Migration Sensitivity: Europe is not the United States

Lasagna Bathily, who saved lives during the January 2016 terror attacks, receiving French citizenship

I angered one of the softest and nicest guys I know so much that, if he were a boxer, he would have punched me out with the simple American-style question of “when did you arrive in Europe?” It was another rude lesson in Europe is not the United States.

P. is a Franco-British national of Vietnamese origin. He, of course, feels he is European and the fact that he is Asian in appearance means that he believes such questions exclude him from the collective “We”. The presupposition on my part that his family migrated with the great Vietnamese exodus of 1975 -1976 is for P. a form of racism and ostracism. His family in fact migrated to Europe in 1962.

In the US we are all of migrant background (except for Blacks whose ancestors were brought by force and the Natives we did not kill) and we take it for granted. The question of ‘Where does your family come from?’ or ‘How long has your family been in the US?’ is a normal question for us which raises no eyebrows. Vietnamese who arrived in the US after the fall of Saigon are as much part of the collective “We” as am I whose father was born in Greece and immigrated in the 1920s. We actually go out of our way to promote our ethnic heritage while still clinging to “We are Americans.” We all refer to the “Founding Fathers” as our own.

This is not so in Europe. Those who are not white will always in one way or another be excluded from the collective “We”.   Much like if I were a fifth generation Vietnamese national, just because I am white, would be constantly asked when I immigrated to the country, even though I would feel completely Vietnamese.

Lasagna Bathily, seen in the photo above, is considered a hero for hiding people during the January 2016 terror attack on a kosher supermarket. Although he won national acclaim, in the eyes of the French, he will always be other: his Muslim Malian identification will be passed on to his children and grand-children.

Lenny was a bar-tender I knew in the 1970s in Paris who was born in Scotland but of Black Caribbean origin. The dialogue was short before the fists were flying:

  • Question: Where are you from?
  • Lenny: Scotland.
  • Question: No, but where are you really from?
  • Lenny, now angry: I said Scotland.
  • Question: But I mean you must come from somewhere?
  • Lenny: POP IN THE NOSE.

No matter how long Africans, Arabs and Asians live in Europe, second, third and even fourth generation, they will be see as “other”. The collective “We” in France includes those French of Polish, Italian and Portuguese origin as nothing distinguishes them from the Gallic French. They have even lost the culture of their grandparents and great grandparents.

In France Blacks from the Caribbean do not mix with those of African origin and do not want to be categorized with them. This is so important that Marine Le Pen, head of the xenophobic National Front, who is in favor of ethnic census wants to exclude ‘race’ from the questions because she also makes the distinction between ‘French Blacks’ and those who are ‘culturally different.’

P. is as European in manner and speech as they come but as he looks Asian, he gets the question other ‘white’ Europeans never get. And this makes him angry. He believes this is a form of racism. Try to explain why you ask such a question and he only gets angrier, like Lenny.

German GreenMember of Parliament Cem Özdemir

Turks in Germany face the same dilemma. When Germans say “We” they don’t mean the dark haired and dark eyed German nationals of Turkish descent. There is a Green member of Parliament from Stuttgart whose name is Turkish and who looks Turkish but is as Schwab as any of the blue eyed decedents of those who fought the Romans. Yet, he remains “other”.

Özdemir speaks Schwab, eats Schwab and is Schwab.

I truly don’t believe I was being insensitive by raising the question with P.  I was just being American.  I actually don’t want to be European when it comes to this sort of sensitivity but it is yet an important lesson which explains so much of Europe’s problems in integrating certain migrants. Europe is not, and probably never will be, like the US.