Friday, September 4, 2009

Unexpected chivalry

Last night I went out for drinks with my roommate Benjamin and his friend Benjamin (apparently every French male around the age of 28 is named Benjamin) who just moved back from Rome and is “squatting” in our apartment for a week. We ended up at this tiny little bar off of rue Oberkampf that turned out to be a literary party celebrating a book launch. And apparently the DJ was super famous—the guys were all in a tizzy over him, though I couldn’t for the life of me tell you who he was.

Just after I arrived, the publisher of the book randomly came over, kissed my hand and started chatting me up. Turns out he also used to live in the East Village in New York but moved back to Paris after 9/11. He was interesting but physically not my type (late 30s-early 40s, short, blond hair/blue eyes). After 15 mins a woman came over to talk to him about a manuscript he just submitted so I snuck off to rejoin my friends. Later, the publisher popped over to quietly ask me if Benjamin was my boyfriend—I said no, he said good—but I eventually lost him in the crowd. Looking back on it, I should have given him my number; he would be a cool person to know, especially considering that I’ve been working on some writing projects lately. Oh well…

Around midnight Benjamin’s girlfriend, her best friend and another guy joined us. I excused myself to go to the bathroom and bumped into a cute guy on his way out. We did the whole smiley, double take thing and when I came back he was talking to RomeBen. I walked over to join them but quickly realized the cute guy was drunk, sleazy and slightly stupid. At some point he said something to me in French and though I didn’t understand the slang, I got that the context was sexual. RomeBen looked at him sharply and said, “Come on, don’t say stuff like that. I think you need apologize to her”. So the guy apologized and the three of us continued chatting. And then the interesting part of the night began:

Sleazy guy: “So where are you from?”
Me: “New York City.”
Sleazy guy: “No, I mean where were you born?”
Me: “Oh, I was born in Washington, D.C.”
Sleazy guy: “No, come on. Really. You're from Senegal, aren't you? Or Mali?”

Sigh. This is the thing that annoys the hell out of me about the French (some French people, I don’t mean to generalize). If you’re not white you’re not really considered French (or American in this case). If you’re black you can only be from Africa or the West Indies, there’s no way you can be anything else. I understand that it has to do with the fact that France only recently got an influx of post-war immigrants and they’re just now dealing with racial issues. And to be fair, most of the non-white people living here really are foreign-born or first generation French. You’d be hard pressed to find a black person in France who’s familial line goes back more than one generation within France. But not so in the States. The funny thing is, my parents were born in Haiti and moved to the States in their late teens/early 20s so I am in fact a first-generation American (and I happen to very much identify with being Haitian, possibly more so than American, since I was brought up with Haitian food, language, music, culture, etc) BUT it was the principle of the matter. This asshole was insisting that because I was black, I could not be American. Sure we’re all African, but for many black Americans, how the heck do you know which country your ancestors came from 300 years ago?

Anyway, as I’m about to open my mouth to set the guy straight, I notice RomeBen tensing up next to me. He steps in front of me, gets in this guy's face and says, "Didn't she tell you 5 times that she's American??" then proceeds to go off on him in French!

Now a little background on RomeBen: This guy did his undergrad in Engineering at one of Paris’ most prestigious Grandes Écoles (basically the French version of the Ivy Leagues) then went on to get his Master’s and PhD from MIT in Boston. During the day he wears his little glasses and works on his computer, quiet as a mouse. He’s not pretentious or anything (I didn’t even know the details of his schooling until last night). He’s very polite and friendly, timid even. In his 6 years in the States he sort of picked up a general idea of how far black people have come; to be accepted and be able to claim the privileges that come along with being American. But this is not someone who you could ever imagine in a million trillion years saying the words: “We can take this outside.” But he did! He said those exact words! OMG.

By this point Sleazy Guy is cowering on his stool (meanwhile he was easily half a foot taller than RomeBen) and one of his friends, trying to pacify RomeBen, apologizes and says that his friend is a little drunk and doesn’t know what he’s saying. I couldn’t tell you what RomeBen was saying, I was too busy staring at him in shock, wondering what happened to the shy little geek who had spent the past 4 days hunched behind his laptop in my living room. Finally I put my arm around him, gently pulled him back and said, “Shall we go?” And he stopped, gave the guy one last dirty look and we walked out of the bar. It was intense. And to be honest with you, also extremely sexy… it’s awesome watching a guy defending your honor.

After that episode I looked at him in a completely different light. We joined the rest of the group outside then jumped in a cab and went back to the apartment. The 4 of us hung out in the kitchen drinking tea and talking until Benjamin and his girlfriend went to bed. And then RomeBen asked me if I wanted to take our conversation into the living room (since Benjamin’s room is right near the kitchen) and we ended up talking until 3am.

He’s such a contraction—this adorable and super smart science nerd who gets really excited explaining molecular physics (still completely over my head) but values quality of life over work, loves to travel and live in foreign countries and will throw down if you get on his bad side. But alas, he has a girlfriend back in Rome. She’s coming to visit in a week or so and he said he wants to introduce us. I bet she’s sweet and wonderful and we’ll probably get on great so let me just shut my homewrecking mouth right now… :)

Update: This afternoon RomeBen and I were both in the living room, he was working and I was folding my laundry when he got up and left the room without saying a word. Suddenly I heard classical piano music. I thought he turned the radio on or something but when I walked down the hall to investigate I found him playing away (my roommate has an upright in his room). I had my own personal 10 minute performance. If I wasn't smitten before I may be now!


American Black Chick in London said...

Loved this! It's always the quiet ones who do the things you least expect.

And I completely understand on the whole "you're really from Africa right?" thing. The Brits do it too (although to be fair, not all of them). But yeah, I've definitely gotten the "But where were you born/where are you from ORIGINALLY" question more than once here in London. Btw, have I mentioned that I'm super jealous you're living in Paris?!

Shannon said...

Awww! That was adorable.

They do it also in Montreal. I think it's just something that doesn't happen in the States. Even my black friends from Canada do it. I find it weird that they do and they find it weird that we don't. That's the fun about learning about other cultures. I've realized though people rarely mean to offend and when they do, they have no problem making it known.

Stacy said...

lol it is always the quiet ones... its a nice surprise.

That's interesting Shannon. Didn't realize they do the same thing in Canada. This guy was just being really nasty about it. I don't know if it was b/c he was drunk or if that's just his personality but I was happy he got put in his place.

ABCL- hopefully you'll be living here soon! :)

Risse said...

I know exactly what you are talking about with the whole French, "if you're nonwhite then you're from where else" thing in reference to being American. I got it ALL the time. It wasn't just French people though, I even got that from a Canadian girl!

The quiet guys are the best! And the quiet, intelligent, chivalrous ones are even better. ;)

I miss France/Europe so much. I can't wait to go back! How long are you going to be in Paris this time?

Gigi said...

Stacy, I have to play devil's advocate here. In my experience, Europeans have an idea of what African-Americans look like. As an example, when I first met my best friend (she's German) she said that I "looked" like an African American. Because I'm American (as is all of my family), I'm used to being tossed into one group and generalized with everyone as simply "Black". So I asked what did she mean. She said that I "looked American" and that I didn't have any distinguishing features that were particularly African. However, she's able to identify a Nigerian, an Eritraen, or a Togolese just by their facial features. This is an unusual idea to Americans, I believe, because Americans tend to just lump people together solely by skin color. But even I can tell a German from a Swede from a Frenchman. However, I know of no Americans who live in the US, White or Black, who can do the same.

With that said, I've been following your blog for a while and I've seen some of your past pictures that you posted and I assumed, by your facial features, that you were not African-American (or at the very least I assumed that your parents were not). I've seen Black folks throw a shit fit when I say this, because this goes beyond what we've been conditioned to believe (we're all the same, there are no differences between us, etc). I've lived in Flatbush and in Crown Heights and by facial features alone, I can usually (keyword: usually) identify someone from the Caribbean on site by their facial features.

I CAN imagine that this man may have thought the same thing. I can also imagine that he didn't and he was just being an ass. I have no idea. But I showed your picture to my German friend today and asked her to guess what you were and she couldn't, but she assumed that you weren't African-American.

I also have other friends who are African-American in France and French folks are constantly trying to guess where they're from. For me, they always guess the French islands; based on my experience in France, I don't encounter a lot of young African-American women in France. They're usually Blacks from the Caribbean or from Africa. So the French people I encounter have very little as a reference point to my identity outside of American music videos (which is sad). They assume I'm from the French Caribbean because I clearly don't look African, yet I speak French fluently.

My boyfriend is from West Africa and he has very distinct features that are unusual for the average African-American. And he can look at me and use the process of elimination to tell that I'm African-American (or so he says).

Also, I've noticed that French people find it hard to believe that we do not know our exact roots (I'm speaking for myself as an African-American). So I do encounter a lot of disbelief in that regard and regretful emotions from them.

However, I've not encountered what you have and the same for my African-American girlfriends in France (at least to my knowledge). Although, they have mentioned the same thing that I did earlier about French people assuming they must be from a French island if they speak French fluently, as they don't "look African", and they're trying to use the process of elimination to figure out their "identity".

Gigi said...

I am not saying that the person you were speaking with was not making assumptions. I'm just saying that as Americans, I think we tend to look at and judge Europeans through a very American lens. The intent often is not ill, but naivete and lack of exposure...and sometimes, they can often see certain facial features in you that are specific to a certain group of African people (I find that this happens very often)...and they may assume your ancestry is from that particular group of people/region. (My guyfriend from Berlin recently asked me if Essence Atkins, the actress, was Eritraen.)

Again, I don't know what this guy was thinking in your blog entry; I'm just trying to offer more reasoning, as opposed to the default American=White reaction. In my experience, French people tend to regard us as a mixture of people and cultures - all bouncing off of each other in one big bowl. I've never yet met a Frenchman who thought American=White. Not once.

And I would be very shocked if I did. They can be a bit naive about the US, but I don't find them that ridiculous.

Gigi said...

One last thing. I just showed your picture just now to another German friend and asked him if he though you were African-American. He quickly answered "no". I then asked if he could guess what was your country of origin and he said he "can't really place it". I then asked him if he had to guess, what would it be. He said that you "look somewhat Ghanaian, but then again she doesn't".

Germans are used to seeing African-Americans due to the post-war military occupation of their country. And while he obviously knows that Black folks are in the US, he said that he wouldn't assume that you were African-American.

Just some food for thought and some different perspectives...

Stacy said...

Risse-- I'm actually just here for one more month then I'm off on a new adventure... I need to get around to writing about it soon. Hopefully you'll be back in Europe soon! :)

Gigi-- thanks for your comments. You bring up interesting points.

I do have people tell me from time to time that I don't look AA but they can't place what my ancestry is. The question hardly ever comes from AAs though-- its 99% of the time from foreign black people. And 1 or 2 times I've actually had people in the States tell me they can detect a slight accent when I speak. Which always blows my mind b/c I'm from a part of the DC area where we have no sort of twang at all (and if you were to hear my shaky Creole or French you would know in a second I'm American). My mom moved to the States when she was 19 so she barely has an accent either but I guess that West Indian accent is hidden in me somewhere. So you're right, some people are hypersensitive to different cultures.

However, I do think we have made much more progress than other countries. We aren't insistent that you must claim someplace other than America (regardless of whether you have African, Indian or Dutch ancestry). Someone like me, a first-generation American, is considered simply American. Now for me personally, I enjoy telling people I'm Haitian, I think it adds a little flavor :)
BUT I do know there are others who 100% identify with being American and the beauty of our country is that people don't (typically) question that. Not so everywhere else.

My experience abroad has been different in that people WILL often assume that if you're black you must have immigrated from Africa or the Caribbean and therefore should claim that place as your origin. But you're right, its more so that they don't grasp the idea that a lot of black Americans don't know where their ancestors came from and simply consider themselves American. I'd say MOST times its not a hostile or negative thing (just lack of knowledge) but in the case of the guy last night, it was hostile. He was obnoxious and rude and RomeBen rightfully put him in his place.

Quick example: on holiday in Tunisia a while back I met a couple, first generation French from Senegal and they talked about the kind of subtle discrimination they grew up with in Paris. That even their children are not considered French and for them that was a big disappointment b/c they felt their grandkids, etc would never be considered "just French", though that's what they wanted. Granted I've collected only a handful of perspectives and there are sure to be black people in France who have not experienced this.

Anyway my point is that people abroad typically have narrow views of what it means to be black in America b/c they use their own cultures to form opinions. They just don't understand and I don't fault them for this unless they take it to another level (like my Sleazy friend the other night). AAs are very unique and diverse and not an easy group to understand unless you've lived in the States. I have black friends who "look African" but are not (as far back as they can trace) and vice versa. A name, a hairstyle, accent or facial features can throw you off. It really just depends. But I do think its an interesting subject and worth talking more about-- esp amongst us AAs living abroad. Thanks for offering your perspective!

Risse said...

^ I've actually been told the same thing-- that I look/sound like I'm from somewhere else (both in the US and abroad), but I'm from a long generation of African-Americans. I've even had people from Texas tell me that I sound/look like I'm from the Islands, which was rather confusing because I've had people from northern US -who probably have never been to the south-- tell me I had a southern accent...which I most certainly don't have. I have no idea why/how my accent is neither Texan nor standard American English. So that, plus my natural hairstyle, really does throw people off.

In France people often thought I was French or French from the DOMs (think Martinique or Guadeloupe) because I don't have an English accent when I speak French. I actually had a doctor speak to me in French and my boyfriend in English because he seriously thought I was French, made me insanely happy.

Gigi said...

"I do have people tell me from time to time that I don't look AA but they can't place what my ancestry is. The question hardly ever comes from AAs though-- its 99% of the time from foreign black people. "

Stacy, I'm not at all surprised by this. We typically tend to be very ignorant about recognizing the differences between different groups (e.g. the inability of most Americans to tell apart different (actual) Europeans or those throughout the African diaspora.) So I'm not at all surprised by this and to be honest, I've had numerous conversations with African-Americans (in the US, in particular...not those living abroad), in which they cannot get their head around the idea of "all Black folks do not look/act/speak the same way".

The interesting thing is that if someone said this about East Asians (that they're all the same), we would view that person as ignorant or bigoted. However, this is acceptable speech/thought when referring to those who are African or of African descent....people (in the US) even tend to lump Europeans into one group and have difficulty telling them apart. This is something I find embarrassing.

As for the French, France has numerous very famous French celebrities who are African-American as well as those who are of African descent and born in the US. And to be honest, they have a long legacy of entertaining African-American entertainers and they're quite familiar with the fact that Black folks are in the United States. TRUST. However, much of this is also a class issue - I won't discuss that here, but hopefully you already know what I mean by that.

The French can be "unique" for lack of better words, but they don't strike me as out of their minds and they don't live under a rock. They're inundated with a steady flow of American pop culture - much of which includes African-American musicians, actors, and even artists. Also, France has a long legacy of hosting African-American artists and performers and they continue to do so to this day. You've probably already noticed their obsession with Jazz and "les bleus?

They even know about my second-cousin, a man who is infamous and highly respected in Europe, though barely known in the US. You can't imagine how proud this makes my granny...

Most that I've encountered have a relatively good understanding of the challenges (and accomplishments) of African Americans in the US and have great admiration for African-American history and culture. They also assume most African Americans somehow have the ability to sing gospel, but whatever.

All of this to say, France and African Americans share an affinity, and the French are a lot more aware of African American culture and history than most Caucasian Americans I've met in my lifetime.

It's interesting, my being African American in the US is challenging, at best. However, in France, it is often treated as an asset.

With all of this said, I do not know how they regard other people throughout the diaspora. I've ran into Black Brazilians who were open about not being treated as equals or being seen in a different light.

Anywho, I just wanted to mention, African Americans and French people have a long history and the French are very aware of our existence. However, I do realize that this drunk guy was already rude in the first place, so lord knows what his intentions were when he asked you these questions...

Steph said...

Firstly, Stacy, I love your blog and all your adventures in Paris. I've been reading it for a while (hope you don't mind, as I'm a complete stranger).

I'd like to respond to some of the points Gigi has said. I really don't think it's as easy to distinguish Black people who are in the diaspora & descendents of slaves (mainly in the Americas) from Black Africans. I'm a Brit, and my mother's family are Jamaican (and have some Asian and European ancestry) and my dad is Nigerian. Now over the past couple of years, some people have looked at me and said straight away they could tell I was Black Caribbean as opposed to Black African, and others tell me they were surprised I was Black Caribbean because I look "just African" in their words.

The point I'm trying to make is that the idea that you can tell the difference between Blacks from the Americas and Blacks from Africa is based really on stereotyping, and predicated on the idea that all African Americans and many Blacks from other places in the Americas have enough non-African ancestry to make their facial features less "distinctly" African. It's simply not the case. There are many Blacks in the Americas who are of 100% West African ancestry. From my travels in Jamaica and Brazil and just from watching American TV programs (and I've seen many!) I've seen many people who look "as African" as my father. Some of my Jamaican family seem to think there's a difference between the way Black Africans and Black Jamaicans look, and have even suggested that because I'm half-half, it's hard to tell just by looking at me (I call bull). I have Jamaican family in-laws who have some European ancestry but have darker skin and more stereotypically "African features" than me (and I'm fairly dark).

I will say this though. I think there are many Black people in the Americas who do look less stereotypically African. However, there are many who look like their parents could be directly from West Africa. There's no such thing as a 'African-American' or Jamaican, etc look.

Stacy said...

Hi Steph-- I don't mind at all, I'm actually really happy that you enjoy my ramblings! So thanks for your comment :)

I agree with you. While I think people can sometimes make a good guess as to someone's ethnic background, its often not as simple as that. We're just too diverse.

To Gigi's point, the French do have a general idea of black American culture (whether that's good or bad is debatable) and their curiosity seems to be based on their recent immigrant experiences. The sad fact is that AAs have it easier in France than French-born black people (when I was moving to Paris, my French friend told me no matter how well I learn to speak French, never lose my American accent). Meanwhile I think its great when people can hold on to/pass down their culture. My whole frustration is when it becomes such an issue and takes a negative turn (i.e. keeping people from access to things like an anchor spot on the news or a booking in a L'Oreal ad). For example, I met a girl at a party in Paris. When she spoke, she was obviously English and I asked where she was from and she said London. That was the end of the conversation-- it didn't even cross my mind to press her about "where she was really from" though her name suggested she was of African decent. I later I learned that her parents were from Nigeria.

Fly Brother ( wrote an interesting post yesterday about his trip to London. He talks about black America as a whole as almost an ethnicity in itself. I'm don't know what it's like growing up in England or the rest of the diaspora but he raises some good points.

Thanks for reading!

BlackGirl said...

RomeBen sounds tres dreamy. He has a fan in Prague!

Sandra said...

Hey, Stacy. I'm a bit late to this party, but this RomeBen sounds like a dream - a moveable feast! Now that you've moved to Rome, perhaps you'll be able to see more of him, and determine whether or not he's really "available". Totally, of course, respect his relationship, but not all relationships are permanent, so you never know your luck! And I'm rooting for you - I wish I could meet someone like RomeBen.

Stacy said...

Sandra- I haven't been in touch with him since I arrived. He actually lives in Paris... trying to figure out a way to get back to Rome while also shopping around for jobs in Paris. So it was a nice couple of weeks, a little summer crush, but sadly its over before it even got started. Now I just need to go out and meet another "RomeBen" here in Italy :)

Sandra77 said...

Stacy, keep hope alive! RomeBen sounds super smart, and I'm sure as soon as the economy picks up he'll have his pick of jobs back in Rome. Hopefully, you'll still be there when that happens.

Jenn said...

I miss BOTH of your blogs!!