Well, it happened once again. I find myself traveling internationally and while sitting on the Metro an older White man and his wife begin smiling at me. I nod in acknowledgement and politeness back and shortly after he points to my backpack. “Are you actually from that university?” “Yes,” I respond and he quickly tells me that their son was a graduate of the school. From there on he (and she to a lesser extent) keeps trying to engage me in conversation. However, I can’t help but notice that in a metro car filled with Black passengers, it is my American-ness that stands out. Perhaps the backpack was a dead giveaway but there were probably other cues–the shoes, the luggage, and the fluency in English signal my national identity. The scores of Francophone Africans remain invisible to this couple. Something about me says, “worthy,” “civilized,” “American,” in the same ways their African-ness shouts “refugees,” “foreign,” “social burden.” Despite the fact that many of these Africans may be French citizens and/or highly educated, it is my American passport that gives me a certain privilege in this European space.
I also feel strange because the people with which I would rather converse are the Africans and they are all speaking French. While I can pick up a word or two of French in their conversations I am far from fluent. My English language dominant register keeps me locked in a dialogue with the European-American couple. I can’t even acknowledge and share cordial remarks with the Africans. If I say, “Bon Jour’ my accent may be too off or worse, it may signal I actually know French and then I will be unable to maintain a conversation. I wonder as the train rumbles on if this same couple riding along on the DC, NYC, or Chicago Metro would have bothered to speak to me. In that context would I have been the “scary Black?”
The way our sense of the “other” operates is entirely situational. This couple saw me, at least nominally, as “One of them.” However, the Africans were not to be included in our “circle of humanity.” In this context my American identity trumps my racial identity. I get to be a part of the “we” that Westerners claim as the universal identity.
I am also reminded of the romanticized notion that Black Americans have of Paris since it became a place of exile for so many notable Blacks–James Baldwin, Josephine Baker, Richard Wright, and so many jazz musicians. We heard all about the way the French embraced them and how for the first time ever they felt like their humanity mattered. But they could not have been naive. They had to know that the humanity ascribed to them came at the expense of the Caribbean and African colonial subjects the French held in such disdain.
I will say that I do enjoy walking the streets here in Paris without anyone as much as giving me a second look. In the quick interactions that occur as people walk along the street to the parks, plazas, shops, and restaurants my presence draws little or no attention. Indeed, soon after I arrived at Charles De Gaulle Airport someone approached me for directions. I blended into my surrounds and went unnoticed. Paris is such a cosmopolitan, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-national city that almost all public spaces are filled with people from a variety of backgrounds. The young African girls I have seen are sporting braids identical to their sisters in New York, Chicago, Baltimore, and LA. The young African boys are wearing hair cut in Mohawk styles as well as dreadlocks. Skinny jeans and sagging jeans are the universal uniform..
But, I am acutely aware of my class and national privilege as I move around the city with Black skin that does not matter in the same way it matters at home. The socially constructed nature of race is even more evident to me at this moment. For a few days I get to call myself an “American!”
Stay Black & Smart!