Last Sunday as I was heading home from the gym, I spotted the billboard you see above. How did I react? I was both insulted and was furious considering that there was an underlying message that propagated a racist stereotype that the only true Quebecers are White and French. The impact the billboard had on me was significant since I—like many other Quebecers of foreign ancestry—were at some points in our lives, victims of racial discrimination. To be clear, the fact is that there isn’t any proof that Agropur intended to be racist when they used the phrasing “Un Quebecois Pur Lait”, which is a word play on an old Quebec expression: “Quebecois pur laine.” However, in doing so they inadvertently inserted a racist dog-whistle message that I—and many others—interpreted as meaning that the only true Quebecers that exist are the White French-speaking ones. On their own, the presence of a glass of white milk in addition to using the word Pur (French for Pure) would not have been a problem. But considering that they were both present in conjunction with the rest of the advertisement, many people who saw this no doubt would’ve been reminded of the term White Purity as well as a Neo-Nazi video, which only further accentuated the problem.
It’s important for everyone to understand that in my opinion, the expression Quebecois Pur Laine isn’t racist. The term is used to traditionally describe Quebecers who are descendants of the original French settlers. These individuals were not assimilated by the British when they inhabited this area of the country,back when it was known as New France. It’s important to mention that these individuals are White and French-speaking. Even though the term can be translated into English as meaning: Quebecer of Pure Wool, it’s not a translation Anglophones (English-speaking Quebecers) would use, as some local terms and expressions were never meant to be translated. For instance, if you were a tourist and was to refer to the Montreal area cities of Westmount and Greenfield Park as Ville de Mont Ouest and Ville de Parc-du-Champ-Vert respectively to impress the locals with your French-speaking skills, you can guaranty that even the Francophone Quebecers (French-speaking Quebecers) would look at you funny.
After I posted the photograph, I was surprised that it got shared over 86 times and created a massive discussion—one that I never imagined because I’ve never had any of my posts go viral to this extent. Many people—both Black and White, English and French—agreed that it was racist, or at least inappropriate. However there were many who didn’t see what was offensive about it. Some went as far as to mock and even launch personal attacks. I’ve posted a few examples as they all speak for themselves.
This isn’t anything new. When Bye Bye 2008 aired, there was an immediate backlash at the irrevocable and incontrovertibly racist content. However, some people denied that it was of poor taste and even laughed at the racist jokes. Last year, the promoters of Montreal’s 375th Birthday celebration had to pull a promotional video because it only featured White homeowners and entrepreneurs, despite the fact that Montreal has been multiethnic at least as far back as the 1970s. Yet, there were still those who thought the critics were seeing something that wasn’t there. The same thing could be said about last year’s Fête National parade incident where Black student-athletes’s participation was limited to pushing a float with a white female performer. And who could forget Jacques Parizeau’s infamous post-referendum speech.
However, it’s important to mention that just because there were people who did not see the racism in Québon’s advertisement, this does not make them racists by default. This only demonstrates that people who never experienced or observed racism first-hand are less likely to spot it. By the same token, victims of racial discrimination, parents of a bi-racial child, and even people who’ve observed the pain and suffering that a friend, colleague, or a child of foreign ethnicity they’ve adopted had to endure because of racial discrimination, would’ve been immediately triggered by the advertisement.
To those who did not see the racism in this advertisement, allow me to elaborate what was wrong with the use of the derivative phrase Un Québecois Pur Lait and why it’s racist in this context. May we all agree that all Québecois Pur Laines are Quebecers. However, may we also agree that not all Quebecers are Quebecois Pur Laine? For instance, even though I was born and raised in Montreal, Quebec, my parents are from Barbados. This also goes for those who were born and grew up here, but who’s parents immigrated from other countries. Let’s not forget the natives who occupied this land long before the French arrived. Despite the fact many of us were born here, the term Québecois Pur Laine does not apply to all of us.
With that being mentioned—and in consideration of Québon’s response to both myself and to a Facebook buddy of mine, Ms Geneviève:“Québon, c’est le lait de tous les Québecois“ , and “Ce message se voulait transmettre notre fierté à offrir un lait local, bien de la region.” In other words, what they wrote is that Québon is the milk of all Quebecers and that they’re proud to be offering a product that comes from this region. For the record, I do not have any issue with Québon showing pride in the fact that their milk is produced here. In fact, I applaud it. That being mentioned, for the sake of this argument, let’s focus on the phrases: the milk of ALL Quebecers and this region. May we all agree that those who are Québecois pur laine are from this region? Yet, by the same token, may we also agree that not ALL Quebecers from this region are Québecois pur laine? Therefore one should understand why promoting a product from this region and even stating that this is a milk of ALL Quebecers, describing the milk as Un Québecois Pur Lait is not only contradictory, but also inappropriate and offensive as it sends a dog-whistle message that propagates a racist stereotype that the only real Quebecers are those who are White and French-speaking.
For me, the moment that I saw that billboard, it immediately triggered a traumatizing moment that I experienced nearly eight years ago. This was when a former colleague disclosed to me that one of our colleagues at a company I used to work for, told her: “Russell n’a pas d’affaire d’être le gérant de [ce stagiare]. [Le stagiare] est un vrai Québecois et Russell n’est rien qu’un n*gre Anglophone. Ils ont rien en commun.” Russell has no business being [that trainee’s] manager. [The trainee] is a real Quebecer and Russell’s nothing more than an English-speaking n*gger. They don’t have anything in common. This was not the first time where I was made to feel inferior because of my skin color, mother tongue, and ancestry. It’s safe to assume that those who expressed their disapproval at this billboard were also triggered by similar occurrences.
The advertisement doesn’t only contain a very divisive message, but a very dangerous one in the sense that if it’s not called out, it’s bound to be repeated—by this and possibly other companies—to the point that it becomes normalized. Once that occurs, one should not be surprised that Quebec evolves into a society that has an Us vs Them mentality. Many would argue that it’s already come to that point which is why they left the province. However, this is something I personally don’t want to see get any worse, and I’m certain that the people at Québon don’t want to go down in history as a company that played a role in it.
The good news is that after I contacted Québon and explained to them the problem with this advertisement, they paid attention, they were polite, and they apologized. They also reassured me that their play on words was never intended to promote anything racist and that my complaint would be taken seriously. It’s my understanding that they received many complaints, as I noticed that my photograph was shared on both Facebook and on Twitter. Yesterday, I received a confirmation from Ms Geneviève and from Québon that they decided to remove this specific advertisement.
For those who were originally upset with Québon, even though your anger and frustration was justified, it’s important to know that they removed the offensive material and that they apologized. They were professional, very polite, and in my opinion, very sincere. It was a mistake that I have reason to believe occurred due to them being so focused on being creative in their approach to promoting a message of local pride, they failed to see the big picture. That was, of course, until someone with a different pair of eyes was able to help them see outside the box. One must be reminded that there were other commercials—such as a second from Nivea and Qiaobi’s inexcusably racist laundry commercial—that were far worst. In fact they were so offensive it’s hard to comprehend how anyone involved in the creation, the approval, and the marketing of those commercials did not see that they were all types of wrong.
Do I see this as a victory? Yes, but not only because a major company saw the validity in my complaint (and others) and removed an offensive advertisement. It was a victory for me in the sense that it—hopefully—became a learning moment for both Québon/Agropur’s marketing team. As a result, this will allow them to be better at their jobs and hopefully teach this experience to others who work in the same field so that they too don’t make the same error. In addition, one can hope that this was a learning experience to those who initially did not see the advertisement as racist. As one could see in the photograph to the left, Québon’s already proven that they could do better.
Bonne St Jean à tous!