April in Paris (well almost ...)
Updated: Mar 20, 2019
(This was first published in Medium about a year ago. The recent ruckus over Ilhan Omar, made me think it might be appropriate to publish again here. The New Zealand massacre confirmed that it was the right thing to do.)
I got to Paris for the first time a year ago this spring.
And like many before me, the place pushed some pretty interesting thoughts my way. Maybe it’s the art. Maybe it’s the wine. Maybe it’s the art and the wine.
My wife and I decided to do some of the standard tourist stuff. The Catacombs, the Eiffel Tower, stuff like that. And it was at the Eiffel Tower that the first of these thoughts crept up on me.
It’s early May, still a bit chilly, and we were standing in line behind two grandmothers chattering away in a language we didn’t understand (not especially unusual given that my French is only passable, and my wife’s is nonexistent) waiting to clear the first security check point. As they talked and we inched forward it slowly dawned on me: they were both wearing the hijab, the head covering worn by some Muslim women. And they were wearing the traditional garb of observant Muslim women. And while they were not veiled, it didn’t take a PhD in middle eastern studies to understand that they were at the very least conservative. And that likely as not, they were speaking some variant of Arabic.
And they were carrying shopping bags. Two a piece, laden with what appeared at a casual glance to be ‘weighty’ things. And you couldn’t see into the tops of the bags because they were shrouded and covered. I know. I tried to look.
Which is about when I started to look around me more carefully. And that’s when I noticed that the folks in line with me had noticed the grandmothers in front of me long before I did or so it seemed. And initially I thought it was my known-to-be-overactive paranoia gland that was secreting as usual. But no … because then I made eye contact with two random folks around me, both male, both somewhere in their 20’s or 30’s. And we made eye contact as they were looking away from their inspection of the grandmothers just in front of me. What I got? The very slightest of shrugs, heads tilted, eyebrows raised. What seemed to me at least to be an acknowledgement that these two old women were being regarded with some suspicion, as perhaps some potential but unspecified threat. I imagined their shopping bags weren’t helping a whole lot. Who carries shopping bags to the Eiffel Tower?
Early May, two days after the Paris knife attack in which one person — beyond the terrorist himself — was killed and four others injured. And while it’s a beautiful day, it’s still a bit blustery out, especially in the shade. So the crowds here and at Musee D’Orsay where we are just come from are heavy, but not overwhelming. And because you’re not overwhelmed by the humanity around you, perhaps then you have some time to look around you and consider what’s there. And perhaps because the knife attack incident is still fresh, perhaps what you consider in what you find around you is taken in a somewhat different context.
Thus the grandma’s. And their shopping bags.
We arrive at the security checkpoint and everyone is examined and scanned to the satisfaction of the guards on duty and those of us who have shared a common space for perhaps no more than five or ten minutes go about our business. The two grandmothers depart headed for yet another queue, still chattering away, oblivious it seems to the attention they’ve drawn.
And the thought dropped on me out of nowhere. These two old women and I? Well … in very different cultural contexts we often wind up in the same boat now. We are regarded with a suspicion that has a common root. Me? I’m a black guy from America. When I show up in a black hoodie with some baggy jeans? I am often regarded with suspicion. Vague concerns that my appearance is an indicator of, some harbinger of the violence and mayhem that I bring with me. And there are folks in my country that actually regard me, and people like me, as something of an existential threat. And then there’s these two old grannies: obviously Arab, obviously Muslim, when Arab + Muslim obviously= Terrorist for some. Proof of that, some would assert, could be found in the knife attack that occurred in the Opera District just days earlier (never mind that the attacker in that case was Chechen nor that most Americans could adequately explain what the difference was between the two).
Suddenly, folks with very little in common, find themselves in similar boats.
Curiously? The French seem to perceive and distinguish people with brown skin very differently. What I came to find, in two weeks in France, is that I was an American first, of the color brown as an after thought. And that I could be distinguished from the Nigerians and the Malians and the Senegalese at a glance mind you. I was from the country that produced Miles Davis and Richard Wright who are to this day held in high regard given their contributions to the Arts. Who assume something of the stature of minor folk heroes given their ability to overcome the racial disparities that they left behind them when coming to France. I didn’t cross the Mediterranean on a rickety wooden boat or rubber dinghy. I didn’t come to claim French citizenship due to my former status as a French colonial subject. I came on a proper Air France jet (albeit in economy class) and most importantly I would return to where I came from the same way. And curiously, at least as far as I could tell, the French see no irony in any of that.
When I returned to America however, I would need to readopt the posture of care and consideration with my surroundings that I had managed to shed within a week of arriving in France. I would need to put away the ease, resume the stance, assume the position, especially when encountering any member of law enforcement. Keeping my hands, always where they can be seen; being careful to make eye contact, but only briefly lest it be considered a challenge; always asking for permission to move to retrieve a wallet, or identification, before actually doing so; and slowing every movement down — way down — so as not to ever appear threatening.
So in different places? Me and the grannies? We end up in the same boat. We are both vaguely — and sometimes not so vaguely — regarded as threats, because of what others are perceived to have done and because of what we are. But what’s even more interesting? Is once I’m freed from my shackles? Once I manage to relax and understand that perhaps I have a new position in the social hierarchy? One where I am casually approached by the Maitre d’ of Les Deux Magots who strikes up a conversation with me as I’m standing outside on the corner of Blvd Saint Germain, and explains to me how James Baldwin actually wrote at this very cafe (of which I’m already aware).
Once I’ve got the strait jacket off? I’m not beyond falling into similar behaviors that consider how we might measure and size others for that same jacket.
I begin to understand the genocides of Germany, Rwanda and Armenia. How we innocently move into postures of ‘us’ and ‘them’ at the beginning, and how we can transition ourselves from ‘them’ to ‘us’ in the blink of an eye with the appearance of nothing more than a shopping bag.
Somehow … some way we’ve got to figure ourselves out. Get control of those primitive parts of the our brains which allowed us to survive as a species way back on a Savannah. The limbic brain that was required to quickly assess threats that might result in death, that’s being exploited and hammered by multiple data streams that it was never intended to handle, from Facebook to Fox News.
Because the two grannies and the one black guy in the hoodie? They simply don’t deserve that status. Because too quickly the mobs are formed and the torches are lit before any of us it seems has a chance to think or get hold of it.