Academic Musings, Life Musings, Race & Ethnicity

The French Approach to “Anti-racism”: Pretty Words and Magical Thinking

I first came to France twelve years ago during my junior year abroad. I was the first person in my family to get a passport and I could barely contain my excitement. In the winter of 2003, two years before the riots that followed the untimely deaths of 15 year old Zyed Benna and 17 year old Bouna Traore, I landed in Paris bright-eyed and bushy tailed, armed with a very shaky grasp of French and a naive fascination with this beautiful country.

As an African-American, I was vaguely aware that France did not deal with issues of race the way we do in the United States. And when I happened to forget, French white people were keen to remind me. In one of the sociology classes I took at a university in the south of France, I hesitantly raised my hand to ask a question. The white French professor had been lecturing on youth and delinquency. I asked, in my broken French, if the dynamics he described had any relation to racial or ethnic belonging. “We don’t have that kind of problem here,” he said, adding: “This isn’t the United States.” Embarrassed and flustered, I nodded and continued taking notes. After class, one of the only other black students pulled me aside: “We do have those kinds of problems here. Hang out with me and I’ll tell you about it.”IMG_7291

My new friend was from Cameroon and had moved to France along with her sister and brother several years prior. Over the course of the semester, her family basically adopted me, inviting me to dinners, showing me the area and telling me about their lives. I learned that despite the fact that each of them had white French partners and white close friends, they nonetheless experienced racism. But, as I learned in that sociology class that day, many French people denied that racism was actually a problem in their supposedly colorblind society.

Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, two teenagers who died on October 27th in 2005 after being chased by police officers. Photo courtesy of Le Monde.
Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, two teenagers who died on October 27th in 2005 after being chased by police officers. Photo courtesy of Le Monde.

Continue reading “The French Approach to “Anti-racism”: Pretty Words and Magical Thinking”

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Life Musings

Parisian Memories

It’s been three and a half years since I returned from my two year stay in Paris.  I have not taken much time to reminisce or delve into the experience.  When people ask how it was, I find it difficult to convey what took place for me during that time – emotionally, culturally, intellectually.   It fundamentally changed me.  In ways I’m still grasping – ways I’ll probably never fully understand.  The other night, I dreamed I was in France again – and in the dream itself, I paused to consciously breathe as I walked along a boulevard, closed my eyes and said to my Dream-Self, “I’m back in Paris!  PARIS!”  Pure elation.

What struck me most about living abroad was how intensely alive I felt.  Alive–because I was forced out of my element.  Alive–because I had to struggle to communicate in basic sentences as I painfully transitioned from broken French to fluency.  Alive–because I had to figure out how to gather data for my ambitious dissertation.  Alive–because I was in a foreign place, in a culture that I did not understand.  Alive–because I was constantly pushing myself against the boundaries of my own limits, my own fears.

I spent a total of almost 3 years living in France during my twenties.  In college, I participated in Wellesley’s amazing study abroad program in Aix-en-Provence during the spring semester of my junior year.  I then returned for several extended trips during the early phase of graduate school and then settled for two years in Paris where I conducted over 120 in-depth interviews and completed ethnographic fieldwork for my dissertation research.

I did not take the time to keep a detailed journal when I was living in France.  But I suspect that many, many memories are still there, waiting to unveil and avail themselves.  I’ve decided that from time to time, I’ll blog about some of these memories.  Everything will be out of order and jumbled, but I’m curious to see what I’m able to recall after all these years.

* * *

Anyone who has ever lived in Paris knows that one does not live not live in Paris at all, but in an arrondissement–a district.  I lived in the 14th, on the border of the 6th, on a very small street called La Rue Leopold Robert, tucked between Boulevard Montparnasse and Boulevard Raspail.

My apartment was in a building on the corner, with a Caribbean restaurant on conveniently located on the first floor.  There was a touchpad on the front door, which lead to an entry way with black and white tiles, another door, and then the tiny burgundy elevator — just enough room for two people.  I knew I was lucky to have an elevator at all — many buildings in Paris do not — and my apartment was on the sixth floor — all the way up.

The studio I lived in was smaller than most college dorms.  Upon entering the apartment, you immediately found yourself in the kitchen.  I’m using the term “kitchen” loosely, here.  In fact, it was a 3 ft by 3 ftspace with a sink, a microwave and a tiny counter.  There was no oven.  I did, however, have a stove.  With two eyes.

There was a bathroom – with peach walls – and a luxuriously large bathtub that I miss dearly.  But the shower was awkwardly arranged such that if you moved too far to the left or the right, you could easily knock yourself unconscious by bumping into the built-in shelves that were built-in too low.  There was a little metal table next to the sink and a huge, ornate floor-to-ceiling window.  My “bedroom” featured a futon, a desk, another huge, ornate window, a mirrored wall, a small flat screen TV, a small table, two chairs and a bookshelf and a radio.   I estimate that the entire space was probably about 250 square feet.  And that’s being generous.

I did, however, have the great fortune of living in a fully furnished apartment designed by someone with great aesthetic taste – a woman who started off as my landlady and later became a dear friend. She had arranged the apartment to be efficient and beautiful.  There was plenty of closet space, built-in drawers and cabinets, pretty drapes.  It was a simple. ridiculously tiny apartment, nothing fancy, but fairly comfortable by Paris standards.  The one complication was the plumbing — the toilet, to be exact — but I don’t have the energy to delve into the depths of despair caused by the broyeur in that bathroom . . . another story for another day.

There’s something that happens to you when you spend several formative years in a single Parisian neighborhood.  The atmosphere of the place gets stamped on your soul.  So long as I have consciousness, I will never be able to undo what Montparnasse place did to me.  The taste of the toursades and the croissants au chocolat from the bakery on the corner.  The smell of the soap in my laundromat.  The flashing green lights of the pharmacy signs on boulevard Montparnasse.  The rush of happiness I felt slipping into my cave, La Rotonde, the famous brasserie where I was a regular.  For reasons that still evade me, the staff – from the waiters on up to the management – treated me like a mini-celebrity.  “Un café creme, s’il vous plait.”  I almost always got the same thing.

I lived in an incredibly central location.  Thirty seconds to the closest metro – but only a few minutes to several other lines.  Four minutes from my door to the Jardin du Luxembourg — the elegant Senate gardens.  On my street alone, there were about 5 restaurants — and about a hundred more within a few block radius.  My gym was around the corner. There was a major mall down the street, several movie theaters, art venues, the whole nine.  What there wasn’t a lot of was black folks.  Or brown.  It was a decidedly white, largely wealthy area.  My landlady — an incredible woman who also happened to be African American – was an exception.

I remember how frightened I was when I first disembarked.  I had to write down basic sentences – sometimes on flashcards – to make it through the day.  I didn’t have time to be paralyzed by my fear, though, because I started doing research — that is, interviewing people in French — right away.  I was incredibly rusty when I began my fieldwork, but I jumped right in.  There’s no other way to do it.

I didn’t write much about what it was like living in France while I was living it because it was an experience that overwhelmed all of my senses.  Remembering now how incredible it was to visit Monaco – once with a friend and later with my mother.  Standing on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean sea, watching the neon blue waves crash beautifully onto the rocks below.  People watching in the Marais.  Dancing with a dear friend on the roof of her apartment overlooking the sparkling Eiffel Tower at sunset as we drank champagne.  Jogging from my apartment to the Place de la Concorde and feeling like a badass.  Attending a largely black French church – with a white American pastor – in a suburb north of Paris with a friend.  Picking cherries off of trees — and eating them — at a friend’s home in the south of France.  Being lovingly adopted by the family of Camerounian classmate at the Universite de Provence, Aix-Marseille. My intense involvement with Democrats Abroad as a spokesperson for the Obama campaign in Paris.  Being whisked off in private cars (Mercedes – always Mercedes) to do countless TV and radio interviews in a language I had not yet quite mastered. Feeling awkward and afraid and nervous and exhilarated and excited and alive — so alive.  So many memories.  So many that I left aside and repressed.

One of the reasons I pushed so much of my French life aside is because of how it ended.  I spent my first year in Paris getting my bearings and learning how to take care of myself on my own in a foreign place.  Then I began a romance with a Frenchman that would last almost four years and follow me across the Atlantic.  Although it was often very charming to feel so in love and lust in the city of lights, it was in fact a very difficult relationship – one fraught with emotional trauma and drama that unfolded in two countries, in two languages.

My memories of Paris were tainted with the turmoil of that relationship.  It is only now – 15 months after I ended it – that I am able to begin to look back at France with fresh eyes and remember my life there without the painful memory of  our story defining my Parisian experience.

Still, it is not without some trepidation that I reconstruct this period of my life.  Who knows what I’ll recall?  Or, worse, what I’ve irreparably lost?