France’s Rift: Culture, Not Color…
His essay returns to a topic that we have discussed here on Opinio Juris–the riots in an around Paris–but he is provocative in how he assesses prejudices on both sides of the Atlantic. Here are a couple of excerpts:
I had my first interaction with the French police on a December night in 1991. I had recently moved to Paris, and was strolling back to my tiny apartment in an exclusive neighborhood. I probably looked scruffy in my old army jacket and jeans. Suddenly two unmarked police cars pulled up. Four officers climbed out, asked where I was going, and demanded to see my “papers.” But when I began speaking French, one of the officers heard my accent. “Oh, you’re American? Please excuse us. Have a great evening.”
I was stunned. Americans had warned me that the French didn’t welcome people of color and constantly harassed Arabs and Africans. But I soon learned that being an African American in France is wonderful. I was generally treated better than I would have been back in the States…
Throughout the 20th century, legions of black American artists, writers, and jazz musicians escaped racism at home by fleeing to Europe. Paris, in particular, has been a second home for black intellectuals such as Richard Wright and James Baldwin.
I have inherited that legacy. Europeans associate me with the aspects of America they embrace, especially African American art and music, and the historical struggle for freedom and civil rights – exotic, but not threatening. It never seemed to matter that I personally was not artsy or hip. I was “ethnic,” but I wasn’t an immigrant with a culture and customs that were so different as to be feared. I was Christian, not Muslim. Different, but not too different.
And this, in my experience, is why prejudice in Europe is such a dramatically different beast from prejudice in the United States. In America, prejudice has long been a question of color. In Europe, it’s not about color, it’s about culture. France doesn’t have a race problem. It has a problem embracing the culture and customs of its immigrants and their children.
The whole essay is well worth reading.