I was 23 the first time I was asked to officially identify my race. I had to fill an employment form and could only pick one option. The situation was anxiety-inducing because despite the fact of not being white, could I call myself black?
As long as I can remember, people always asked: “Tu es de quelle origine?*” (what’s your background) or just assumed I was [insert whatever brown ethnicity they are acquainted with here]. Such remarks always came across as micro-agression, even more so because I had no answers.
My mother is French and white, and I found out in my twenties that my father is Nigerian. Until then, it was never openly acknowledged that I was black, especially by my mother’s family: a bit like in the Lacey Schwartz documentary “A White Lie”, I had to discover this part of myself on my own.
I grew up in the ’80s in southern France. At the time race was not something discussed in my family. It is still in 2020 a very touchy subject: France would not acknowledge that although from a biological standpoint we are all “humans” – socially racialized individuals and communities face challenges. This denial makes it impossible to quantify and even more so hard to address racial inequalities. Although France prides itself on being “colorblind” it is in fact not – but that’s for another post.
So, I looked “different” from other members of my family but essentially, I was just one of them.
At first, it was subtle. It was in elementary school that I was made aware there was something different about me. Subtle at first, it became clear I was not one of the “popular kids”. Furthermore, and since there were no black nor mixed-race kids around, I was oftentimes mistaken for a North African, which in itself wouldn’t have meant anything if the narratives about immigrants had been positive. 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, it was not explained to me 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 seemed to represent at a deeper level.
From that moment on, life unraveled awkwardly: 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. I would have been the only brown kid had it not been for this other little girl named Sana: she was a first-generation French-Tunisian and was pretty ‘woke’ compared to me.
She lived in the near-by projects, but her parents were able to get her and her brother into my school district. Sana’s father, smart and kind-hearted, although very abrasive, had never been afraid to speak his mind (loudly). He came to France from Tunisia when he was a child and had been a brilliant student but unfortunately faced racism – when he was told that “people like him” had been brought to France to work manual jobs. He was the one who gave us Malcolm X’s autobiography to read in 7th grade and challenged us with geography questions at dinner. Sana’s mother was kind and motherly. She helped me acquire my first admin internship in 9th grade and later got me a job cleaning offices during the school breaks; with that money, I was able to go on vacation to Tunisia with them. Both hard-working and focused individuals, they were determined to give their children anything they couldn’t afford while growing up, including access to higher education, as well as a taste for culture and travel.
From the time I met them, they 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 aunts in the Alps or Switzerland, and on the other hand, bus trips with kids from the projects. It was interesting for me to see that despite their seemingly different livelihoods, how similar they were in many aspects; however, despite flawlessly ‘passing’ in both worlds, I never felt as if I completely fitted in.
When I was 10 years 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 solitude. Thankfully, we moved back to the continent when I was 14, and 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, the landscape was not as hostile.
In the early to mid-’90s new genres were slipping through the radio waves: Hip-Hop and New Jack Swing started their ascension in France’s music charts and we even had their own French rappers such as MC Solaar and IAM. I loved the groove and the energy, however, the cultural impact was limited. My English was good, but I was not fluent enough to understand what was said and why it was said. Moreover, there was no access to any type of ‘visuals’ at the time that could have assisted me in grasping the lyrical meaning.
My pivotal moment happened in 1995 when 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 major media platforms such as TV and magazines. Until then I had never realized how invisible people of color were in the French landscape. I returned to France a changed teenager.
The Lycée Montgrand (high school) was located in downtown Marseille. The foreign languages taught in the school attracted a variety of students from all over and it was the ultimate cultural melting pot. I picked Portuguese and Sana Arabic. For the first time in my life, I was physically surrounded by a rainbow of complexions. Youngsters from everywhere: first-generation Cape Verdeans, Comorians, Ex-Yugoslavians, Tunisians, Greeks, Vietnamese, Malagasy, even Brazilians, just to name a few. The ones we considered ‘white’ were usually second or third-generation Italian or Spanish. In my opinion, it was very integrated – for the most part. Never before had I felt a stronger desire to identify as “something”. My English professor explained to the class I had been born in the United States (I think my mother had explained in a note why I had missed the first week of high school) and soon the newsworthy information spread and I became ‘Daphne l’Américaine’, a nickname that stuck for years to come.
But this was not enough – I often had to elaborate on my background. My very limited cognizance of Black-American culture was based on series like The Cosby Show, the Prince of Bel Air, Sister Sister etc… and it seemed that in the United States, being black refers to one’s culture, for instance, individuals who are of African-American descent are considered black
regardless of their complexion or features, even if one of their parents is not – Barack Obama, Lenny Kravitz, Halle Berry, Tracee Ellis Ross or Alicia Keys to name a few are considered black even though 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 of African descent always identify themselves by their country of origin and the nuances of their specific tribe (Senegalese: Peul or Mandiac etc…); and mixed-race people like myself are called as ‘métisse’. At the time, in order to “legitimize” 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 ‘métisse French American’. Along with this newly discovered identity I was eager 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 immersed myself in everything I could put my hands on: music and TV were the easiest and most accessible means to do so – we would stay awake late to watch the latest American RnB and rap videos on cable, exchange cassette tapes and imitate our favorite artists. Later on, in college, I was able to access more Afrocentric literature and cinematography and some translated African American books. Mind you, this was in the 90’s, way before open access internet and on a teenager’s budget.
There was only so much I could understand from a distance and no guidance, and although I was somehow familiar with the black African experience in France, what I knew about the African-American experience 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” and “racial ambiguity”.
This experience encouraged me to familiarize myself with and better recognize 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 nearly 15 years I came to conclusions of my own. Mainly that it is complicated and that my specific set of lenses allows me a unique perspective. I identify as a black woman – a woman of color with mixed heritage, a Franco-Nigerian, an Afropean – and consider myself “a Woman of Rich Cultural and Ethnical Background”. I belong with the Black diaspora.
I acknowledge that although race and gender are social constructs, stereotypes associated with these factors have real socio-economic consequences in the real world. Ultimately, my racial identity is just another layer making up the complex and ever-evolving person I believe I am.