“We Don’t Talk About Race in France, and That’s Part of the Problem”

Jim Browski is an American in Paris and a professional photographer who left the United States at the age of 21. Now more than ever, he keenly observes the anti-police violence movement in the U.S. while comparing his experience of everyday racism, discrimination, and attitudes towards race in both countries.
Jim Browski in Paris. © Discobill

France-Amérique: Last year was particularly eventful with a large number of African Americans killed by the police – including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor – along with many protests brought onto the national stage by Black Lives Matter. How did you experience this situation from Paris?

Jim Browski: I left the United States ten years ago, and it feels like nothing has changed since then! All it takes is a conversation with someone older to realize that. They keep killing us in America. It makes me so sad and angry. It’s frustrating, too, because we do all we can to make things better, but it seems like it’s for nothing. We are fighting a system that refuses to change – or is changing too slowly.

You were born and raised in Philadelphia. What is it like to be Black in the United States?

Even when we’re young, our parents, families, and people from the neighborhood warn us: “You’re a Black man in a country that doesn’t want you. Every time there’s a problem, you’ll be the first person they suspect. You might even get killed.” Even as children we’re taught to be careful, to always look around us, to be constantly alert and under pressure. If you’re not in school or in your neighborhood, you know something bad can happen. Someone could mistakenly identify you for a crime, or just accuse you for no reason. We live in constant fear.

You have lived in Paris for six years. What are the biggest differences here compared to your life in the United States?

The biggest difference is that I feel like I’ve betrayed my own race. When you are Black in the United States, you know how the system works and what might happen to you. In Paris, things are different for me. People first see me as a Black man, but I become a Black American as soon as I open my mouth. They see me less as a danger and more as a tourist or a way to make money. The other thing that has changed since I arrived in France is that I’m not as scared of being shot. In the U.S., being in the wrong place at the wrong time can cost you your life. It’s not the same in Paris. The police look at me, they sometimes ask me questions, but I’m never scared that they will pull out their firearms. I still experience discrimination, don’t get me wrong, but the situation is a little better!

When the French realize that you are American, does their behavior really change that dramatically?

Yes, it’s crazy! For example, when I go into a store in Paris and there is a Black French person in front of me, I can see the staff watching them. Sometimes the security guard will ask them questions, often aggressively. But in my case, they think I’m a tourist. I almost get the red-carpet treatment! Sometimes I pretend that I don’t understand French, and hear the store employees saying, “It’s ok, he’s American.” It’s a crazy thing to experience, because the person in front of me is exactly the same, but we are treated differently.”

People are highlighting the parallel between racism and police violence in France and the United States. What is your opinion of the situation?

I think it’s exactly the same thing! Oppression exists in both countries; the main difference is that when you talk about discrimination in France, people tell you that they don’t see a difference between colors and so there can’t be any racism. I didn’t grow up here, but I understand that we don’t talk about race in France. That’s part of the problem. It’s a way of ignoring racism. There is a culture, in France, of pointing fingers and saying, “Yes, we have a few problems here, but nothing compared to this country or that country.” That’s too easy. France is ignoring its own problems and so nothing changes. The United States still has a lot to fix, but so does France.


Interview published in collaboration with La Revue – Pour l’intelligence du monde and RFI in the May 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.