When I got off the metro the first day in Paris, expecting that I would see lots of white French people, I was pleasantly surprised to see more diversity than I even see in the states – many African immigrants in traditional African fabrics, Muslim women in hijabs, people of many different races who I wouldn’t have thought of as the stereotypical Parisian. I’ve even seen quite a bit of racial diversity within advertisements here (unlike in Buenos Aires, where the strong idealization of Europeanness/whiteness is clear in the lack of representation of non-white Latinos in the media).

Paris, I have discovered, is incredibly multicultural. I live not far from Chinatown, where I can buy everything from Taiwanese Boba Tea to Vietnamese pho to frozen shrimp gyoza (which here are amusingly called raviolis). I probably hear at least four different languages spoken everyday on the metro.

So many cultures in one place, however, especially one with a strong national identity, is bound to lead to tension. I had read a bit previously about racial conflict in France due to the large number of migrants entering the country, most of whom are non-white. And I expected to encounter racism, as I’ve encountered significant xenophobia, particularly Islamophobia, in my previous travels in Europe.

Up until today, I hadn’t encountered as much racism as I expected. Only one questionable incident had occurred; the first few days, a black girl in our program mentioned that a man she wanted to buy a metro pass from told her he didn’t sell them, when she had definitely seen him sell them to other people in our program earlier. The only explanation we could come up with was that it was because of her race, but we couldn’t be sure.

Today, however, I witnessed a quite definite instance of racism. I was talking to this guy I met recently, a French guy who’s half Brazilian, let’s call him Rafael. He started telling me about the car he bought this year, and how it turned out to have a bunch of mechanical problems and he lost 2000 euros. “C’était un noir qu’il me l’a vendé,” he said. “It was a black guy who sold it to me. I’m never going to buy a car from a black guy again,” he said.

“Ça c’est vraiment raciste!” I protested. “What does the color of his skin have to do with it?”

He responded, “No, no, it’s not racist, it’s just like, you know, the African guys come here and sell things and they try to rip you off. You know, like there are stereotypes about Arabs, even about French people too.”

“But that’s racist,” I said. “That one guy shouldn’t represent all black guys just because he ripped you off.”

“And you see, yeah, he gave me a bad impression of black people!” Rafael said. As if to say, this black man has the responsibility of representing his entire race in all of his actions, because if he behaves badly, it makes black people look bad.

“No, that’s wrong,” I told him. “Why should he represent his entire race? If I do something wrong, no one is going to say all white people are bad. But if a black person does something wrong, it’s reflective of all black people? That’s racist.”

“No, don’t think I’m racist!” he said. “I’m not racist; I have lots of black friends.” At that I started laughing because of how incredibly cliché a response it was. “I even had a black girlfriend. How can I be racist? I’m not even French; my mom is Brazilian and my dad has Algerian ancestry, so how can I be racist?”

“Everyone is racist,” I said. “I’m racist sometimes too. I think we have a different definition of what racism is.” He added some comments about how the U.S. is more racist than France, and how our police are killing black people (true, though perhaps a bit oversimplified), which doesn’t happen in France (I don’t know about killings, but France certainly does have a problem with police brutality, see here and here).

I found striking how his words fit so closely the same things Americans say when they want to deny their own racism: “But I have black friends!” or “But I’m half-Mexican!” I don’t encounter such people very often, however; I’m lucky to be surrounded by lots of people who are very educated on racial issues and often teach me new things and reveal to me flaws in my own thinking about race. So it’s strange for me to encounter someone who still has such a narrow-minded idea of what racism is.

Has anyone had similar encounters in the US or elsewhere? For those who have traveled in Europe, and France specifically, what has been your experience of the difference between attitudes towards race there versus in the US? I’ll post some articles soon with more detailed discussion about racism in France.