Racism in France

Hello,

Judging by the title of this post, you probably already know that it won’t be a super-fun, light discussion on France, let alone on race and racism while abroad. So if you don’t want to read any of it, I kindly ask you to click away; I promise a lighter post tomorrow.

In any case, shall we begin?

Look, I love France. I adore the culture, love the gastronomy, enjoy learning the language, and so forth. People here are super nice and welcoming, especially to foreigners like me. They are polite and are willing to go out of their way to do things if I ever need help with something. Really, it’s great.

BUT, what is not-so-great is the fact that, yes, France is pretty homogeneous country. In other words, it constitutes a majority of French people who are, well, French (aka white European, not of immigrant origins). While being “the same” in terms of origins, language, and physical appearances is good for a national identity (not to forget national pride), it is not as ideal in terms of accepting diversity into the country.

True, there are people who have immigrated to France, in search of a better life and whatnot. There is a substantial percentage of those who come from North Africa (Morocco, Tunisia), West Africa (Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire), and Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia). The country accepts a few hundred-thousand immigrants each year, and while many have assimilated into French society, even having children who are French citizens, the issue of race continues to be a problem.

How is race a problem in France? I took a class on race and France back in college, and here’s what I learned:

Compared with the United States, with its issue of racism towards African-Americans and Hispanics, the French Republic has problems with those from North and West Africa. Many of them have been banished to the banlieues (suburbs) of big cities like Paris and Marseille, living in not-so-good conditions and basically with low-income.

It is funny, because although the racism in France is socially obvious, it never gets discussed in politics. The subject gets swept under the rug, and politicians find ways to avoid discussing it. I don’t believe that that is good, for the issue of race also affects socio-economic status, in terms of who is allowed to get ahead in life, and who does not. The French are very strange, not to forget circumventing the problem that is currently hurting others.

Why am I talking about this, considering that I love France? Well, for personal reasons: although I have received some racist/micro-aggressive remarks while growing up in the United States, I have also recently received some of the same remarks while living in France. I knew fully well that people were going to stare at me when I was in their country, but still, some of their reaction just completely surprised me.

For example: Over the past weekend, my colleague had invited me to her house for lunch. I went, and met her husband and two kids, ages six and nine. The six-year-old daughter was showing my colleague what she had learned in school that week about China/Asian people, demonstrating the “slant-y eyes” to her. That utterly shocked me, as I hadn’t seen that gesture since elementary school. I told my colleague that that was quite a racist thing to do, and she agreed, but said that children still learn that in French school. She, along with her daughter, apologized, but I was lenient, considering that her daughter’s only six and probably doesn’t know any better. This goes to show that France is still quite ignorant to being sensitive on the subject of race.

Another story: On my first day of teaching, I was walking over to the high school and passed by a group of the high schoolers just hanging out outside the building. I didn’t get a good vibe from them (can you say “punks?”), and as I was passing by, I heard one of them mutter under his breath, “Chingook,” which is an incredibly racist word to say to a Chinese person. Again, I was utterly blown by the fact that he had the audacity to say such a thing, especially if I was to be his instructor- potentially. I pretended that I didn’t hear it, and continued walking towards the school to begin my day. But that one little incidence soured my whole mood for the day, and I was incredibly upset afterwards. I still am. 😦

I know that high-schoolers are still immature and all, but those reasons are not excusable for their actions. I let them off that day, but if I were to come across something similar like that again, I swear that I will tell them off for their behavior. Seriously, I don’t have time for their shit.

Look, it is bad enough to face racism in the United States for being not white. But it kind of sucks when one faces the same treatment abroad, especially in a country that one is so passionate about. I am not saying that I, as an Asian-American, face this problem every single day, but it also doesn’t help that I keep getting stares on the street for my physical appearances, even if not malicious. It is definitely a culture shock to go from living in such a diverse city in the U.S. to a small town in the middle of nowhere in France. With that, I have to consider that race will be a huge deal for me in the next few months. These incidences, as well as the history of French immigration, go to show that the nation isn’t perfect, even though I enjoy its culture and everything.

The issue of race and society continues to be a complicated problem, in both the United States and France. I can hope that I won’t face any more racial remarks while abroad (I doubt it), or at least figure out how to tell people off for doing so. Walking away and pretending not to have heard it is a noble thing to do, but it really sucks for your ego. Then again, for every racist bastard out there, there are others who are accepting of different races and are even curious to learn more about them (that might also be a problem, too, but that’s for a different post). The students that I have had so far have been good about it, and so that makes all the difference.

In any case, I would be interested in hearing about your thoughts on race and whatnot. Doesn’t have to be in France; it could be in any country in which you live. Thanks for sticking with me through this post, and I wish you a good day.

P.S. For more thoughts on racism, check out my post here.

— The Finicky Cynic

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18 thoughts on “Racism in France

  1. loved your post, and must thank you for sharing. Race is I think a global problem, and every ‘race’ lets say will see itself above either all other races, or will look down on some specific ones. Here in Bahrain (where i’m from, and I promise despite what I say next, its a beautiful place too) we suffer extreme racism against asians, particularly the india race. This race is not one of hatred, but one of condescension, like people have forgotten that indians, who make up a majority of our labour work force, and lower level employment (like the hispanics in USA), are humans too. It breaks my heart and makes me angry when I see people mistreating their own house maids (having house-staff is very common in our culture), or just kids bullying indians on the street. Not to say that its everywhere, but it can be seen.
    So i am sorry that you have witnessed or experienced racism. I cannot say that I have felt it myself, even traveling abroad, but I cannot imagine that it would make you feel anything less than angry.
    But perhaps what we need to realise is that racism is a byproduct of ignorance. and these children were not taught better, or not taught to be aware and accepting of ethnic differences.
    There is an experiment a kingergarten teacher carried out to teach her students about racism back (i wanna say in the 70’s)… don’t know what its called but i’m sure a search on youtube will get you there.. very interesting. maybe take an approach with a class and educate them about such issues, raise their awareness, and maybe that will spread across to their friends and at home…. better than giving them a piece of your mind (though i’d be inclined to the same. haha)

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I know that much of the French perspective on race is quite limited due to centuries of former colonies and homogeneity within the country. True, I was heated when I experienced first-hand the racism, but I know that it’s not smart to get angry at them, because they don’t know any better. Educating them is the best way to go, and perhaps I will incorporate a lesson on race during the school year and give the students some insight into a different perspective. We shall see!

    1. I’m not saying that you should not go to France because people of color get treated horribly. While that does happen, there are also plenty of other French people who are open-minded about foreigners or those who don’t look, well, French. France is still a lovely country, and things have been progressively getting better over the years, so it’s not as bad as it was during, say, colonialism. Thank you for your thoughts.

  2. Hey hey hey, comment of a French person here! haha 😀
    I must say I disagree… and agree. At the same time. Yes, it is possible. First, I must give you an advice in case you want to speak about that with French people : never use the French word “race”. Never ever. We don’t speak about “race” but “origine” because eh, there’s only the human race. (and by the way, I have always found it really weird even disrepectful that American people, and others around the globe, use the word race but whatever). So here is my opinion, very subjective as you may understand. About people with African or Arab origins, I may have a sociological explanation but it doesn’t solve the problem — because yes, there is an issue here. When you move to another country, you feel the need to be surrounded by people who are like you, who remind you your country, it helps your cultural integration. So you decide to stay together, to gather. That’s why, at the beginning, people with Arab or African origins gathered in suburbs. And of course because it was less expensive. It is exactly like when European went to the US and created Little Italy for example. The issue now is that 1) they don’t try to leave, they prefer to stay together, they don’t want to mix their culture with ours 2) we don’t help them to manage well, they are stigmatise, and we don’t want to mix their culture with ours. It is not as definite as “many of them have been banished to the banlieues”. It is a dual relationship and yes, it is very complicated to deal with it because violence happens there so of course, society wants them to stay there. But if you think of it, there is violence because they feel oppressed, afraid of the future, and because the only role model they have is violence. It is such a vicious circle.
    Then, yes, there is a big issue between people with Arab or African origins and “real French” (I hate this expression so much) because of wars and because of religion. We (France) possessed (there is no other word) Algeria during a long time and at the end occured a war. A very big war, a civil war too, and SOME people with Algerian origins keep that period in mind very strongly. They keep their bitterness against France and pass it down to their children. It doesn’t help creating good relationships. When you tell someone with Arab origins there is something wrong in their behavior for example, you are called racist. But if they insult you, it doesn’t go with racism but with respect. Their bitterness make them mix both. At the same time, they use their origin as a defense and they ask us to forget they have an origin. I don’t know if I am clear… Also, I am making a very, very big generalization and it makes me uncomfortable. About religion, you must know that France is lay, like very lay. We mock religion all the time and we don’t really have the notion of blasphemy anymore, I think. But people with Arab or African origins are often very religious, and it creates tension around what we can say and what we can’t. But I am happy to tell you that many, many, many people with origins totally fit in. And that’s amazing because they share several cultures.
    About the insults you received, I am very sorry… I really don’t get why they reacted like that. It is very stupid. And the teacher is not a good one if it is how she teaches about Asia.
    Also, as I am respectful to everyone, I may not notice what is really going on… I barely hear racist insults where I live… But I can tell you that France is getting more and more “afraid of people with origins” (love this wording, LOL) because the National Front (racist party) gets more and more supporters… It is scary.

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts from a French perspective. Gives more insight into a nation in which I was not born.

      I am aware of the issues concerning the Arab community, in terms of the long, bitter history between North Africa and France, as well as the growing popularity of the FN (which frightens me). I’m assuming that the reason the political party is gaining more supporters is because of the people’s dislike of Hollande, at the moment. Not good for foreigners, nor for people of non-French origin.

      I want to say that, with the growing number of immigrants and people of non-French descent in France, people are becoming more accepting of different origins (not race, my apologies). But at the same time, it does not seem to be the case. Like with the U.S., France still has a long way to go before discrimination gets eradicated. Again, I greatly appreciate your opinion on this otherwise complicated issue.

      1. It is not only about Hollande, it is also about Europe, immigration and no employment time. The richest get richer and we can’t do anything. The FN is close to the citizens, it wants to help them and only them. Unfortunately they say this situation is due to immigrants. The FN is good for nobody. It is just destroying faith, respect and humanity. Yes, I do agree. We still have to improve our acceptance. I also think we need time (from both side, France and immigrants) because we don’t know immigration for a long time and our culture is very different from others. It is an adaptation that needs both side involved.

  3. Where nationalism becomes a bigger issue in many countries you will find that racism or the hate of non-native people grows. People will use any other people as a scapegoat for the problems they face. It’s a serious problem that is growing around the world.

  4. You’re right! Being young and in high school does not excuse their actions and you’re right to resolve not to stand for it. They do not understand how a remark like that can affect someone so deeply and it needs to be taught how it does hurt people

  5. Thank you for sharing, F.C. Sorry you had to encounter such a moment. Yes, he was probably just a kid, but his crude comment to you is probably part of the culture of superiority — that belief of “they don’t look like me, speak the same language as I, are not the same sexual preference as I [or whatever else], so I am better than them… but if they don’t acclimate or go away, they better watch out.” Of course, that doesn’t mean everyone must accept the stigma and the hate and disdain it breeds. Thank goodness there are those in each generation who will frown on the hate and look at the person instead of the skin color or their culture of origin. Even though the words and actions of the very few can get to you, it’s heartening to know you do encounter a great deal more people who will still respect and admire you for you. 🙂

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