When I left Paris fourteen (!!) years ago for my great transatlantic crossing and reached the U.S. shores, I landed at JFK with twenty-four years packed in two suitcases, convinced I was making the right choice. The city I loved so much was notoriously cruel to non-whites seeking to enroll in some schools, seek employment (pictures are mandatory or at least recommended on resumes, some say to facilitate selections based on criteria other than qualifications, if you know what I mean) or looking for housing inside Paris and its immediate suburb. Aware of the lack of professional opportunities in my field of studies, the underdevelopment of the French humanitarian/non-profit arena at the time and the fact that, back then, French students of African descent still faced discrimination so widespread, we took it as part of everyday life, I fled for greener pastures. Back over a decade later, I was delighted to see some changes (thus far, I’ve seen two Black news anchor on TV, something impossible to even imagine fifteen years earlier) and was considering returning to France in a foreseeable future.
Paris, ville des lumières, legendary bastion of romance, beacon of human equality and must-experience vacation destination. Also one of the few places in the world I consider home. Having grown to understand race dynamics in the U.S. and how they affect our lives, I am now accustomed to interacting mostly in environments in which my color (or should I use the politically correct vernacular of ethnic background?) becomes an issue only when I either mentioned it or someone brings it up (as in justifying my acceptance in a top tier school because of affirmative action quotas, not due to that high GPA I kept through grad school). Though I am far from considering the issue of race and profiling in the U.S. over and dealt with, as the Trayvon Martin case clearly suggests, there are some scenarios I don’t expect to encounter when engaged in simple activities… like grocery shopping. Or applying for internships. Or going to a club.
Three incidents could have spoiled my otherwise awesome Parisian vacation. They’ve forced me to realize that no matter a non-white person’s level of achievement, demeanor, and other parameters that do not identify that person as a potential ‘troublemaker’, to quote some local establishments’ managers, one must ALWAYS expect to experience the unpleasant feeling of being punished/penalized for being, well, a bit darker.
Incident number one: All Volunteers Aren’t Born Equal.
In France for a long period of time and seeking to utilize my free time to volunteer with local non-governmental organizations (NGOs), I contacted one of them to offer my time and services (human rights being one of my areas of expertise, if you will) for the summer. The enthusiastic response I received was utterly encouraging and I was already seeing myself engaging in a stimulating experience before my post-graduate adventure in the fall. Asking me to email a resume and assuring me how much bénévoles (volunteers) are needed, my local contact only sought (supposedly) to see if my profile matched their requirements. I emailed the resume, which included the mandatory picture. The response came almost immediately: the organization, a major human rights advocacy group, wouldn’t know how to use me for only two months and wanted local volunteers available full-time for a year. She thanked me for my interest and dismissed me with no further due. I will not mention which organization it is out of respect for the work it does worldwide but I suspect people like me need not apply in their French affiliates.
Incident number two: Thou Shall (or Can) Not Shop Unattended.
The Setting: a Monoprix grocery store in the 10eme arrondissement. The actors: myself, and an overzealous security guard. Strolling through an under-supplied organic products section looking for almond milk, I noticed the guard standing within a ridiculously small distance, staring without even aiming at discretion with his arms crossed on his imposing chest. One of two Black customers (my mother being the other) inside the store at that moment, my neatly dressed self couldn’t possibly be the target of such unwarranted attention, haven’t been in years (since leaving France, actually, come to think of it). Yet, overzealous George followed me through the store, stopping nearby as I checked the pastries section then maneuvered toward the sandwiches shelf. Only meter away from me at that point, he remained close, so close I’m sure he could have easily seen the graying roots UNDER my braids. Dropping my basket on the spot and storming out of the store after telling him I don’t like feeling someone’s breath on my neck while I’m grocery-shopping seemed to me like the appropriate thing to do.
Incident number three: Equestrian Snub
Possibly the most upsetting of all and a first for me, though one of my siblings warned me about going out in Paris nowadays and how selective (for lack of a better word) decent clubs have become. I remember the uproar the Paris Hermes store’s rejection of Oprah caused back in the day and how unsurprised I was at the time. This was the Paris I remember; it was one with which Ms. Winfrey couldn’t possibly be familiar. The excuse presented to her was that the store ‘has had issues with North Africans lately.’ Right. She -and the rest of us- are forced to bear the consequences of the recklessness of a few. That would be tantamount to me presuming that based on the great state of Mississippi’s history, I should have spent my past three years in Gulfport, MS, fearing every single white person I interacted with was waiting for the right moment to snatch me for subsequent lynching. Doesn’t make sense, does it?
After spending an hour dressing up for a party advertised for on Facebook and various other outlets at the Longchamp Hippodrome, the famed (and posh) horse race tracks, my brother, sister and I merrily drove for an hour from the suburb to the Champs Elysees then the Bois de Boulogne where a friend (a white friend I should add) awaited us. Once on the premises and the brand new car we drove parked by the valet, we stood quietly in line, cracking up at the drunken older man who tried to touch my sister and I because he thought we were so pretty, and the fact that we were the only Black guests in the line. As we grew closer to the entrance and I noticed the concerned look on the bouncer’s face, I began to wonder if what we consider a laughing matter could become an issue. After all, we were in the 16eme arrondissement, last bastion of French nobility and definitely a place where few of ‘us’ walked around. ‘Nah,’ I thought, ‘This is 2013. I mean, look at us; do we look like we don’t belong?’ But the line stopped at us and guests who weren’t in it walked around us, invited to get in. Drunken older guy and five of his equally drunken friends passed us and went in.
But we didn’t.
“Who you with?” asked the bouncer and another man who looks like a party organizer of some sort.
My brother mentioned his friend who had been waiting inside and was told: “You’d better call her.”
That was when I knew going in and showing off some dance moves was not going to happen that night.
“Can you step aside so guests can come in, please?” another bouncer said dryly, shoving my sister and I to the side as I held on to my clutch purse so I wouldn’t slap the guy. Oh, hell, no, he didn’t. I asked for the valet ticket and walked back to the car while my brother and his white friend (bless her heart) tried to parlay his way in. I would take a nap in the car while they danced, if by some miracle, my party was allowed in. And as I predicted, and as one of the valets explained to us later, it didn’t and they all joined me and my brand new immaculate white cocktail dress by the car minutes later. So, one word of advice to the organizers of the Longchamp Hippodrome summer parties: don’t advertise on social networks if you intend on not letting everyone who register online per your requirements in. Have the courage or the courtesy perhaps, to write: ‘We cater exclusively to a certain kind of guests and non-white need not apply.’ That could have saved you the negative feedback but most importantly, it could have saved us (and others as bold as we) an hour and a half of our lives…
Paris is still home, despite the tensions and my realization that those three incidents may be followed by a fourth and perhaps a fifth one, who knows? Authentic love entails being aware of the object of affection’s shortcomings, while remaining attached to everything that makes it great. Paris has welcome artists shunned by their own countrymen due to their color once, thus becoming a haven for so many U.S. artistic refugees from Josephine Baker to Ray Charles among many others. It remains one of the greatest cities in the world and that is why, to the risk of being followed around by another security guard fearing I may steal a Louis XVI candelabra, I am planning on taking Mother for a visit of the Chateau de Versailles tomorrow.