Je bois un bol de café au lait bien chaud (est-ce qu’un café au lait ever really hot?) and je pense de la question that has confronted me since my arrival in Paris: “Vous êtes quoi?” What are you? I know that part of what prompts this question is apparently my accent when I speak French. I take pride in trying to master the sound if not the fluency of native French speakers, so my pride is a little bit wounded to think that I am revealing myself to be foreign when I talk. But as one woman told me in a small boutique today where I went to buy a scarf, the ultimate fashion accessory here, (scarves are, mercifully, often inexpensive yet they add a real air of the Parisienne to every outfit and of the Parisien as well; many men of all ages are artfully slinging scarves around their necks in this chilly, wet weather) it’s not how I speak. “C’est votre couleur de peau.” There, she said it. It’s my skin color. She pauses patiently as she unrolls the now familiar list: Vous êtes Martiniquaise? Vous êtes Guadeloupéenne? (that’s what she says she is—I took her for Cuban or Venezuelan from her looks and the sound of the Cuban music playing in the background of the store). Vous êtes mulâtresse? WHAT did she just call me, snap?
I have long been familiar with how people in many other parts of the world deal more frankly with skin color than United Statesians. Here in Paris, some people seem to take discussions of national or racial heritage as an early to medium-stage intimate pleasantry (the conversation usually starts in this direction after we have had several minutes of chatting to establish a foundation for such inquiries, such as with my apartment building concierge when I moved in). I have been especially surprised at being asked if I am a mulâtresse (female mulatto.) I thought that word went out around 1920, along with Negress (my spell-checker can’t even handle the latter word and it is in English, lol!) I have to set about figuring out just how widely mulâtresse is used here. Maybe it is an in-group thing. All of these conversations have occurred with other women of color, such as when I asked a prosperous looking (avec un véritable sac de Chanel; even in the semi-darkness I can tell that those two c’s seem to be lining up just the right way) tan-colored woman the other night for directions to La Nation metro stop. I was on about my fourth walk around a rond-point and I still couldn’t figure out what direction to go in. We were almost two miles away and after she told me the way she offered to walk with me part of the route as she was going in that direction also. After a few minutes walking and sharing chitchat she offered that she was from Mauritius and asked “D’où êtes-vous?” Where are you from? This is different from what are you, but at its root is the notion that you are not of this place.
The woman in the boutique today was visibly puzzled when I responded, “Je suis Americaine, de la Californie” to her inquires. She went on “Mais d’où êtes-vous vraiment? La Martinique, la Jamaïque …” No, I said, mostly just American, “depuis au moins 200 ans” I added. There, I said it. It is true; I have researched one branch of my mother’s family back to 1803 in Virginia where my first known female ancestor was born. It dawned on me like a ton of bricks (a really apt mixed metaphor) that this makes me really pretty American. I didn’t know how to feel. Proud? No, just amazement, since I don’t usually have casual national identity conversations in the United States and I have rarely stated these facts out loud.
The lady in the boutique sees my Pierre Nora tome peaking out of my obligatory market sack. I have re-learned, after many years away from Paris, to carry a bag everywhere in case I have to stop for groceries or some other small item. And I stop a lot, both on account of having a tiny fridge and in order to buy small amounts in different places to sample as much as possible. She asks if I am a student. I say “oui.” For I have only recently stopped being a PhD student and I am here to learn about the intersection of memory and identity and law—there is no need to expand on my really somewhat complicated professional identity. For the moment la couleur de la peau et un livre suffit à définir une communauté. After all, comme dit Nora, seule l’histoire confère une identité.