Can I admit something? Up until a few months ago, I thought hate and bigotry was a conservative thing. I thought this mostly because of conservative’s historical stance of fighting against policies that made life better for people who weren’t white, straight, and rich. Conservatives haven’t exactly gotten behind causes like gay marriage, immigration, and welfare programs like universal healthcare. But for every Make America Great Again bumper sticker I saw, I would see a Make America Smart Again bumper sticker poking fun right back. Turns out liberals aren’t above calling out conservatives' supposed lack of education, a classist jab that doesn’t do much to bridge the divide. It’s like we’re in a ping pong game of provoking each other. But what would happen if we talked to people who had different opinions and beliefs than our own? How do we even have these conversations?
Tan France knows. As the fashion and style expert on the Netflix reboot of Queer Eye, France admits that he’s not usually asked about his opinions beyond style, fashion, and skin care. But he has stories to tell and advice to give. Like the time he and Karamo Brown refused to keep shooting the show. Or the time he was called a terrorist by one of the men he was making over. Tan is one of two men of color on the show, which filmed its first season in the suburbs surrounding Atlanta in 2016. That experience gave Tan multiple opportunities to interact with conservative white men whose beliefs were very different than his own and hone his approach.
“I was asked if I was a terrorist because they didn’t realize I was middle eastern. Two of our heroes asked, 'Are you a terrorist?' and it was a very honest question for them. They weren’t trying to be funny. Our show is about bridging these divides and we are meeting with a lot of Republicans and this isn’t meant to be a liberals vs. conservative show at all. But it gives us an opportunity to have a very open conversation.”
As France told me the story, I shook my head in disbelief. Someone invites you into their home to help make them over and then asks if you’re a terrorist? Let’s just say I wouldn't have been able to stay so composed.
This excerpt didn’t make it into the show. Why? France says there were more important and timely topics like Black Lives Matter to talk about that season. “There were subjects like the Black Lives Matter subject that we needed to tackle. Maybe we can talk about Islamophobia next season! But those kinds of questions are real for people.”
But even France has his limits. He recalls when he refused to shoot after the cast was pulled over by the cops while shooting. The experience was too real for reality TV.
The back story is that Brown, the show’s culture expert, is a queer Black man driving in the South during a period of police brutality against people of color. Karamo pulls the truck over to the shoulder and is asked to get out.
France recalls his experience to me: “The police officer says, ‘he has to get out of the car’ and Jonathan is like, 'I just don’t want him to get shot.' Rightly so. When you step out of the car, that spells trouble. It was an incredibly real situation for us. Yes the camera crew knew what was happening. We didn’t, so as far [as] we concerned, trouble was afoot. So it was just building and building.”
Karamo gets out of the truck and, if you’ve watched the show, you know it was all a set up. The cop reveals he was the one who nominated a fellow police officer for a makeover. Karamo yells “You can’t do that to me!” while France chimes in from the back seat “You can’t do that to the Black people!” It comes across as light hearted but after the scene, Karamo and Tan refused to shoot.
“Afterwards, we were fuming, saying “this can never happen again. This wasn’t OK. You don’t know what it feels like to be a person of color and get pulled over. We didn’t want to film the next day. We were like 'we’re done. That’s it.'”
The two made amends with the producers and it turned out to be one of the most important episodes in the season.
“Thankfully it turned out great in the end because it’s a conversation that needs to be had.”
How does France stay so composed during tense interactions?
“I connect with them on a human level. There are certain things that I do that hopefully does disarm a person: I look them in the eye. I’ll give them a pat on their shoulder to make sure they know that I’m there for them. I want to support them through this. It humanizes me, it humanizes them, and then we can have a real conversation.”
And France makes a great point about the power of seeing these conversations in our pop culture: “We’re not just talking to that person, we’re talking to everybody else at home who’s watching who’s thinking ‘we feel the same way.'”
Queer Eyes Tan France Had Perfect Response To Racists