Posted under: Culture Opinion

What it's like to be black in Paris

Four months ago, I moved to Paris to teach English and begin the next chapter of my life. When I decided to move abroad, I began researching what it would be like living as a black woman here. I expected some difficulties but not that many because I had studied French and had a couple of friends living here as well. I saw Cecile Emeke's series, Strolling, a couple weeks before being hired. The part of the series I was watching, “Flâner,” was set in Paris and I was worried after hearing what these women said. None of the French courses I had taken had mentioned racism or prejudice and when I asked my professors about these issues they told me not to worry. I was nice and outgoing. I was told not to stress myself out. I had so many questions and was unsure who to discuss them with. Once I arrived in Paris, I reached out to a former classmate who told me her sister, Maya, lived in Paris and ran a blog called LaVieLocale . Reading the blog, I found really great advice on settling into the city. Through a series of super polite Instagram messages, Maya and I ended up meeting and talking to each other. We spoke for hours. We had so much to share and ask one another! Here I was, ready to start my next chapter, hoping to learn how to let go of the mental and emotional baggage of black death, police brutality, and the racial microaggressions that had filled my life back home. I had felt like I was drowning and was excited to move. I was not naive enough to think Paris would somehow be completely different, I just hoped I could be selfish for a while, be me for a change and pursue my passions freely. In October, I attended ArtPressYourself,  Paris' first afro-urban festival. I walked in and started smiling. There were women with natural hair everywhere, dressed beautifully and talking animatedly. African styles, fashion, and artists' work were featured everywhere, and after the day’s events there was a fashion show. I met Maya there and I made some new friends throughout the day as well. That night I felt light. There was no competition, no shade, just melanin, laughter, art and music.
In the weeks that followed, that feeling of lightness remained with me. I felt more secure knowing that there were black women with the same passion and creativity as me in Paris; black women who were here building a life here. Over time, however, It became hard to maintain that lightness. After spending more time in different neighborhoods around the city, I realized that Paris wasn't as inclusive as I had thought. There was a pre-teen girl I babysat in a very wealthy part of town that had never spoken with a French person of African origin before but she was very adamant that she didn't like their French. People like that, she said, “...were weird.” Another thing this girl had never seen was hair like mine, and when I had it in an afro she said it was ugly and not normal. I struggled with what to say to the girl’s mother, but ultimately told her, "Your daughter seems to have a very limited perspective of the world, and if I am going to work for your family, you are going to have to talk to her. Explain to her there are people from different cultures with hair, skin and languages different from her own. She is entering middle school soon and that type of thinking is dangerous." As soon as I stepped out of that apartment I felt all this frantic nervousness rush out of me but even still my mind was racing. As the weeks passed I started to take note of every small instance that made me do a double take. During Christmas, I received a gift card to a perfume and make-up store. When I finally entered the store to spend it, nobody working there came up to ask me if I needed anything. I shrugged and thought to myself "Okay, well maybe they're busy," even though I could see them looking directly at me. A few moments later, a well-dressed white woman walks into the store and seconds from then a worker is smiling in her face, "Hello Madame! Est-ce-que je peux vous aider? Can I help you with anything?” In that moment, I was so aware of how unwelcome I was. Blood rushed to my face but I told myself "Don’t get upset, you deserve to be here like anybody else, just breathe." That same evening, while talking to my flatmate and his friends, I recounted a couple of instances where I’ve experienced overt and subtle racism here in Paris. They looked at each other and clung to their beer bottles tightly, avoiding eye contact with me. My flatmate tried to dismiss it as rich people being stuck up or me being American, and when I insisted that there was more to it than that, he said, "C'est pas parce que t'es black."  (It’s not because you’re black.) "Why did you just call me 'a black' instead of 'noir'?" His friends looked at each other and one jumped in, "Oh, Rachel it's less racist to say black than noir, everybody here says it." I shook my head and gave them a questionable look.   "When you're speaking in French and describing your friends do you say 'il est un white?' ( He is white) "Well, no." "Why?" Nobody said anything, so I continued. "You are speaking in French all the time and you choose to use one English word that is talking about people who look like me and you think somehow it's less racist?" I said, "I don’t understand that, you should think about that." “Rachel we are friends, you know we are not racist” And for what felt like the hundredth time, I found myself in a predominantly white space trying to justify my emotions, my blackness. It’s happened in high school, in college, at work, in interracial relationships and after all of that, I told myself I wouldn't expend energy on those who weren't worth my time, so I walked out. A couple days later I met up with Maya and friends to have dinner and tell them what had been going on lately. They started to recount their own personal stories, and one woman said, "Honestly, if you want to live in Paris you are going to have to get used to it or build a level of tolerance. It's hard at first but you have to. We have been all been here for four or five years and back then there were no natural hair academy events or afro-urban festivals to connect with other black women and men. It took us a while to find each other. Don't try to convince ignorant white people you're worthy, they're not worth the time. " Their words reaffirmed me. I took what they said to heart and, after a while, I felt better. I realized my time in Paris would not be a repeat of the past because I'm here to pursue my creative projects, to teach and learn from others. During the past few months, I've met people of color from all over the world who are artists, business owners and powerful creative minds, men and women that are pursuing their passions in life, and I'm here to do just the same.
Rachel Nyakako is a teacher/photographer currently based in Paris. In the future, she plans to pursue studies in public health on systems of oppression and their effects on mental health in people of color. Follow her on Twitter @rachellexparis.

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