In the Captain Obvious news of the day, there are racists in Paris, France too. There’s no escaping them. They permeate every corner of this Earth in some way, shape or form. Even in my beloved Paris. Le sigh.
So I’m walking from class with a classmate on the Boulevard du Montparnasse when I see a chic little costume shop I’d never noticed before. Bidding adieu to my classmate, I go inside to check it out. As I peruse the masquerade mask aisle, the two White American gentlemen who were also in the store walk out, leaving just the sales clerk and me in the store. Whatever pop-y french music that was playing stops playing and suddenly over the loudspeaker, I hear the Hit Boy-produced beat drop and I recognize the new song he chose to play instead, right away: Jay-Z and Kanye West’s hit track, “N***** in Paris.” I was the only customer in the store and as such, the sales clerk must have felt obliged to play the soundtrack to my life for me, a n**** in Paris.
As I calmly put the masks I was going to purchase back onto their shelves, I tried to think of all the French curse words I had learned in previous years. Fortunately for us both, that morning, I had listened to my Christian meditation on keeping your peace in difficult situations — and I also couldn’t remember any relevant French profanity — so I just left without a look or a word or a sound.
I am aware that in this song Jay-Z and Kanye are rapping about how they made it out of the ghetto (used loosely for Kanye) and are now “balling so hard [Oedipus Rexes] want to fine” them, and are living it up in Paris and everywhere else they aren’t “supposed to be” and yelling out “that ish cray!” and other such things that don’t relate to my life. So, did this French hipster consider himself “celebrating” my obviously American self being able to afford to come to Paris and escape the ghetto I must have come from? Or was he telling me I wasn’t “supposed to be here,” in the store or Paris in general? Or was he just straight up calling me a “N**** in Paris”?!?! Quoi le EFF, sir?
I am annoyed that the ammunition that the sales clerk was able to use in firing off his ignorance was a song written by Black men. And yes, I am irritated by rappers and Blacks in general who continue to use this historically painful word as if its use is somehow empowering. I did not feel empowered when it was hurled at me by that sales clerk (who probably believes himself to be super progressive, or socialiste, or whatever get-out-of-racism-free card they play over here). I felt shocked and embarrassed and incredibly sad for him and how massively burdensome his nescience must be.
But I am even more vexed by people like rapper Nas who give people like Gwyneth Paltrow a “pass” to say the “N-Word,” as if, by the power vested in regulatory Blackness, there is a certain point at which a person can be deemed “Black enough” to say it — whether by deeds (like saxophone playing!) or Paltrow’s sheer proximity to rappers. And if a real Blackity-Black person like Nas says you’re “fam,” (whatever that is supposed to mean) then by golly, all Black people should accept this. Well, no. I do not accept any of this.
But if racism were only a mere irritation — a simple discomfiture, if you will — that boiled down to insults and hurt feelings, that would be an upgrade for racism. Yes, if I only had to stomach an entitled child a decade my junior pitying me enough to advise me on life in all of her obvious, worldly, superior wisdom, then maybe I’d be inclined to pay attention to the talk of this post-racial world I keep hearing about.
Except it isn’t about feelings or name-calling or prejudices. Racism is an intricate, global entanglement of economic, educational and cultural policies and laws that actively works to block access to even the most basic of resources –health, safety, and education, among them — to entire races of people, most aggressively against those of us socially classified as Black. Most tragic, the results of systemic racism are inescapable poverty and reduced life chances for masses of people based solely on the non-genetic classification of skin color.
But it starts out so small and “harmless.” It starts with some people being so confident in their own inherent superiority that they develop the nerve, stones and the gumption to be a teenage baby mama lecturing the President of the United States on his parenting skills, a college co-ed schooling a woman with a law degree on how to learn good, or a hipster sales clerk cleverly playing “N***** in Paris,” because, you know, there’s a Black woman in a store, in Paris. Yes, that’s how it starts.
And with each generation of privileged folk teaching the next generation that privilege is genetically and socially inherited (and not at all gained by theft and indoctrination), using stereotypes as a justification not only for that deeply-held belief but also for creating and sustaining oppressive policies and laws that perpetuate this new-age mental, economic, and cultural enslavement of those without privilege, and all-the-while brainwashing masses into denying the very existence of this privilege and the belief in its inherent nature, without which the system could not even stand — the band plays on to a Hit Boy-produced beat and we all dance to it.
After all, it’s just a victimless song, just a harmless word to which we give or take power. Privilege. N*****. Words, words words. There is no spoon. There are no words. No man behind the curtain.
That ish cray.