But where are you really from?
Where are you from?
I live in the US.
But where are you really from?
Why does it matter?
Because you don’t look like everyone else and I was wondering about your origins.
The “where are you really from” question gets me every time. It follows me everywhere in Aix, from classrooms to restaurants, the dinner table to squash matches. In fact, during just my first week in the south of France, I was asked that question thrice.
All this asking made me very curious. What was so important about the color of my skin that the people around me insisted I tell them my origins? And why were they so obsessed with them anyway? To satisfy my curiosity, I embarked on a social experiment; every time I was asked where I was from, I responded differently – sometimes with deference, sometimes with irritation and yet others by acting like I had been offended by the question. Then, I noticed how people responded. Occasionally, I followed up with a question or two challenging their response at which point the conversation became too salty to continue.
Here are three interesting anecdotes from my experiment. Set in contrasting social settings, each provides valuable insight into the stunted development of the race discussion in France and the French obsession with my nationality.
I never lied about my origins, however. Some truths are too important to be experimented upon.
What language should I speak to you?
S and I are walking down the Cours Mirabeau speaking in English, joking with and teasing one another.
It has been a much-needed night out. We are now headed to Pizza Capri. We muse about the differences between American and French pizza even though we know they taste the same after a bit of alcohol.
At this hour in this cold, there is no queue. The counter is run by a lightly bearded, middle-aged type dressed in a track suit. Definitely Arab, I think.
We interact in French, quickly placing our orders. S and I resume our banter, but I notice our server is listening closely. He soon intervenes.
Where are you from?
S: I’m from the US.
He turns to me.
(Politely, with a smile) I study there too.
But where are you from?
(Laughs) You don’t look American and I speak 5 languages. I want to know what language to speak to you.
(Breaking into a laugh) Other than French and English, I speak Urdu and Punjabi.
(Visibly disappointed) Oh, looks like we will have to continue in French.
As we get our pizza and leave, I turn to S and say I thought the server was quite inquisitive.
Yeah, but he was quite nice too, she replied.
We thought the house would explode!
I am lucky the sun is high and bright the afternoon of my leaving brunch.
We gather around a meal of roast chicken and biscottes prepared by my host grandparents, Christian and Carmen. The brunch soon turns emotional as we exchange gifts and I tell my host family how wonderful it has been to stay with them. Carmen then addresses me.
It has been an eye-opening experience for us too this semester. You know, we had never met a Pakistani student before.
(Laughing) In fact, when I asked you where you were really from that first night and you replied ‘Pakistan,’ I thought our house would explode or that we would have to protect ourselves with AK-47s!
(Brows heavily furrowed) But why did you think that?
(With a dismissive shake of the hand) You know, we thought there is a lot of extremism and violence in Pakistan and so these things are common.
But why did you make that assumption?
My host mother promptly intervenes and asks how I find the chicken. This is her sheepish attempt to change the subject.
I reply that the chicken is a little too tough and needs to be softer, just like the heart of its preparer.
Rawalpindi or Lahore?
It has only been two weeks into the semester but I am already exasperated by the blandness of French cuisine. One afternoon, I decide to reinject spice into my life.
The nearest Pakistani restaurant is across from Aix-Marseille University. Already thinking about my biryani, I impatiently enter.
I am immediately hit with an aroma of mixed spices – red pepper, cinnamon, fennel seeds. It reminds me of home. So does the brown waiter who walks toward me.
He is clearly from the subcontinent and I wonder whether he is from Pakistan. But before I can say anything, he greets me in French.
Bonjour. How many people?
(In Urdu) As-salaam-Alaikum. Where are you from?
(Taken aback) Pakistan.
But where in Pakistan?
Rawalpindi. And where are you from?
Oh, I was really hoping you were from Rawalpindi.
He turns around and walks away. I chuckle and follow him to the table where I will soon devour my very spicy meal.
Each of these anecdotes is reflective of a situation unique to the country.
France has done remarkably well to evade the race dialogue in all social milieus. To begin with, the word race, spelt identically in French, is taboo. Even using it is considered racist. In fact, when asked what race they belong to, French people initially consider the question absurd and then reply, “all humans belong to the same race.” Instead, the word used to talk about race is ethnie, which means ethnicity, already highlighting an insufficient understanding of the two concepts. Furthermore, the government refuses to keep data about different ethnic groups. No official records, statistics or censuses based on race, ethnicity or nationality exist. There is no data about distribution of wealth among different races nor about relative crime rates within different populations. Few, if any, state studies are done and employers are prohibited from monitoring demographic distributions of their employees.
Paradoxically, this evasion of dialogue is strongest at a time when there has never been a greater need to talk about race. While the country remains largely white, a significant proportion of the French population is colored. Immigrants from former French Arab colonies form the majority of the largely poor Marseillais population. Sizeable communities of Maghrébins also live in Montpellier, Toulouse and Avignon. Most immigrants are poorly integrated into society, often segregated into quartier sensibles (disadvantaged districts); many others are relegated to the lowest social strata and low-paid jobs like running pizza counters. The atmosphere has been especially delicate following the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the 2015 Paris attacks. But the French response has been a stern and an unthought-out one: reinforce France’s national antiterrorist response, the Vigipirate Plan, increase the number of French army patrol units and continue to leave subjects like race out of the national discussion.
France’s arrogant refusal to even recognize the issue stems from a dusty, old and enduring principle called laïcité. A form of Socialist secularism, laïcité is the cornerstone of the modern Republic – like other forms of western secularism, it enjoins freedom of belief and speech, equality of all before the law and separation of religion and state; unlike others, however, it takes these values to the extreme. In France, the state expects citizens to selflessly forgo all individual affinities and instead, adopt a single unifying identity: that of a French citizen. According to laïcité, the state must not even recognize, let alone accord special privileges to religious or ethnic communities in order to ensure that the law remains equal for all. Rights and privileges are granted to citizens strictly in their capacity as members of the collective French state and not as members of affinity groups; citizens are not Muslim, Jew or Christian, black, white or brown, Asian, African or Indian – they are French, with French values and French beliefs. The state effectively scrubs away individual identities and paints every human as invariably French and nothing else.
Laïcité is why the race dialogue is halted before it begins. It is why Carmen, like thousands of white French people are uneducated about and unaware of the plurality of cultures. It is why not just Aix, but all of France rests insular; why, in the shadows of historical squares and quaint streets, unrecognized minorities reside, oftentimes forgotten. The pre-emptive fear of somehow infringing this sacred precept of French “secularism” blinds the nation to pressing racial problems. The state has cast its eyes away from overwhelmingly non-white poor and crime riddled inner cities, a largely unrepresentative senate, and socially disintegrated immigrants. Communities have not been engaged and the lack of statistics makes it impossible to monitor employee demographics and introduce reform to normalize any skewness. Not talking about it has led to a general ignorance about race within the French population, the only exceptions being academics and members of non-white communities actually affected by this disregard – like my Arab server at Pizza Capri and the waiter from Rawalpindi.
My experience with the where are you really from question has always been a racially charged one. On many occasions, it has put me in the position where I need to always justify myself and my culture a priority. But it’s not something I hate doing, neither in France, nor in the US; I actually consider it my responsibility. And I think it’s the most important one I have. People are inherently good, but are either uninformed or have been incorrectly taught. Educating them and opening them to unfamiliar, sometimes uncomfortable perspectives is what I do. And I’ve learnt that being the best possible representative through powerful, resounding action often resonates louder than words.