages poorly but has no mother tongue. Imagine lacking the safety of knowing that, in at least one language, you can describe both the world around you and the world within.”

Speak White
Michèle Lalonde

Speak white
il est si beau de vous entendre
parler de Paradise Lost
ou du profil gracieux et anonyme qui tremble
dans les sonnets de Shakespeare

nous sommes un peuple inculte et bègue
mais ne sommes pas sourds au génie d’une langue
parlez avec l’accent de Milton et Byron et
Shelley et Keats

speak white
et pardonnez-nous de n’avoir pour réponse
que les chants rauques de nos ancêtres
et le chagrin de Nelligan

speak white
parlez de choses et d’autres
parlez-nous de la Grande Charte
ou du monument à Lincoln
du charme gris de la Tamise
de l’eau rose du Potomac
parlez-nous de vos traditions
nous sommes un peuple peu brillant
mais fort capable d’apprécier
toute l’importance des crumpets
ou du Boston Tea Party
mais quand vous really speak white
quand vous get down to brass tacks

pour parler du gracious living
et parler du standard de vie
et de la Grande Société
un peu plus fort alors speak white
haussez vos voix de contremaîtres
nous sommes un peu durs d’oreille
nous vivons trop près des machines
et n’entendons que notre souffle au-dessus des outils

speak white and loud
qu’on vous entende
de Saint-Henri à Saint-Domingue
oui quelle admirable langue
pour embaucher
donner des ordres
fixer l’heure de la mort à l’ouvrage
et de la pause qui rafraîchit
et ravigote le dollar

speak white
tell us that God is a great big shot
and that we’re paid to trust him
speak white
parlez-nous production profits et pourcentages
speak white
c’est une langue riche
pour acheter
mais pour se vendre
mais pour se vendre à perte d’âme
mais pour se vendre

ah !
speak white
big deal
mais pour vous dire
l’éternité d’un jour de grève
pour raconter
une vie de peuple-concierge
mais pour rentrer chez nous le soir
à l’heure où le soleil s’en vient crever au-dessus des ruelles
mais pour vous dire oui que le soleil se couche oui
chaque jour de nos vies à l’est de vos empires
rien ne vaut une langue à jurons
notre parlure pas très propre
tachée de cambouis et d’huile

speak white
soyez à l’aise dans vos mots
nous sommes un peuple rancunier
mais ne reprochons à personne
d’avoir le monopole
de la correction de langage

dans la langue douce de Shakespeare
avec l’accent de Longfellow
parlez un français pur et atrocement blanc
comme au Viet-Nam au Congo
parlez un allemand impeccable
une étoile jaune entre les dents
parlez russe parlez rappel à l’ordre parlez répression
speak white
c’est une langue universelle
nous sommes nés pour la comprendre
avec ses mots lacrymogènes
avec ses mots matraques

speak white
tell us again about Freedom and Democracy
nous savons que liberté est un mot noir
comme la misère est nègre
et comme le sang se mêle à la poussière des rues d’Alger

ou de Little Rock

speak white
de Westminster à Washington relayez-vous
speak white comme à Wall Street
white comme à Watts
be civilized
et comprenez notre parler de circonstance
quand vous nous demandez poliment
how do you do
et nous entendez vous répondre
we’re doing all right
we’re doing fine
are not alone

nous savons
que nous ne sommes pas seuls.

Nicholas Little is an Anglo-Albertan who decamped to Montreal sometime in the late nineties “to learn French and be gay”. He then moved to Ottawa, Ontario, where he was an HIV outreach worker in bathhouses, bars and online chat rooms for several years. In 2008 Nicholas helped found POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau Work Educate and Resist), an organization of current and former sex workers advocating for recognition of their labour, Charter and human rights. Nicholas recently moved again – this time to the UK. You can follow his blog at http://www.ickaprick.com

FC is a Montrealer currently residing in Ottawa and splitting her time between these two cities and Toronto. She has been working at the AIDS Committee of Ottawa (ACO) since 2009, and is currently their Women’s Community Development Coordinator.  Fred is a board member for HALCO (HIV/AIDS Legal Clinic of Ontario, based in Toronto) and for Ottawa’s POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa/Gatineau, Work, Educate, Resist), a non-profit, voluntary organization founded in 2008 by and for individuals of all genders who self-identify as former or current sex workers, regardless of the industry sector in which they work(ed), and to allies who share POWER’s vision. In what is left of her waking hours, Fred plays competitive dominos in order to win the Centretown Championship.

Comments from old site:

Submitted by momoko on Fri, 01/01/2010 – 23:04.

Nicholas, thank you for addressing this too often taboo and unspoken reality of multilingualism. The multiple voices (and generations) that you bring into the discussion assert its fraught complexity.

In my extended family, ‘whiteness’ has always been represented by the francophone side, in opposition to my Japanese mother, who has always traveled the distance to interact with my paternal relatives in French. (In my immediate family, English was the compromise between French and Japanese — akin to choosing pears as a compromise between apples and oranges).

I am sharply reminded of my perceived ‘otherness’ when my paternal grandmother remarks that I have nice skin — “On dirait que les Japonais n’ont pas de pores.” Or when relatives compliment something I’ve done, noting that ‘les Japonais’ always do things with perfection. Non-whiteness (i.e. naivety, exotic pureness, lack of self-awareness) has many times been conflated with my (Anglo) inability to fluently express my intentions or identity when speaking French with them.

Language shapes every aspect of human relationships. Cultural practices, norms and values are all embodied first and foremost through language: idioms, euphemisms, allegories… these tools wield infinite power to whoever possesses them in a given context. Language hegemonies continue to exist in many directions and in many layers. It’s essential to recognize that their impact is never simply neutralized by successful graduation from a second-language course.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 02/25/2010 – 17:42.

Thank you for the fascinating and sensitive multi-layered reading of culture, language, and identification.