Mamoudou Gassama, Citizenship And Language

The start of the week sees the birth of a new “superhero”.

Mamoudou Gassama, “The Spiderman of Paris”, is a Malian “migrant” who climbed four stories of a high-rise to save a child dangling from the side of the building. He is being rightly lauded by all on Twitter, this being a typical response:

It is an absolutely breath-taking feat of bravery and strength. If you don’t believe me, try doing one muscle up. I’ve included a GIF video so you can see how it should be done.

Now that we have established just how difficult that is, let’s get back to our new hero. I thought this was an interesting tweet:

It roughly translates to:

I don’t get why so many progressive people celebrate Macron for giving citizenship to the Malian Mamadou Gassama for saving a child. Do you have to be a hero to be a citizen? In a different circumstance they would let him drown in the Mediterranean and nobody would say anything.

I hope I don’t make my old Spanish teacher wince too much at my effort at translation (You old man – have you never heard of Google Translate? – Ed). It is easy to label @0chicote as a sourpuss – someone determined to find a negative in an unequivocally feel-good story, but his question is valid: do you have to be a hero to gain citizenship? More than that, does anyone honestly believe Gassama would have met Macron and been granted citizenship if his feats hadn’t been caught on camera? A note to all the immigrants who are hoping to become migrants by climbing buildings to save children: make sure you have a camera to hand. And start your parkour training now, because you never know when a dangling child will be your ticket to migrant status. Heck, maybe if Gassama had saved two children he could have been upgraded from migrant to expat.

Quick test: without looking, can you describe the difference between an immigrant and a migrant? If you said a migrant is a person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions and an immigrant is a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country, you’re actually wrong. Well you’re right, but you’re wrong. To demonstrate what I mean, I will share an anecdote with you.  I know a very bright child that I am related to. A couple of years ago when they were seven or so, we were watching the news and the word terrorism came up. He asked me what it was and I asked him what he thought it was. He paused for a moment, chewing on his bottom lip as he thought, and responded with, “Is it when a brown person does something really bad?” I asked him why he believed that and he explained that he only saw the term being used when brown people were doing bad things. Language is fluid and children are intelligent. If a word is only used to describe one thing, its definition will literally change to reflect that. It was with that anecdote in mind that I found the news coverage of Gassama interesting, with most electing to describe him as a “migrant” and not an immigrant.

This heroic migrant, Gassama, said “I just didn’t have time to think, I ran across the road to go and save him.” He’s gone from anonymity to meeting the French President and being offered citizenship in short order.

And that is a problem. The test for citizenship can’t be “Are you Wakandan strong?” or “Have you saved a child’s life AND had it caught on camera?” Twitter user @AliAbunimah puts it well:


I’m glad Gassama got to meet Macron, who has struck a tough stance on immigration. There is a delicious irony of a president that has lurched politically to the right on immigration to ward off the threat of an increasingly restless Europe seeking a photo opportunity with an immigrant for good press. I’m happy, too, that he is being celebrated for his heroic act. I just hope this isn’t used as the new standard by which citizenship will be granted, because, contrary to popular belief, not all blacks are super strong. Believe me, I know:


Just so I’m clear, I’m pleased for Gassama and I’m glad he saved a child’s life. But, I think he would say, much like another Malian living in France, Lassanna Bathily ‘”Je ne suis pas un heros”.


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