Christina Patterson: Old attitudes refuse to go away in this supposedly colour-blind world

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The Independent Online

It can walk, it can talk, it can even read the news. Yes, France has finally discovered there are black men in the world who can do something other than burn a banlieue or kick a football. At least, they've discovered there's one. He is Harry Rosselmack, star recruit of France's most popular TV channel, TF1. He can present his stories with pizzazz - and he's gorgeous. Just over a week into the job, he is, in fact, well on his way to the hallowed territory already colonised by Zinedine Zidane, one somewhere between mascot and national heart-throb.

After the riots in November, President Chirac tried to pour water on the literal and metaphorical flames - stoked by his less than sensitive Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy - by urging the French media to hire journalists from ethnic minorities. Et voilà! Eight months on, here's Harry. So France can rest easy in the comforting knowledge that all's fair in love, war and French society, that all can rise to the top in this brave new multicultural monde and that the fruits of merit can extend beyond the cable ghettos even to prime-time telly.

It's easy to sneer, of course. While British news has, over the past 15 years, offered us the likes of Trevor McDonald, Moira Stuart, George Alagiah and Rageh Omaah, our TV screens are hardly teeming with black pundits. Nor, for that matter, are our newspapers. In most media organisations in this country, and publishing houses, and businesses, and indeed in our Parliament, the black faces are still to be found largely in the canteen. Or the post room. Or the toilets. Things may be changing, but they are changing very, very slowly.

Clearly, you have to start somewhere. An intelligent new black face in the front rooms of France can only be a good thing. It's the instant elevation to national pin-up that's just a little bit troubling. Physically attractive people who are also famous will, of course, always trigger a frisson among a fair tranche of the population, and sometimes a flurry of fantasies. Just ask Anna Ford. Or David Beckham. Or (except you can't) Jill Dando. But when the object of desire is a handsome black man, things get a little more complicated.

It would be nice to think that all those clichés about sexual potency and large penises died with slavery. Sadly, their legacy lives on. Our society's attitude to beautiful black men is still - nearly 60 years after the Windrush brought the first wave of Jamaican immigrants to a cold and unwelcoming Britain - about as sophisticated as a wolf whistle from a builder. While a Jeremy Paxman might inspire a gasp of gosh-he's-clever-and-he's-also-quite-sexy, the response to a Thierry Henry or a Sol Campbell is more often along the lines of get-a-load-of-that. Black men, it seems, inspire an unusual level of sexual frankness. At a poetry event I once organised in the city, for example, the female lawyers commented frequently, and extremely loudly, on the evident charms of a young poet from Brixton. Their comments were made in a tone of voice I never heard them use about the senior partners in their firms.

A black ex-boyfriend of mine gets propositioned all the time. Some women just ask him for sex. Others actually say that they want to know what it's like to sleep with a black man. Très romantique, n'est-ce pas? Some of this may have something to do with perceived differences between British and Afro-Caribbean sexual cultures. A traditionally Caribbean approach to seduction can, it's true, make a refreshingly direct change from the agonised codes - and assumed indifference - of the average British male. But what it's mostly to do with is power.

Throughout history, it has been those who are higher in the pecking order who have made sexual objects of those who are lower. People do not wolf whistle their bosses. And women do not, on the whole, wolf whistle men. When women express their enthusiasm for a beautiful black man, they are also expressing their unconscious sense that the traditional male/female balance of power has been equalised - and might even have tipped the other way.

No wonder, then, that black culture is fighting back. It is fighting back with grotesque parodies of the black man as sex object - huge, muscly men, draped in gold and fur, men whose trousers are designed to expose their beautifully honed buttocks and whose videos are designed to expose their beautifully honed bitches. Sure, you can get all het up about guns 'n' girls 'n' gangstas. It's not the role model that most people had in mind when making their grand plans for a colour-blind world. But you can't miss the irony. Rap stars know that money - money culled partly from a white, middle-class fanbase - is power. And that's a start.

Family values don't stretch far enough

Good news, at long last, for singletons. After the latest cheery flurry of reports that living on your own is likely to make you miserable, poor and die of a heart attack, at least a government minister has finally acknowledged that single people have a right to exist. In a speech this week, his first on the family since taking over as Education Secretary two months ago, Alan Johnson actually declared that "marriage can provide stability, but it's not for everyone". Gosh! Did he check with Tony first?

From a government with a record number of committed Christians, a government united in their family values, a government, in fact, whose Minister for "Women and Equality" believes that homosexuality and contraception are sins, this is radical stuff indeed. This, after all, is the government that has been bleating on, with typical grammatical imprecision, about "hard-working families". Unless they're planning to revive laws that send children up chimneys or down t' mill, one presumes they're actually talking about the parents, but the phrase was clearly coined to bathe the whole institution of the family in a golden (but strictly Protestant) glow.

They are, it's true, with the odd entertaining exception (but let's not upset poor Mrs Prescott with any more references to her porcine partner's antics in the Admiralty Arch), a remarkably uxorious lot. Remarkably fecund, too. So far, the Prime Minister and the Minister for Women are neck and neck in the reproduction department (and no, that's not a new government department, though no doubt it will be soon). There's still time, Tony, to squeeze another one in. Particularly since you've already announced, on a global stage, your plans to spend more time with your family. Make love, not war, etc. But really it's better not to do both.

* So Brad Pitt has seen the light. Now that he's discovered the "true joy" of fatherhood, he has declared himself "sick" of his selfish life. It is only now, now that he can see his genes replicated in a little bundle of wriggling flesh, that he knows, finally, what it's all about. And yes, the answer to the mystery of the universe is, as always, reproduction.

I thought I'd read this interview before, but then I realised I was thinking of Johnny Depp, who, in a recent interview, said almost exactly the same thing. You don't go to Hollywood for startling insights into the human condition, but Depp is one of the best actors on the planet. You'd have thought he could have chosen a more interesting character in his interviews than that tired old wild-child-redeemed-by-a-pair-of-tiny-blue-eyes.

As clichés go, it's on a par with the sudden announcements made by new parents that they can't bear to see stories of children suffering on the news. What were they doing before? Slapping their thighs and scoffing a chocolate muffin?

Yes, the big news is that other people are real, too. And there's a quicker route to this lesson than procreation. It's called the imagination.

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