by Guest Contributor Sonita Moss
I’m back, America.
I have been home, on U.S. soil, for the past 3 weeks, and it has given me some time to reflect on being a black woman in U.S. vs. being a black American woman in France. Living in France for the second time was rather colder than the first but a bit more illuminating in terms of race. That can be attributed to the fact that while Aix-en-Provence, the first city that introduced me to the entrancing world of French culture, is an international student-city in the sunny south, Vannes is situated in Bretagne, in the rainy north-west of the country. Aside from the nonstop rain, Vannes was whiter than white. Not to say I didn’t see black people – indeed, I noticed black women on my daily bus route to work, but many public spaces, like the port, the library, and the grocery store were lacking in color. Admittedly, there were actually two black hair stores and a café Afrique that shut down while I was there, but that was about it.
Binta, the young Senegalese woman who did my hair, broke it down for me one day, “There’s no black people here because it’s too small because there are no jobs. But a lot of them marry French.” By “French”, she meant white men, and her sister, the owner of Ebene Cosmetique, was one such example. I noticed, with a certain amount of chagrin, that many Europeans of color refer to their privileged compatriots as the standard of that country, while they are specifically marked by their race. “English” are white, but English blacks are, well, black. The same goes for conversations I have had with German blacks. I suppose we hold the same standard in America, but because of our sordid misdealings with the social construction, although blacks may not be considered true “Americans” we do not refer to our white counterparts as simply “Americans”. Indeed, we are obsessed with race but rarely given the proper tools to talk about, much less acknowledge, our race problems. And white Europeans know it, effectively allowing them to ignore their own issues, I discovered.
When I first arrived in Vannes, I befriended a couple of local boys, and we often went out to bars since there is little else to do in the city. Amazed at the utter whiteness of the venue, one night I asked my friend, “Do you ever notice that there are essentially no black people here – why is that?” and he said, “There are some, just not many. But it’s very different in France, we are much less conscience of race in France than Americans.” He smoothly side-stepped my question and turned the focus to America’s racism. Because America is a popular topic in the media, the nightly French news frequently reported breaking American news. Thus, the world beyond our borders is informed of how race issues are part and parcel to American culture.
While visiting Budapest, Hungary, a completely inter-ethnic group of us twenty-somethings went to smoke hookah – an American, two Portuguese, an Indian, and a Hungarian native to be exact. The inevitable subject of Barack Obama was broached and the U.S.’s fixation on race quickly followed. I mentioned how racist America truly is in its practices – on institutional and structural levels, as well as individual, and Pedro said, “Well of course this is because of your history with slavery, but it is absurd because America is a nation of immigrants.” Once again, we were able to discuss America’s hot-button issue, illegal immigration, without a mention of colorism in India or the Neo-Nazi march in Hungary last year.
Although I am the first to extol Europe’s interracial dating practices, it is no less difficult to have real discussions about xenophobia, racism, or Islamophobia as it is here in the U.S. And Europeans seem to have the ultimate trump card: America is the first and the worst of them all.
During a brief visit to Bordeaux, a beauteous, sparkling gem in the south of France, I paid a visit to the Museum d’histoire naturelle, The Natural History of Museum. I was pleasantly surprised to see there was an extensive exhibition of Bordeaux’s slave history. To my dismay, French historians downplay and minimize slavery parallel to American history. I have been to many history museums in the U.S., but none to my memory have put such a heavy emphasis on tribes selling their own into slavery.
Like many other civilizations, African societies practiced slavery. European demand boosted this practice and, from Senegal to Angola as well as in East Africa, African rulers and dealers made substantial profits from the slave trade. Most of those who were enslaved were captured in battles or were kidnapped. Some were the children of slaves, or were sold by their parents during times of famine. As demand in Europe increased, the African dealers carried out raids further into the interior and many of the captives died before reaching the coast. In time the slave trade moved to new areas and after 1780, the dealers from Bordeaux started buying slaves in Mozambique and Zanzibar. The slave shops spent 3 to 6 months traveling to different parts of the coast buying their cargo. Mortality rates were highest amongst those who were embarked at the start of the voyage.
Slavery has been practiced by all civilizations down the ages [first written record in Mesopotamia]. Often, as in ancient Rome, ‘slave’ was a synonym for ‘foreigner’, since most societies were repelled by the idea of enslaving people who belonged to their culture. Slavery was therefore sustained by wars and since captives had to be displaced or transported, the slave trade was developed. The African and Arab slave trades pre-date the arrival of Europeans. However, the European demand for the slave labour to exploit the resources of the New World saw this trade in human beings rise to the unprecedented levels over a short period. In the New World, slaves were considered to be property, no more than a raw work force.
Although it was probably futile, I attempted to re-read these descriptions from the perspective of someone who was unaware of slavery in Europe. These re-made versions of history would have us believe that slavery happened because it has been happening and Africans wanted to make money from it. Europeans merely wanted to take advantage of what was already going on. To my chagrin, beyond in-depth diagrams of slave ships and maps of the trans-Atlantic, there was no mention of the extant racism embedded in French culture. Like the new ban on veils, which reeks of Islamophobia but is also the status quo for Nicolas Sarkozy and his administration.
While I did receive a few stares, and the same questions about ethnicity over and over again, I never had overt experiences with racism: being followed around stores, out of pocket remarks or foreign hands touching my hair. As before, I strongly encourage all people of color to travel or live abroad, if it is feasible. Just know that the racial ‘baggage’ you take with you will be greeted with a brand-new, dare I say it, exotic version: racism exists abroad, you know, just not as bad as it is in America.