Immigration Denigration: My Experience with Racism in France

Immigration Denigration: My Experience with Racism in France
July 19, 2013 Leslie Juvin-Acker

racism france multi-ethic multi-racial

I am in the process of becoming a French citizen. As most of you faithful readers know, it’s been a long time coming. To become a French citizen through marriage requires quite a bit of time and hoop jumping, paperwork, and proof of good intent. I had to pass a reasonably difficult French language test, I’ve taken hundreds of hours of integration and language courses, I’ve interned at a government organization to improve my language skills in a professional environment, and I’ve proven my domestic life since the moment I landed permanently in France. Not to mention, I’ve found friends and made a life for myself and my family as best as I could with what I have. I believe I have earned the privilege of becoming a bonafide Frenchie.

I may not have the look, nor the blood, nor the accent, but I have the desire to contribute, participate and integrate into French society. Isn’t that what immigration is all about?

With the French naturalization process comes interviews. In my case, I have three interviews to pass. One is with an police inspector at our home to verify our domestic life, another is with a government employee to verify our documents, and a final one with another police inspector.

The first interview with the police inspector went very well. He looked around our house, saw our baby, and asked us questions about our background, our relationship, and my intents for living in France. He noticed my accent and complimented on how lovely it was to hear. “I get that a lot,” I told him, “but I would like to improve my thick American accent and French.”

The next interview started off with a bad vibe. That’s all I can say to describe it. When the government employee greeted us in the lobby, she didn’t even shake our hands. She just turned around and walked twenty feet in front of us without ever looking back.

“What she is doing is rude,” I whispered to my husband, Mr J, shaking my head, “Just bad manners.”

I knew in my heart that something was not right, but I needed to put aside my judgements and give this woman a chance. I shook off the rough start.

We entered her office and she began to ask us to verify dates and information on my file. She asked me the same questions on how my husband and I met.

On the internet…” I explained.

She cut me off, “That’s sad.”

Wait. What’s sad? I thought to myself. We fell in love at first sight!

I continued answering her questions and she just stopped the conversation to say to my husband, “You need to speak French to your wife all of the time. Her accent is really bad.”

Mr J and I just looked at each other and then back at her. What is going on here?

You need to get rid of that accent. It is too thick. You are not going to integrate here (in France) with that kind of accent,” she stated, “I can barely understand you.”

I thought of the thousands of times I’ve spoken in French and, while it make take a moment for my friends and others to comprehend, they always understood what I’ve tried to say.

Mr J tried to come to my defense, “I have lived in English speaking countries for a total of nine years and I still have a thick French accent when I speak French. I have a friend who lived in England for just a few months and when he speaks English, he has an amazing English accent. Everyone is different when it comes to learning languages.”

“But I’m not talking about you,” she said curtly, “I’m talking about her and her living in France. She’s going to have to explain herself three times before someone understands her and to be honest, it really annoys me.”

I tried to remind her that I’ve studied French since I was fifteen, took numerous language courses, have my friends correct me when I make an error, and that I have an opportunity to teach at a prestigious business school in France in the coming months, “How else would I have made it this far if nobody understood me? I can go to the store, the doctor, and talk to my daughter’s nanny without a problem. What is your fear? What value does it make for you if someone speaks perfect French but has no intent on contributing and participating in French society, whereas, I, on the other hand, may not speak perfect French but want to live and work in France….”

She interrupted me, raising her voice when I said UNE poste (a job), “UN POSTE! You see you make errors like that!”

“So, are we talking about my accent or my grammar?”

She ignored my question.

“That’s my opinion,” she said, “It doesn’t reflect upon your file.”

“Then, why are we having this conversation about my accent?” I asked, “It sounds like discrimination to me and besides, it sounds like we’re having a discussion right now and you’ve understood everything I’ve said.”

I could see that she began a conversation that she didn’t know how to finish. Her eyes were starting to well up as if she knew that what she had said was wrong. We all knew she was wrong.

I reached out to Mr J and asked him to back off. I kept my cool and focused on the subject of my file, but she kept coming back to my accent, as if trying to back peddle, saying what she was saying about my accent was for my own good.

“If the government of France offered a course on improving accents, I would be the first in line to take it. Right now, I am focusing more on using the language correctly. When speaking French becomes easier, I will work on my accent with the best of my ability. For now, I accept myself and my accent,” I said to her as if we were having a friendly conversation.

After we left, Mr J went back to talk one on one with the lady. He said he felt like it didn’t make much difference to her and when he explained that her comments offended him and that he was simply defending his wife, she just said that she found it sweet of him to do so.

Mr J commended me on how composed, calm, and respectful I was to the woman. I don’t know. I guess it was because I saw her aura and her angels and they asked me to be patient with her. However, later on at home, I cried. I cried because I felt how it feels for all of the hardworking immigrants in the world who want to have a piece of the pie, to make their dreams come true, if not for them, but for their children, to work hard and to try to prosper. I was not judged on my merits or my positive intents, but rather for the sound of my voice as a result of my ethnic background. She told me that I would not have success in France because of my voice. The sound of my voice annoys her. How sad it is that we live in a world where a few people believe that such small differences are giant limitations.

My French friends were outraged, crying racism and all sorts of profanities describing the woman. I just can’t bring myself to be angry with her, but I am sad that she put things the wrong way and I hope she learned a valuable lesson because if she doesn’t like foreign accents, then she is definitely in the wrong job.

I am a multi-ethnic, multi-racial child of the human race. That’s just who I am and I accept myself and all of my friends and family do, too. I pray for the woman and I hope she learns to see things differently. Her poor behavior hasn’t stopped me from wanting to complete the process and continuing on with my life, however I can perfectly understand how discouraged immigrants can be when they are faced with this types of denigrating comments on a daily basis. I pray they have the strength to carry on.

Have you ever experienced a moment of racism? What have you learned from your experience?