BLANC LIKE ME: CAJUNS VS. WHITENESS


 The return to Eden is a popular obsession within the far right. Capitalism repackages detritus to invoke nostalgia in consumers longing to escape failed adulthoods; and in a similar way, the U.S. political right wing markets itself to whites via a thrift-store jumble of cherished but fictional kitsch pasts. They invoke philosophers of antiquity, the poisonous apple pie lie of the 1950s nuclear family, a kid’s cartoon concept of pre-industrial village existence, even the (imagined) moral clarity of medieval crusades. Across the U.S. South there remains a vast and persistent cultural movement founded on reverence for slavery, a Confederate death cult founded on a laughably false vision of genteel plantation life. All these disparate and almost entirely fact-free romantic strands become sloppily dredded through overclose association and poor intellectual hygiene into a fluffy knot we know as “whiteness.” 

It is an unpleasant rat’s nest to untangle, but for whites even casually interested in dismantling the genocide engine of white supremacy, this is also the task of reclaiming our individual and family identities from a centuries-deep toxic fog that obscures us from ourselves, a form of alienation useful and perhaps necessary to the interests of the ruling class. 

ROT IN PISS, IDENTITY ACADIA 

Because U.S. reactionaries are fractured and factional, focusing on any given group within the constellation of the alt-right can have the side effect of raising their profile. A good example is the now-defunct Identity Acadia, a Louisiana offshoot of the larger white nationalist organization Identity Evropa. Because Identity Evropa significantly focused on hating Jews, it could be argued they were Neo-Nazi rather than white nationalist, but we may leave those distinctions to the highly paid “experts” who make a living hand-wringing over such details. 

Identity Acadia’s handful of members were desperate to recruit here on the ground, beyond their scattered online echo chambers. They attempted this by pasting multiple series of shock-humor stickers and fliers in downtown New Orleans and, occasionally, Lafayette. 

To have reported on these at the time would have served their intended purpose, driving more eyeballs to Identity Acadia’s social media accounts, blog, and recruiting mechanisms. Indeed, thanks to the undercover investigation by independent media outlet Unicorn Riot, we now know that pasting racist stickers or fliers up and then contacting news outlets in the guise of an outraged antiracist to gin up publicity was a standard Identity Evropa tactic nationwide, discussed and encouraged in the organization’s private Discord chatroom discussions. 

When the Today Show chose to interview Identity Evropa’s leader, Patrick Casey, it provided him a valuable platform. He bragged on Twitter afterwards that because of the interview, “IE applications and interview requests are pouring in.” 

So instead of helping publicize Identity Acadia here in Louisiana, antifascist comrades coordinated to remove their stickers and fliers as they went up, then hunted and located the perpetrators. 

Now Identity Acadia is dead, to the extent it ever lived. It went defunct after the doxing of its chief architects by the Twitter account @StopHateNola as part of the “Identify Evropa” initiative, which also catalyzed the rebranding of the national Identity Evropa into the so-called American Identity Movement. (To learn about the locals involved in this hate group—and their close links with our city’s pro-monument organizations—you can read a lengthy expose, “Meet Your Local Clown Fascists,” in issue two of local anarchist quarterly The Shotgun.

Whiteness here in Louisiana has its own nuances and history, and there is a specific regional whiteness Identity Acadia sought to elevate, that of the Cajun people. Their attempt to position Cajun ethnicity as a mythified “indigenous whiteness” provides a useful example of what whiteness means and how the concept is used.

QUI SONT LES CAJUNS? 

Emily, a 28-year-old Cajun quoted in anthropologist Michelle Fiedler’s 2011 dissertation “The Cajun Ideology: Negotiating Identity in Southern Louisiana,” says a Cajun is “someone of Acadian descent, or French descent or Indian descent, who ended up in Louisiana and sort of mixed with everyone else in here.” 

New Orleans’ Italian and Irish communities didn’t used to be considered white; they were only accorded whiteness by the descendants of the planter class as necessary leverage against the formerly enslaved. The story of the Cajuns is similar. 

Descended primarily from Catholic Acadians exiled from Canada in the mid 1750s, Cajuns were not considered white until recently. To the contrary, Acadians were notoriously mixed-race for centuries. John Faragher’s history, A Great and Noble Scheme: The Tragic Story of the Expulsion of the French Acadians from Their American Homeland, recounts a French governor’s alarm in the 1600s over the prevalence of Acadians and indigenous Mi’kmaq along the Eastern Seaboard engaging in “la débauche” with one another. 

In the mid 1700s, this intermixed French colonial and indigenous group was, after decades of conflict with the British government in eastern Canada, violently dispossessed of their homes in a genocidal removal called Le Grand Dérangement. 

Leading up to this expulsion, the Acadians and the Mi’kmaq, part of the larger anti-colonial Wabanaki Confederacy, fought the Brits shoulder-to-shoulder. Among these freedom fighters was Joseph “Beausoleil” Broussard, whom Identity Acadia attempted to claim as their forebearer in a sticker campaign around the University of Lafayette. Broussard’s actual, non-mythified descendants include Beyoncé and Solange Knowles. 

The Cajuns of today claim ancestry within those 8,000 to 10,000 Acadians who survived protracted guerilla warfare, mass exile, and eventual resettlement in the least desirable reaches of that least British territory, Louisiana. Thousands of Acadians died in the expulsions. Many were deported to France. In 1763 Spain took control of New Orleans and land West of the Mississippi, one of the complex consequences of France’s defeat in the so-called French and Indian War and the global conflict between colonial powers. Eager to stave off potential British invasion of the Spanish-controlled territory, Spain paid to bring several boatloads of those exiled and ferociously anti-British Acadians back from France to the New World, commanding them to settle along the Mississippi. 

The Acadians didn’t want to be there or be Spanish subjects, and expressed their displeasure via armed rebellion. In the insurrection of 1768, they joined the powerful old Creole merchant elite of New Orleans in overthrowing the Spanish governor and ushering New Orleans into a brief phase of crownless autonomy. 

This insurrection was crushed by the Spanish military—with the French king’s enthusiastic blessing—by October 1769. The spot the Spanish government chose for public execution of the insurrection’s architects is now Frenchmen Street; that is how it got the name. 

The Acadians were consigned to the western side of the state. A few rose to considerable wealth, becoming plantation owners. A similarly small number achieved middle-class success as artisans, craftsmen, or farmers—which, albeit on a much smaller scale, still included that hallmark of American success, slave ownership. 

The vast majority of Acadians, however, remained extremely poor, surviving off what they caught or raised in the fields and swamps. They retained the 17th-century language of their ancestors; they became the Cajuns. 

CAJUN ERASURE I 

Two of Identity Acadia’s most prolific stickers were regional tweaks of popular far-right slogans. Their “Transplants will not replace us” sticker was a play on “Jews will not replace us,” the right-wing theory that Jewish puppetmasters conspire to “replace” whites with non-whites. The sticker “Make Louisiana French Again” was, of course, homage to our distinguished President’s 2008 campaign slogan, another example of the right invoking a lost golden past. 

Identity Acadia’s Twitter circles often railed against Yankee and “transplant” invaders, seeking to manipulate concerns about the destruction of local culture back into the narrative of “outside agitators.” The plantation class has sought to characterize all Southern liberation movements, from the 1860s to the 1960s and beyond, as inauthentic. They claim these mass movements are just conspiracies against Southern whiteness masterminded by outsiders—explicitly Jews, in most cases—who use social justice as a cover. 

This replacement anxiety echoes the “endangered heritage” bullshit espoused by deranged suburbanites obsessed with New Orleans’ Confederate monuments, but it also draws from the pro-Acadian movement that arose in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s as a response to real and systemic cultural erasure. 

The Cajuns as a community diversified somewhat through the Civil War period, when the South’s careful social hierarchies collapsed. But like Louisiana’s Creoles, Cajuns remained a French-speaking people until the 1920s, when the state of Louisiana began aggressively eradicating Cajun French. 

A series of bills and measures forced Cajun children into English-speaking American schools, where they were punished severely for speaking French. This standard component of cultural genocide remained policy for four decades until almost no Cajuns who spoke exclusively Cajun French remained. 

According to historian Joseph Dunn in his crucial 2018 essay “The Acadian Exile, Louisiana Creoles, and the Rise of Cajun Branding,” eliminating French from Creole and Cajun communities removed language as a basis of regional identity, allowing easier racial distinguishment. Dunn writes, “[T]he native French and Creole speakers for whom these perceived ‘differences’ mattered little were replaced by newer generations of Louisianians who’d been reared and educated in English in segregated schools.” 

In the latter half of the 20th century, Dunn writes, “the baseline for identity in Louisiana shifted from language and culture to race and skin color as a direct result of heritage language loss, forced assimilation into English, and Americanization.” 

Bobby, another Cajun interviewed by Michelle Fiedler, speaks from personal experience about Dunn’s theory of language, race, and estrangement: “It used to be that a Creole was a descendant of people from France who spoke French. Those are Creoles. It didn’t matter what color they were. But, nowadays they tend to say you are Cajun because you are white and you speak French. You’re Creole because you are black and you speak French, or Creole… I say Cajun just because it’s easier to get by with. Cajun is marketable.” 

CAJUN ERASURE II 

It was in the mid-1960s, during the Civil Rights movement and desegregation, that Cajuns began to fully emerge as white—not coincidentally, during a time when the South’s white power structure needed all the allies it could get. 

In The Cajuns: Americanization of a People, Shane K. Bernard argues the rise of Cajuns during this period was inspired by the Civil Rights movement. He notes that in 1972, Edwin Edwards became Louisiana’s first Cajun governor, with the campaign slogan “Cajun Power” and a logo of a white hand clutching a crawfish that deliberately spoofed the Black Power fist. 

Comparing the civil rights struggles of the Cajuns to the struggles of those descended from enslaved people should be done extremely carefully, if at all. Fiedler’s interviews are a valuable resource, but I winced at her assertion that Cajuns at one point held “a class status similar to their plantation slave counterparts.” I am not a historian, but I don’t think any non-enslaved and/or non-Black status in U.S. history is comparable to that of enslaved Black people. 

That said, the late-20th-century ascent of Cajun culture was rooted in grassroots social movements. The Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL), was founded in 1968 by descendants of the small Louisiana Acadian upper class. CODOFIL helped strike down the English-only laws and promote the teaching of French in Louisiana schools, but it also functioned as a sort of Cajun anti-defamation league, lodging protests against negative portrayals of Cajuns in popular media. 

After the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, Dresser Industries (now part of Halliburton) hired an engineer to investigate the Dresser valve failure that led to the disaster. The engineer, a Cajun named James Roach, determined that the fault lay with Dresser’s absence of quality control, but his employer responded angrily to these findings. His managers derided him as a “coonass,” an ugly slang term for Cajuns. When Roach objected to the epithet, he was fired. 

With the backing of CODOFIL, Roach sued Dresser and won, a landmark case that also established Cajuns as a federally recognized and protected national ethnic minority, as defined by the 1964 Civil Rights act. 

This 1980 court case was a turning point for Cajun identity on the national stage, but Cajun power had been on the move here in Louisiana for over a decade. At the same time, the words “Cajun” and “Creole” were redefined into coded shorthands under America’s binary ideological race system. 

In 1971, 22 parishes with deep Creole and African roots, including some with a 50% Black population, were legally designated “Acadiana” by the Louisiana state legislature, a symbolic gift of territory to the Cajuns. Cajuns were awarded the culinary, musical, and linguistic heritage of their non-white neighbors. 

The whitewashing rolled on. A “Mississippi Delta Ethnographic Overview” published by the National Park Service in 1979 defined Cajuns by the popular white metric of exclusion: “What is not admissible in the public definition of a Cajun is black or Indian blood.” 

The best single collection of resources I’ve found regarding this history of Creole erasure and Cajun-as-white is Alexandra Giancarlo’s 2018 article in the Journal of Cultural Geography, “Don’t call me a Cajun!” Among many examples, Giancarlo cites a 1992 column in Lafayette’s Creole Magazine where columnist David Chretien asks why, after Hurricane Andrew, news coverage lauding the region’s residents for “resourcefulness, self-reliance, and bravery” describes the region’s inhabitants exclusively with the term Cajun, effectively limiting the praise to whites. 

Reading this made me think of the ways media and racist politicans highlight the (real, and commendable) heroics of the “Cajun Navy”—the impromptu grassroots rescue squads formed mostly of rural boat owners—and how these narratives about conduct in the aftermath of hurricanes and levee failures get implicitly and explictly contrasted to vile and inaccurate generalities about the actions of non-white people. 

The non-white residents of “Acadiana” resisted. A mostly vapid 1997 New York Times article, “On Bayou, Non-Cajuns Fight for Recognition,” offers a snapshot, in the context of tourism, of Black and Creole business organizations in western Louisiana contesting their historic and cultural invisibility beneath the wheels of the Cajun brand’s marketing juggernaut. 

In July of the same year, Ruth Foote wrote an incisive piece on the same subject in the Baton Rouge Advocate. She interviews Adofo Harmon, who founded a group called The Un-Cajun Committee. Harmon describes this subsumation of the region’s multiple cultures into Cajun-ness as “cultural piracy,” calling it “a very friendly kind of genocide. It’s only friendly in the sense that it sneaks up on you.” 

IT’S OFAY TO BE WHITE 

For most of their existence as a community, Cajuns have been considered “less than.” The stereotypes were that Cajuns were stupid, lazy, backwards, primitive, violent. Does this dehumanizing litany sound familiar? 

A 21-year-old, Edward, told Fiedler, “I know in the past they saw [Cajuns] as the coonass, the people that didn’t care about the American way, they did their own way, they are self-sustaining, especially in the community since—the boucherie—that’s all that was, community sharing. They saw them as, not necessarily no good, but maybe in a sense worthless… because they wouldn’t contribute to their [Anglo American] society, of course…” 

In a 2003 article by Sylvie Dubois in American Speech, a person identified only as “an elderly Creole African American from Parks, Louisiana” recalls growing up in a mixed-race community where Cajun functioned as an epithet. “It was bad to call a white person a Cajun,” the anonymous speaker says. “Cajun was a dirty word at one time in the South… Cajun was considered low class, dirty and that kind of stuff… Cajun was discriminated against, not like us, but, they was also discriminated against…” 

New Orleans’ Italian and Irish communities didn’t used to be considered white; they were only accorded whiteness by the descendants of the planter class as necessary leverage against the formerly enslaved. The story of the Cajuns is similar. 

That’s because whiteness is a made-up category, not a real thing. It’s a term of exclusion, not an ethnicity. Whiteness is a manufactured political class defined by absence, a supposedly normative purity that only means absence of the “other.” Whiteness expands or contracts as demanded by the exploitative economic system it supports. 

As “Cajun” was rebranded as a generic signifier of rural Louisiana whiteness, Cajuns’ actual history and culture became obscured. When the tourism industry promotes “Cajun gumbo” and brands Zydeco a type of “Cajun music,” not only are those elements being stolen from their progenitors, but the designation “Cajun” is made less meaningful, losing its historical significance and concrete history until, eventually, its only real function is as a shorthand for white Louisianan. 

White people are not the victims of whiteness any more than men are the victims of patriarchy, but the status of whiteness is more than just a weapon against those it excludes. Whiteness is an anti-historical force fueled by grinding up and vaporizing the selfhood of those it’s engineered to elevate. Even as I enjoy the benefits whiteness confers on me, the word “white” obscures my actual ethnic makeup and the specific struggles of my ancestors, homogenizing them into this fictional category.

Nationalism functions identically; I would argue that all whiteness is white nationalism. 

I get read as white; I inhabit the role and its advantages. It’s OK to call me white. But the reason it’s not “OK to be white” is that dismantling white nationalism requires dismantling whiteness as a concept. The stillborn attempt by Identity Acadia to forge a white power movement around Cajun heritage is just one example of the opportunistic way whiteness always functions and the interests it always serves. As with anyone else, to the degree Acadians become white, they cease to be Acadian. 


illustrations Josh Jack