Monday, June 22, 2015

La Vie en Rose? Depends on Skin Color

I am one of those people with a “Mediterranean” look as I’m told: the dark hair, dark eyes, skin that tans easily. I’m used to people asking me if I’m Italian, Spanish, Arabic etc. So the other day, when a man in the subway asked me, “Are you from North Africa?" I didn’t think much of it. This was probably one of those pickup lines.

I politely said “no.”

I expected this to end any attempt at a conversation. What came next, however, wasn’t an end to the conversation, and certainly wasn’t a bit of friendly Parisian flirting.

His reply, “OK, because if you were from North Africa, I was going to ask you to stand farther away from me. And by the way, vote Le Pen (a politician of the extreme right) to get all of them out of here—and if you don't understand, go to Barbes (an area in Paris) and have a look around."

I was so shocked that I didn’t even reply.

What if I was North African? It sounded as if he was ready to send any North African to the back of the subway. An image of Rosa Parks flashed in my mind. And I was frightened, not of this particular individual (well, maybe just a bit), but mainly of the underlying meaning of this event. 

Is Paris a place where one would feel comfortable accosting a stranger, demanding his/her origins and then insulting that person?

I thought of a dear friend, a doctor of North African parents. If this man who had spoken to me in the subway was bleeding on the street, my friend wouldn’t ask him about his origins before helping him. Would he refuse her assistance because of her origins?

There are good and bad people of all races and backgrounds. Whether you are in the “Barbes” neighborhood, as cited by the man on the subway, or elsewhere, you’ll find both. How could someone verbally attack a stranger, without knowing anything about that person?

I’ve unfortunately grown used to seeing racism and xenophobic behavior in France and in the U.S. in a group setting, for instance, people demonstrating and complaining about this or that. But seeing an individual take a step forward in such a way is somehow even more shocking than witnessing the masses. 

I stepped off the subway in silence. I regretted not telling that man off, not pulling the alarm signal. I regretted being unprepared for such a scenario. I regretted always seeing life in Paris as La Vie en Rose


  1. What a horrible and unsettling experience. Sadly, it seems to be the way much of Europe is going. Have you read Andrew Hussey's 'The French Intifada', a deeply unsettling read about the unhappy history of the French and their relations with their former North African territories? Not good.

  2. I'll have to check that out, Margaret, thanks... It was shocking to see that sort of behavior so close up and shamelessly too. We can only hope that enough stories like this might lead to action for a change in mentalities.