I was 23 the first time I was asked to officially “identify my race”.
The day I had to fill that employment form was full of confusion and concerns – I had been taught in biology that there wasn’t such a thing as “race” – we all belonged to humankind. I kept staring at the words on the piece of paper: the categories were limited and I was only allowed to pick one. This was my first time ever facing this type of situation. You see, although I was born in the United States, my mother took me to France when I was a baby and I grew up over there. My thoughts were rushing through my head: I am not “White” – but could I call myself “Black”? I was anxious and afraid to be challenged on either of my choices and face an already very uncomfortable situation – again. I finally had the insisting clerk pick for me and went on my way.
I was told many times I did not look “Black”, mainly by mislead and confused wanna-be-anthropologists. Such passive-aggressive remarks on how I do not fit stereotypical ideals affected me more than once, and still does to a certain extend – even tho I, as a self-soothing exercise, try my best to stoically brush them off: after all , opinions are not facts, and this may as well be a way for people to minimize their own cognitive dissonance.
Since a young age, people always asked the (annoying) question: “Tu es de quelle origine?” – or just assumed I was [insert the brown ethnicity they are acquainted with]. My mother is French, white – and I found out in my twenties that my father is an American born Nigerian. Until that discovery, it was never openly acknowledged that I was black – especially by my mother’s family: a bit like Lacey Schwartz documentary “A White Lie”, I had to discover this part of me on my own. Race was not something discussed in my family, and in France racial dynamics are different than they are in the United States. For that reason, I had little to no concept of what diversity meant or entailed. Sure, I denoted from other members of my family and some circumstances emphasized this fact, but I was just one of them.
My interaction with the outside world made it clear that there was something different about me. I was made aware that my complexion was “darker”, my body “bulky” and my “unmanageable” hair would never grow long – which overall made my appearance undesirable within that specific context. I felt ugly, fat and “poor”. I internalized, accepted and carried those “qualifiers” with me for a long time. Furthermore, and since there were no black nor mixed kids around I had several times been mistaken for being a North African by strangers which in itself wouldn’t have mean anything if narrative about immigrants had been a positive one. I recall one incident when the lunch school attendant had refused to serve me pork chops. I could not understand why. Upset and confused (I LOVED pork chops), I reported the offense to my grandmother. No later than the next morning, she stormed to the school, outraged by what had happened. At the time, I was not explained why I was refused the meal but I realized that the way I was perceived had prevented me from enjoying the same privilege as everybody else: I became ashamed of what I seem to represent at a deeper level.
From that moment on, life unraveled awkwardly. I was (and still am) an empath and although it was not an everyday issue, the unspoken facts surrounding my appearance overshadowed my existence. I grew up in a middle class white community with little to no diversity; and I would have been the only exotic bird, if it wasn’t for this beautiful brown little girl named Sana: she was a first generation French born Tunisian and pretty “woke” compared to me. She lived in La Gavotte Peyret project, but her parents tricked the system by pretending they were living in my home town via her aunt so she and her brother could enter my school district. Sana’s father, Moncef, has probably one of the fieriest personality I have ever been around. Smart, kind hearted but abrasive – never afraid to speak his mind, loudly and was a bit of a revolutionary. He had come to France from Tunisia when he was a child and had been a brilliant student. Unfortunately, his own father rejected his ambitious attempts of becoming an accountant because of the lack of fund in his family, so he became a mechanic. He was the one who gave us Malcom X autobiography to read in 7th grade and challenged us with Geography question at dinner. Sana’s mother, Naima – was kind and motherly. Both hard working and focused individuals, they were determined to give to their children anything that hadn’t been afforded to growing up, including access to a better education, a taste for culture and travel. From the time we met, they had basically claimed me as their own and even jokingly pretended I was their daughter. I lived a dual life, where I would alternate vacations between my uncles and aunt in the Alps or Switzerland, and bus trip with kids from the project. It was interesting for me to see that despite their seemingly differences how similar they were in many aspects; however, despite flawlessly passing in both “world” I never felt as if I completely fitted.
When I was 10 year old, I moved to Corsica to join my mother and her new boyfriend: things got tricky and I felt extremely isolated. The population of the island is known for being very conservative and as an outsider – let alone a brown one – it was even harder to make new friends. At the house it wasn’t any better: when I expressed the difficulties I had encountered in school I was told by my mother that: “It was in my head”. I took it as my cue to keep things to myself – and as an early teen developed a strong inclination for independence and aloneness. Thankfully, we moved back to the “continent” at 14, things got a lot better. For starters I got back in touch with Sana and old classmates, and although I did not feel like I truly “belonged” anywhere the landscape was far more multicultural.
In the early-mid 90’s new genres was sipping through the radio waves: Hip Hop and New Jack started their ascension in France’s music chart and we even had own French rappers such as MC Solaar or iAm – I loved the groove and the energy; however, the cultural impact was limited: my English was good but I was not fluent to understand the what was said and why it was said. Moreover, there was no access to any types of “visual” that could have assisted in grasping the lyrical meaning.
My pivoting moment happened when in 1995, right before entering high school my mother took me on my first trip back to the US. I don’t expect anyone to understand how it feels to see for the first time people who look like they could actually be related to you – your long lost tribe – so prolifically engaging on a major media platforms such as TV and magazines. I returned to France a changed teenager.
The Lycée Montgrand was located in Downtown Marseille and was the ultimate cultural melting pot. For the first time in my life I was physically surrounded by a rainbow of complexions. There were people from everywhere: first generation Cape Verdeans, Comorians, Ex-Yugoslavians, Tunisian, Greek, Vietnamese, Malagasy, even Brazil, just to name a few – and of course “French” white kids. Never before had I felt a stronger desire to identify as “something”. My English professor announced in class I was born in the United States (not sure how she knew). Soon, the newsworthy information spread and “Daphne l’Americaine” became my trademark for years to come.
But this was not enough – I often had to elaborate about my background; from my understanding, in United States, being Black refers to one’s culture – for instance, individuals who are African-American descent are considered black regardless of their complexion or features even if one of their parent is not – Barack Obama, Lenny Kravitz, Hally Berry, Tracee Ellis Ross or Alicia Keys just to name a few are considered Black even tho they have a white parent. This was a concept that was unheard of in France where “Black” is only a generic term associated with one’s complexion; people from African descent always identify themselves by their country of origin and nuanced by specific tribes (Senegales Peul, Mandiac etc…); and mixed people like myself are not really considered “black” but “metisse” (mixed) – In order to avoid any confusion and legitimized my “Blackness” or (at least my mixed race status) my very good friend Sofaya and I decided we would pretend to be each other’s sisters: this is how after 15 years of blurred lines and uncertainty I finally had “concrete answers” to the ever annoying “what are you” questions: I was a “metisse Franco-Americaine”. Along with this newly discovered identity I was to learn everything I had never been exposed to. I felt I had so much to catch up on what I thought it meant to be “black”. I emerge myself with all the knowledge I could put my hands on: music was the easiest and most accessible way to do so – we stay awake late to watch the latest American R’n’B Rap videos on cable – exchanged cassette tapes and imitate our favorite artists. Later on in college I was able to get more into afrocentric literature and cinematography. Mind you this was before the internet and on a teenager budget.
There was so much I could understand from a distance, and although I was somehow familiar with the Black African experience in France, what I knew about the African-Americans was very superficial. At the time I moved to the United States in 2004 and was asked to officially claim “a race” my understanding was still very limited and I did not know that although perceived as Black, this same blackness would often get challenged due to my until then unidentified Light Skin privilege – but this topic is for another time.
This experience encouraged me to familiarized myself more so to better understand the racial dynamics that ruled the social American landscape; it took me a while and a lot of interactions with different people, but after living in the US for many years, I came to some conclusions of my own. Mainly that: it is complicated and that my specific set of lenses allow me great perspective.
Finally, although I acknowledge race and gender are of social construct, I also know that ultimately my racial identity is just part of a more complexed picture of who I am as a whole.
©️ Daphne Mia Essiet, 2018