Race: EU Versus LA

     One of my friends in Denmark told me that many educated and non-violent Muslims are leaving Denmark as a result of the bias I ran into while I was there, when I was confused for a Muslim. The bias has its tap root in the Middle-Eastern campaign against Danish goods and Danish consulates over newspaper cartoons depicting Muhammad.
     “What is really sad about it,” wrote my friend Simon. “is that the Danes’ reactions — you felt them yourself on your recent trip — is getting to the well-integrated immigrants. They are the ones who are well-educated and speak fluent English. They leave mostly for England.”
     That fit in with an impression I had of London, a long time ago. Unlike any other European city, it reminded me, in its multi-ethnic nature, of Los Angeles.
     I remember small and lovely Indian girls, hip as hip could be, in blue knit caps of the Chelsea Football Club, midnight-blue bomber jackets and vast, dark eyes, buying tall cans of Fosters at a local shop, equipped with a quick smile and a ready conversation.
     And a host of Arabs and Muslims speaking with an English accent who, from my viewpoint, were as much a part of Britain and its culture as the white pensioners.
     After having been mistaken for a Muslim by the blonde and fair Danes (my mother was French and my dad’s folks hailed back to German settlers in Pennsylvania) and feeling the lash of prejudice, it had been with relief that I got on a train in the northern Danish town of Arhus and started on the long road back to Los Angeles.
     Because I have not been in a city that has more people from more places and more races than L.A.
     It’s certainly not one big happy, multi-racial family here in Southern California. But with that large amount of contact and experience comes a kind of sophistication where people become accustomed to negotiating the differences among the cultures.
     For example, at a local restaurant in Pasadena that caters to large groups for birthdays and work events, I almost always see a mix of black, brown, Asian and white folks at the table. And then you have the Armenians, the Filipinos and all the myriad combinations.
     I fit right in.
     “I think this is the least racist country in the world,” my friend Derek told me the other day. He is an immigrant from England.
     There is some truth to what he says.
     I remember as a high school student in France when students would criticize America as a discriminatory nation. And this was basically a universally held belief in France – that the U.S. is racist. My argument at the time was that the French are well more racist when it comes to what they called the pieds noirs, literally “black feet.”
     The term referred specifically to people of French descent who were born in northern Africa and returned en masse to France after the wars of liberation in North Africa, in particular the Algerian War. But the prejudice against the pieds noirs came to encompass all the North Africans living in France.
     They have never been integrated into French society, are marginalized on the outskirts of big cities, live largely unemployed and as recently as this summer burned cars and threw rocks at policemen during a Bastille Day riot.
     The French followed a different arc than the Danes who at first accepted Turkish immigrants as hard workers and then largely turned against Muslim immigrants after the anti-Danish riots of the Middle East.
     In France, there has been no such evolution. The North Africans were rejected from the start. So I took exception to being lectured by my French classmates on racism in America.
     And yet. And yet. Our land is not free of the taint, not at all.
     A young and beautiful Hispanic woman, who works as a teacher and who I know through salsa class, read the column on my reception in Denmark and wrote, “Welcome to my world.”
     “Let me tell you,” said Raquel. “When I was in the fourth grade, my family moved from Echo Park in Los Angeles to San Juan Capistrano in Orange County. I went from attending a predominantly Latino elementary school where both my languages were spoken and valued to being the only Latina in my fourth grade class.”
     “I learned early on phrases like `dirty Mexican’, `Speak English, you’re in America’ and, `My parents will sue your dirty Mexican parents’. I remember those fluorescent classroom lights highlighting my darker skin color. This treatment went on through high school and once I graduated, I left and swore never to go back.”
     “During my almost 10 years there, I lived with so much anger and I’m just glad that it was not toward myself.”

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