by Ehi Grace Anteyi, FRANCE
I’ve been excited for my year abroad since before I even started university, so actually experiencing it now is surreal. The one thing that a close friend of mine and I discussed before leaving was how our year abroad experience had the potential to be a lot different for us because we’re black women. Through all of the talks aimed at us as second years, we never quite felt that the experiences of the people who talked to us would be the exact same for us. I’ve always been quite aware of my race and how it has the potential to affect any experiences I have both in the UK and abroad. I call London, and England more generally, home and I’ve come to understand how to navigate myself in a space where race doesn’t seem so pronounced yet under the surface is inescapable. So when I applied to be an English Language Assistant in France, I had no clue what it would be like, I could only really hope for the best.
Everything I read and knew told me that France was just as racist as England, and I know that some people have some genuinely horrible experiences. I’m not going to take my happy and positive experience as representative of the whole, especially when French POC say the opposite. I will say, however that my experience has been incredibly blessed. I feel very comfortable here, and I can see myself living here in the future. In fact, I remarked to one of the friend’s I made here that there were so many black people here, so many more than I had anticipated but that I was pleased to see (looking back that was fairly ignorant to think, but I genuinely didn’t know). I knew that black people lived here, but I thought they’d be populated in Paris and Lyon, and not really anywhere else. It’s not just black people being here either that has made me feel comfortable. The Church I attend here is multicultural and welcoming, and strangers here are also amicable too. All the teachers I’ve worked with have also been super friendly. I’ve been asked if I’d be comfortable speaking about my experience as a black person in London, and I’ve also done oral activities around Nelson Mandela, Apartheid, and so on and so forth. The students in the school I am a language assistant at are even learning about the Black Lives Matter movement, Barack Obama and Martin Luther King, Freedom Fighters, etc. Many things that I myself wasn’t taught in school.
Here I don’t stop and think ‘what if they don’t like black people?’, and I’m not sure why that is. I haven’t had to think about my skin colour at all here. It almost feels as if, in my case only, being an ‘anglophone’ here trumps race. Obviously not exactly, but I feel that I’m probably treated differently because English is my first language and I wasn’t born here. I’m ‘other’ but not necessarily in a negative way. Sometime last year I stumbled across Cecile Emeke’s Flâner series, a French spin off of her highly popular Strolling videos (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3h3-sOFnLYY) , and this educated me on how some black people view themselves in France. Whilst a lot of the sentiments were similar to how black people in England feel, there were cultural differences unique to them that I found incredibly helpful to learn about as I was planning my year abroad in the very same country.
Just recently, however, a young black boy was raped by the police here (twitter hashtag: #justicepourtheo), and the story has gained quite a bit of traction. Even the current French president, Francois Hollande, visited Théo in hospital, and recently whilst I was touring the South of France there was a demonstration for him too. Whilst the response has been admirable, it has just reinforced the fact that police brutality is real here too, and whilst my time thus far has being incredibly blessed and fun, this, sadly, isn’t always the reality for everyone.