Pure Black and White? A New Hit Comedy in Quebec Brings Race Relations into Question

By Hunt, Elizabeth | Colorlines Magazine, March-April 2007 | Go to article overview

Pure Black and White? A New Hit Comedy in Quebec Brings Race Relations into Question


Hunt, Elizabeth, Colorlines Magazine


WHERE I LIVE up in the north-eastern corner of North America, the term pure laine (literally translated as "pure wool") is used to describe someone who is born in Quebec, francophone (French-speaking), white and directly descended from French European stock. It is also now the name of a new French-language sitcom, Pure Laine.

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Initially, I cringed at the thought of yet another TV show glorifying Quebec's majority. Here, people first identify as being francophone, anglophone or allophone (Canada-speak for having a mother tongue other than English or French). The term "ethno-cultural community" is used to describe anyone who is non-francophone, non-white and of a non-Catholic background.

Despite my own roots, which are white and mostly francophone, I do not use pure laine to describe myself, and the expression makes me a little antsy. Even though I know most people use it to affirm their identity--to invoke a sense of pride rather than one of exclusion--not many see the expression's racist implications.

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To my delight, this very blind spot turned out to be the focus of Pure Laine--a side-splittingly funny sitcom that takes no prisoners when it comes to discussing issues of race and identity.

The show's narrator and main character is Dominique Michel, a Haitian immigrant and high school teacher who has been living in Montreal for the past 15 years. He is married to Chantal, a pure laine, unilingual Francophone and dyed-in-the-wool separatist who wants to see the province of Quebec become its own country. Unable to have children of their own, they adopted little Ming from China.

Dominique, Chantal and Ming each have different relationships to Quebec society. Dominique, according to the show's creators, is a model of either racial integration or cultural shock. Chantal, originally from rural Quebec, experienced her own version of culture shock when she moved to big-city Montreal. She is classic pure laine--but streaked with idealism. She strongly believes in a multiethnic Quebec, but a unilingually French one. She is quick to react to displays of prejudice or discrimination, while awkwardly unaware of her own well-ingrained bias. Their daughter, Ming, was brought from China as an infant and is the only member of the family to have seemingly never felt uprooted. Now 10 years old, she is a smart, curious, athletic and happy little girl.

The show, in part, centers on Dominique trying to explain the paradoxes of Quebec society to his daughter, his friends, his students and just about anybody else he encounters. His explanations entail hilarious flashbacks of situations he has been in or observed. With an acute sense of irony, Dominique's narratives take on issues of race, language and what it means to belong. In the process, he pokes fun at everything from political correctness to racial profiling, affirmative action, white guilt and what it means to be "Quebecois."

Among Dominique's favourite targets are white guilt and tokenism. He doesn't hesitate to point out how well-meaning gestures often contribute more to perpetuating stereotypes than anything else. In one episode, when he is offered a promotion to vice principal, a position that he didn't ask for and isn't interested in, he smells a strong whiff of tokenism from the school's principal and decides to probe into why she offered him the job.

She readily admits to her motive: a Black administrator would be good for the school's public image. What she isn't ready for is Dominique refusing the promotion. At first, she is simply upset with him for refusing her "help" towards a better job, but then becomes furious when she realizes that her image of the perfect school is now shattered. "If you are the only thing standing between me and making this school into a model of racial harmony," the school principal yells at Dominique, "then I will not hesitate to squash you! …

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