Your Next Stop | Grands Boulevards Station

Why is it so hard to talk about race?

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On a late evening subway ride home in Paris past sundown, I sat beside a middle-aged black man dressed in chalky tattered clothes. He was fidgety. I hesitated at first but went through with it even though I was intimidated. My gut response immediately took me back to a story I had heard about the empty seats beside a black man on a full train. In my attempt not to repeat such an occurrence, I swallowed my prejudice and sat down beside the man.

“Ça va?” he asked immediately.
“Sorry, I don’t speak French,” I replied.
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from Canada.”
“How long have you been in Paris for?”
“Not long.”
“Do you speak Chinese?”
“No.”
“Japanese?”
“No.”
“What languages do you speak?”
“English.”
(long pause)
I could feel his eyes on my face. He was waiting. He wanted more.
“…and Korean,” I added.

The roundabout ways we go to ask about a person’s race; the way that we try to avoid revealing our ethnicity.

Is it just me or are there more people who get satisfaction out of ending the conversation at “I’m Canadian” fully knowing that is not the answer the other person is looking for.


Written by Leila Lee
Photo by Leila Lee

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