My Year Abroad: Racial Harassment (Part 1)

Whilst living in France over the past 9 months, it has astounded me how many times I’ve been leered at, catcalled or “accidentally” touched by people I’d rather not make acquaintance with. I’m so tired of walking home at night after work, or going out for a run and constantly looking over my shoulder to make sure I’m alone, or, at the very least, not being followed.

I remember there being a feed on the TAPIF assistants page a while back where a few people shared some things that had happened to them, so I realised I wasn’t alone. So I reached out and asked other assistants to share their stories. In less than 24 hours, nearly 30 people had commented and messaged me with their stories of harassment in France. It was overwhelming and, quite frankly, I’m so glad that my encounters with harassment have been so “tame”…

This week’s article, Part 1, is focused on the racial harassment people have experienced whilst living in France. Read Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

The following are a selection of submissions from English Language Assistants working in France:

“But like…where are you REALLY from?”

“A guy once tried to flirt by trying to guess what type of Asian I was.”

“One man actually said to my face: “Once I had [a] Japanese conquest” and then tried to ask me out for a drink after and offer to drive me to the lake — alone in his car — at night. I refused, and oh no, apparently offended his fragile, cisgender, heterosexual male ego.”

“A group of high school boys [at the school I worked in] uttered the words “ching chong” as I walked past them in the hallway.”

“One guy repeatedly shouted “une chinoise” at me…prompting my friend to offer to walk me to the bus stop. Like, do guys not realise how bad it is when men have to offer to walk a woman somewhere for her protection…?”

“My white male French prof told me I could have problems getting into the TAPIF program cuz French people assume Asians don’t speak English.”

“People hollering “nihao” or “chinoise” on the street. Lost track of how many times that happened.”

“Like, do guys not realise how bad it is when men have to offer to walk a woman somewhere for her protection…?”

“At the beginning of the year, the teacher told the kids [my name] isn’t an American name so “maybe we can ask her where she’s really from”. I forgave my students for asking about my identity because perhaps they’ve never seen/met an Asian-American before, but the teachers? Come one, you’re grown-ass adults!”

“My favourite moment was when a married couple asked why [as an Asian] I spoke such good English, they were so confused. (PS, I’m from Virginia)”

“I get asked a lot if we still ride donkeys in Mexico, or is we have WIFI, or how come I don’t wear a sombrero to class?”

Asian/Mexican/Caribbean people aren’t a dime a dozen in France, but by no means are they unicorns. I guarantee that not a single one of these women asked for these types of comments to be made and I also guarantee that every guy who let these words come out of his mouth is an idiot.

What possesses people to ask these questions? Ignorance? Hatred? An attempt to seem like they know something about another culture? A mixture of all three?

Yes, Asians live in America and yes, most can speak English perfectly well (especially if it’s their first language). Yes, Mexicans have WIFI and, yes, sombreros have become a sign of cultural appropriation that college students constantly get called out on. Also, I’m fairly sure the Chinese girl walking on the opposite pavement knows she’s Chinese, so please stop shouting it at her from across the street – you’re the one who’s looking stupid here…

Racial harassment in France is very evident and it transcends far beyond “fun” or trying to prove to be an “alpha” to your mates, racial harassment is based on ignorance and xenophobia and a desire to call someone out for not being “normal” (i.e. a white French native). It’s not funny or impressive. It is, for the most part, juvenile of the harasser and terrifying, and often exasperating, for those on the receiving end.

Particularly in the last decade, with the rise of the Front National and it’s nationalist, anti-immigrant ideals, France has seen an increase in racially-aggravated assault, and, despite there being a law against this (“…the Press Law of 1881, in which Section 24 criminalizes incitement to racial discrimination, hatred, or violence on the basis of one’s origin or membership (or non-membership) in an ethic, national, racial, or religious group…” [1]) very few harassers are convicted mostly due to people not coming forward, or the fact that it is incredibly hard for the police to find offenders and/or prove that they said something derogatory or racist.

The normalisation of xenophobic hatred and harassment is happening on an, unfortunately, frequent basis and has almost become normalised into French culture. Many of the girls who submitted their stories noted that passers-by kept their heads down, crossed the road or just stood there and did nothing to intervene or protect them from the harassment.

So, I have three questions:

  1. Why do people think that it’s acceptable to terrorise and invade a person’s private space?
  2. At what point did people decide that racial harassment was okay?
  3. Why are we, as a collective community, not coming together more to stop this and to protect those who are victims?

_ _

**All entries have been anonymised for the safety and protection of the girls who came  forward**

[1] http://www.legal-project.org/issues/european-hate-speech-laws

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8 thoughts on “My Year Abroad: Racial Harassment (Part 1)

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    1. Thank you! Attention is needed if we want even a small chance of changing things. It’s difficult to read all the submissions and I’m so proud of everyone for surviving all of this crap we’ve been through this year.

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  1. Great job putting all these stories together! I never encountered harassment during my time, but it’s really sad to know that so many other assistants did! Thank you so much for putting their stories here where others can read them.

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  2. Thanks for speaking up this has always bothered me about Fance, even some close French friends have made comments or jokes about race that are far from appropriate. Nathan and I just got back from London to come back as tourists (no visa required for Americans). Nathan walked right through and the same immigration guy questioned me like crazy and asked me why I don’t have a visa until the guy next to him pointed out he was holding an American passport. I told a French friend about it and he immediately said he thought it was probably cause I look Hispanic and the guy assumed I was from South America.

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