Dealing with Not-So-Subtle Racism in Paris

foreign-correspondent badge finalThe funny thing about racism in Paris is that people are very skilled at ignoring it. From what I’ve noticed, it’s not as openly discussed as in the United States, and when it is, the discussion lacks much depth. I would guess that this is in large part because of its historical and political history. First of all, France doesn’t have a history of slavery as America does.

There were colonies of course, but the long absence of minorities within the actual borders of the nation seems to have impacted how they view immigrants, particularly immigrants of color.  Even today, France does not collect race or ethnic data in their census and maintains “color-blind” public policies.

To be frank, it seems as though many people I’ve encountered have prejudiced ideas about minorities, but they don’t believe these ideas are racist.

Because of this, the way that the French think about citizenship, race, and everything pertaining to people of different backgrounds cohabitating in the same urban area is very different from what I expected. To be frank, it seems as though many people I’ve encountered have prejudiced ideas about minorities, but they don’t believe these ideas are racist. Racism to them is epitomized by America in the 1950s and 60s (my host mom was absolutely appalled by what she saw in film, The Butler).

But despite how shocked many people are about race relations in the States, I can think of several instances in which I was in a racially charged environment and no one seemed to notice.

For example, I was recently talking with a group of French students about the difference between the legal drinking age in France and in the States. One student said the legal age was 16. “No, it’s 18,” remarked the other.

He told my Italian friend that she was Japanese. “I can tell. Your eyes, they’re small.”

“Then how is it that I was able to get alcohol at 16?”

“Because you have the face of a terrorist.”  I expected this student, who was of North African descent, to defend himself and counter that obviously offensive statement. But he said nothing.

Not soon after, I was in a restaurant with three friends, all of us American, but of different ethnic backgrounds. Upon checkout, the cashier asked us where we were from. We told him America, but he was skeptical. We couldn’t all be American. We didn’t look American, whatever that means. He told my Italian friend that she was Japanese. “I can tell. Your eyes, they’re small.”

She responded matter-of-factly, “That is racist. You are racist, and if I actually were Japanese, I’d be more offended than I am now.”

I don’t want to make it seem as though racism is rampant and comments like these are the norm. But they’re not infrequent. This is no indictment on the French. This is not even an indictment on the people whose comments I disagree with.

This is simply a message to minorities who are possibly disillusioned, as I once was, and believe that because history unraveled in a different way over here in the Old World, people are more advanced in terms of race relations. The problems that exist in America, or very likely in any other nation, exist everywhere. We shouldn’t let wanderlust blind our realities.

racism in paris
Angelyn in Paris

 

About Angelyn Irvin

AvatarAngelyn Irivin is a student at the University of Pennsylvania who studied abroad in Paris in 2013.

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