My 10-year old daughter and I visited Paris last month. We stayed in a small, clean hotel with private bathrooms near a bustling train station, Gare Du L’est. Senegalese, Kurds, Algerians, Vietnamese, Bengalese and some Parisians – all call this arrondissement, or urban administrative district, home. This small slice of Paris offers a smörgåsbord of cross-cultural experiences.
Since Gare Du L’est is one of the least-expensive locations in Paris, it is bit rough around the edges. That is, there is a little drug dealing, a little prostitution and lots of who knows what else. Further, my daughter, Katie, had never been to Europe or, for that matter, any country other than the United States. During our first days in Paris, she clinched my hand, without saying anything, tightly. Her grip loosened as we immersed ourselves in the sights and sounds of the different cultures. Each morning as we walked to the Metro, we tried guessing the different languages being spoken and enjoyed eating the Kurdish flat bread as much as the Parisian croissants.
France is a great country. But some French, like some Americans, struggle with diversity. At a local grocery store, we witnessed a white security guard shadowing a young black male. The boy, around the same age as my own teenage sons, had done nothing wrong. He was simply shopping for food. Soon, we saw him irritated by the guard’s menacing proximity. The boy left the store in anger and frustration. As the boy cleared the door, the guard yelled a racist slur. My daughter and I held our breath and looked down.
While we waited in the check-out line, the boy returned with his parents, an interracial couple. They were having none of the guard’s uncalled for ethnocentric behavior and slurs. Suddenly, several other customers chimed in, berating the security guard. Stunned at the outbursts, my daughter and I remained still and silent. In North Carolina, people tend not to raise their voices in grocery stores.
Walking back to our hotel, we talked about what we had seen, trying to make sense of it. How was this racist incident different from racist incidents in the USA? Well, frankly, one glowing difference stood out from the beginning: No one was armed. No one threatened to shoot anyone. Indeed, the fear of violence was significantly lessened by the absence of guns. The white security guard did not fear for his life. The boy did not fear for his life. The other people in the store did not fear for their lives. Neither did my daughter nor I.
In America, with the possibility that the guard, the boy and his parents – not to mention others in the store – might have been packing heat, I would have dropped my cheese and salami, grabbed my daughter and exited stage-right.
How simple the lesson? Remove the fear of guns from the equation, and it reduces the chance, to zero, of anyone getting shot. Moreover, it potentially clears the social stage for, one would hope, intelligent conversation, not to mention making life safer for everyone involved.
In case you did not know, Paris municipal police do not carry guns.
I understand that American cities, Atlanta and Charlotte come to mind, cannot metamorphose into Paris. And I admit I have guns I use to hunt.
But considering the everyday terror and death faced by too many civilians in our own communities, I envy France’s peaceful ways.
Matt Buys is a member of the Asheville City Board of Education. His opinions are his own.