France: home to crepes, croissants, and, as I've learned in the past month and a half that I've been here, a lot of casually racist comments.
I should've realized this when I got to my host family and the subject of where my parents immigrated from came up in the first hour. I also should have realized it when one of my host family members said they'd been to India because they'd been to Sri Lanka. Since then, I've had countless times to realize that racism is a part of everyday lives of POC in France, including when I was asked why I drink coffee instead of tea (basically apparently Indians drink tea?) and when I sat through an entire dinner discussion on "positive" effects of colonialism. My most recent experience with this type of racism was yesterday, when the tutor editing my paper told me that she "absolutely loves everything Indian."
At first, it's easy to dismiss these off-handed remarks as not meaning any harm or being a part of French culture, where apparently things are more direct. However, the more I've had to deal with being "otherized" by French people who directly associate me with a country I've only stepped foot in twice and don't feel a strong personal connection with, the angrier I've become and the harder it is to let these statements slide.
My experience in France has been filled with microagressions: comments or actions that are subtly or unintentionally hostile or demeaning to a member of a minority or marginalized group.
The problem, of course, is that brown people apparently don't fit the European conception of what an American is (I'vehad to write about how this type of thinking is also prevalent in the US, please see my article "Not American Enough?" if you would like a more personal reaction to this "otherizing").
It would be easy to internally cringe and just smile through all these comments. Or to dismiss them as some of the people I've talked to have done by saying "Oh, it's just a French thing" or "It's a part of the study abroad experience." It would be easy, but it would also be dangerous.
America is experiencing devastating effects due to Trump's harmful rhetoric and policies, and France is heading in the same direction. One of their presidental candidates, Marine LePen, is also far to the right, and has spoken out against Islam, globalization, and immigrants. She strongly supports a white anglo-saxon vision of Europe. With the kind of conversation I've been hearing in France, where Europeans and Americans seem to only be those who are considered whites, it's not surprising that Le Pen is gaining power.
I could've not written this article and kept my mouth shut for the rest of my time here. But to dismiss this kind of racism as a "part of a culture" would just be wrong. Racism isn't inherently French, and we can't put up with the casual comments that suggest that whiteness equals Europeanness or Americanness. It has devastating consequences. In the United States, people who are not white get stopped on the streets and asked to show their immigration papers. It's led to violence and calls of "go back home". It's made people who have no other home but the United States feel as if they can no longer identify with their own country.
France isn't exactly a beacon for anti-racist sentiment, but that doesn't mean that we have to accept it during our time here. The more we explain that racist statements--from overt racism to microagressions--will not be tolerated, the more we help those saying the racist statements learn from their mistakes and the more we help POC hopefully not have to deal with this in the future.