I have an older cousin named Halima. She lives in Nimes, France, with her husband and 5-year-old daughter, named Hikma, who is an avid Frozen enthusiast (called La Reines des Neiges in French) and Beyoncé-in-training.
For the most part, they live relatively peaceful middle-class lives. But every morning, Halima makes the trek from Nimes to Avignon to go work at the hospital there—and every morning she quietly recites the basmala to herself. Bismillahirrahmanirrahim: “In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful.” Those few words help her muster the strength to get on the train and face her sincere fear that her next day on public transportation could be her last.
It should be no surprise that anti-blackness is a phenomenon that extends to Western Europe, considering that Europeans were the initial settlers of what is now America and the originators of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. However, the concept that countries like France are some magically post-racial havens for the truly evolved and erudite seems to have persisted from the James Baldwin era. Visions of smoky rooms where elites hobnob with black American intellectuals over cognac and transcendent jazz music continue to be the predominant perspective, drawn out from the near-reverent recounting of black American academics and artistic contemporaries from the Harlem Renaissance and post-World War I era.
You even see it in the present day with renowned race and culture commentator Ta-Nehisi Coates, who, during a recent interview, said the following: “[T]he sociology that comes out of slavery is a little different from the sociology that comes out of colonialism. France colonized all sorts of people—Asian people, black people, whoever. So the relationship is a little different. It’s not a good relationship. But America has a very specific thing with black people. Here, the people who get it the worst are actually the Muslims … ”
While that may be a seemingly innocuous statement, it obscures a few key things. Most glaringly, there’s an implication that France did not participate in chattel slavery, which it did, as did most Western European empires at the time. Second, while it is true that the French colonial empire extended to parts of Southeast Asia, any map of the modern French colonial empire will make it plainly clear that its rule extended primarily over black nations—and that autonomy over black states extended well into the 20th century. The country where my family is from, Comoros, didn’t obtain independence until 1975—which is to say, my mother was born under French rule, with a French passport and a French birth certificate.
What is arguably most glaring is this attempted bifurcation of race and religion—identities that in France are almost inextricably linked. Yes, France has a strong case of Islamophobia, which is made quite evident by things such as the secular law banning women from wearing religious headdresses in public, as well as the recently passed law enabling the French government to revoke the birthright citizenship of anyone convicted of “terroristic activity” (terroristic activity being this amoebic catchall that is yet to be defined, of course).
That said, the key oversight in Coates’ assessment is that of the millions of French citizens and residents who self-identify as Muslim, approximately 80 percent of them are first- or second-generation descendants of the African continent. Subsequently, it is these people who are consistently harassed—pulled off trains and ordered to show their papers, pushed into slum communities (also known as banlieues), denied jobs they are qualified for, denied quality education or service without cause, arrested with limited justification and belittled via “satirical” comics.
And yes, even murdered, as we are in the United States.
On July 19, Adama Traore, a black Muslim Frenchman, died on his 24th birthday in police custody. As I write this, the family still doesn’t have any concrete answers as to what happened during his transport. This is a tragedy that we are all too familiar with here in the United States—but it is a pain that reverberates globally, the extinguishing of black lives with little regard or concern for the communities that continue to sear with the remnants of that anguish.
It is for those reasons that my cousin prays. She prays to get home in one piece. She prays not to run into law enforcement. She prays for her daughter not to have to recall her in memories before she should have to.
This isn’t the part of France you will see on TV. It might not even be the part of France you see in person. The banlieues exist on the outskirts for a reason, and if you just stay in the 20 arrondissements of Paris with your American passport in full view, you may just consistently be viewed as a tourist.
I would certainly assume that a writer of the esteem of Coates would have the means to stay close to the city center; nor do I deride him for that choice. That experience, however, doesn’t dismiss the suffering of large swaths of black communities just a few miles south. Black neighborhoods are being torn apart by fraught relationships with both police and non-people-of-color demographics, and they are crying for their voices to be heard. We should take pains not to erase that context in framing our own personal experiences.
Baldwin once said of America, “All you are ever told in this country about being black is that it is a terrible, terrible thing to be.” That sober reality unfortunately still holds us tight in its clutches in 2016—not just in the United States but also in large swaths of the Western world. Anti-blackness is everywhere, even in the home of the Age of Enlightenment, and it would behoove us to step away from viewing white supremacy as a uniquely American problem rather than a pervasive viciousness that has left its imprints on black populations the world over.
Shamira Ibrahim is a 20-something New Yorker who likes all things Dipset. You can join her as she waxes poetic about chicken, Cam’ron and gentrification (gotta have some balance) under the influence of varying amounts of brown liquor at Very Smart Brothas.