Wonderfully Surprising: My Time and Experience in France as a Black Woman

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.

 

 

“Open-Mindedness”

by Aleyah Benjamin, FRANCE

I am currently on my year abroad in Nîmes in the South of France, and I can’t lie when I say that this experience has been so incredibly eye-opening for me up until this point. As a young, black woman I was so conscious of being one of the few ethnic minorities in the city as it is considerably smaller than its neighbours, and is far from the hustle and bustle of London. At the beginning it was quite hard for me to familiarise myself with the city’s size, but I have gradually come to love the place in which I live and the unique tranquility of it. In regards to my race, if I am honest it hasn’t yet posed much of a problem. This was my main worry before embarking on my journey, but those who I have come into contact with have been nothing but welcoming and accepting of me. I don’t know whether this is because of the people I am surrounding myself with, or more the general ‘open-minded’, progressive nature of people in my area. I put ‘open-minded’ in quotation marks because really, to treat a person of colour as a human being should not require an openness of mind but instead an intrinsic appreciation for the diversity of the human race. With France’s current turbulent political situation and the rise of the far right, my experience as a black woman here comes as quite a surprise to me. I guess what I’ve taken from this is that although racism exists everywhere, and very often rears its ugly head in the most depraved of manners, perhaps it isn’t all bad. I pray that this spirit of acceptance continues, but also that people open their hearts to travelling people of colour like me, and realise that the manifestation of hatred is a futile and ignorant fixation.

The Travellers of Colour Collective: 6 Months On

As The Travellers of Colour Collective approaches its six month mark, it feels only natural to reflect on the growth and manifestation of what was initially an informal idea that casually sprung to mind whilst sitting in my German apartment. As a person of colour who was to embark on a year abroad, I always saw myself as being placed in a unique position, and wished to document it in some way. The specificity of my experiences as a minority in a less culturally diverse environment was something I knew I could extend to other people of colour, who may have been able to resonate with me, and I thus drew inspiration from the affinity I shared with them. In creating my blog, I wanted to provide a platform for expression that was somewhat missing before. Since its launch, it has been wonderful to witness the expanding nature of discussions surrounding the role of race in travel through my blog.

The beauty of having a collection of stories is the plurality of experience yet individuality of every written account. Each blog post from The Travellers of Colour Collective comes with fresh perspective, enabling us to think about our racial and ethnic identities in a multitude of ways and in a plethora of different cultural contexts. As people of colour, our existence and experiences are often homogenised, particularly by mainstream media; so the advantage that The Travellers of Colour Collective has, in my humble opinion, is its ability to showcase the diversity within our experiences. It has also been interesting to collect stories from those who have come back from their travels and people who are still currently abroad. The differing approaches to writing are evident, since some are more holistic in their reflection of their travels as people of colour, whilst others are writing at a present moment in time and are therefore discovering more about their identity under a new cultural framework.

The issues that have been brought to light as a result of the series of blog posts is an aspect that continues to be of paramount importance in The Travellers of Colour Collective. The refreshing honesty with which my writers document their experiences facilitates the very necessary discussion of how race impacts the way we can be perceived and ultimately treated in certain cultures. The intersectionality between race and gender, for example, is a recurring topic, with few who have candidly divulged their experiences of being fetishized abroad, specifically as women of colour. Others have written about their interactions with children, observing the way in which they understand and react to racial difference. Many blog posts in The Collective also include testimonies of positive cultural exchange and the opportunity to educate those who have not been exposed to cultures outside of their own. Thus, I believe that The Travellers of Colour Collective has achieved the aim of highlighting the unique challenges we have, or may face, as people of colour, but to also use this as a source of encouragement and empowerment to continue to venture out into the wider world.

Whilst this platform serves as a safe space for people of colour, the readership amongst non-POC audiences plays a significant part in emphasising the purpose of my blog. I was very keen to make the content accessible to all readers, in order to foster appreciation and acknowledgement from those who are largely unaffected by or simply oblivious to the nuanced experiences shared by people of colour.

So far I have been humbled by the progression and positive reception of the Travellers of Colour Collective since its launch on 1st September. Each new blog post represents an added voice that contributes to the continuity of a unique but extremely pertinent subject, and I hope that my blog continues to serve as a platform for us as people of colour to bring our distinct experiences deservedly to the forefront.