Community, Connect, Social Justice
From France to the USA: Two different takes on being biracial
January, 2019, Utah. I traveled 5,000 miles to a foreign country that would be my home for the foreseeable future. I’d left France, my country of birth, to marry the love of my life.
I knew marriage would not be easy at all times and I had a feeling my career as a junior journalist would probably take unexpected turns. But I did not give much thought about being a biracial woman in the United States and what that would mean.
All I knew was that, according to a quick Wikipedia search when I‘d previously visited the Beehive State and saw two Black people in seven days, black people represent less than 2% of Utah’s population. “I can deal with that,” I thought. In fact, I’ve had to navigate primarily white spaces before.
Not all white with me
In 1997, a white officer in the French Navy and a Black aspiring psychologist gave birth to little biracial me. My white father comes from one of those villages in France that a tourist would never think to visit. My mother, on the other hand, undeniably Black and proud to be, was born in Paris and spent most of her childhood on the outskirts of the city.
While I’m not sure of my dad’s background, I have great clarity on my mom’s. Her mother was born in Martinique, which belongs to the French West Indies, islands that France colonized in the 17th century and that more or less remain colonies. Her father was born in French Sudan, known as Mali since 1960 when the country and several others in Africa reclaimed their independence from the Fifth Republic (the current form of French government, which was established in 1958 by Charles de Gaulle).
When my parents started dating in the late ’80s, mixed-race couples were still rare in France. Even rarer was a white man daring to marry a Black woman. Rarest was a Black woman raising two light-skinned children in France’s coastal cities, the most politically and morally conservative regions of the country.
I was six years of age and my brother four when our father put a halt to his maritime operations and moved us away from the French coasts. However, instead of leaving right-leaning cities far behind us, we stepped into another predominantly white and Catholic town, in the suburbs of Paris. My brother and I then spent half a decade in a school where you could count its people of color on one hand and where we regrettably got our first taste of racial microaggressions. Words started making a lot of sense to us, and we did not like everything we heard.
My Black features were a creative inspiration for my little friends. To them, I was a lion for my rounded nose and for my abundance of curly hair, and I was a giraffe for my height. Sometimes, I was Medusa for the braids my mom would spend hours fashioning; they apparently looked like scary snakes. I was never called an ape like my grandmother was on more than one occasion. Nonetheless, by age seven these experiences were enough for me to want to look whiter by damaging my hair to make it straight and dreaming of getting my nose surgically “improved.”
I also remember people assuming and implying that my mother was our nanny. Did they also have those biases when they saw white mothers raising Black children?
My brother wrote a story about our family’s heritage, as assigned by his fourth grade teacher. In his essay, he mentioned Voodoo and sorcerers, two meaningful elements in both Caribbean and African cultures. Yet, his teacher claimed this was not real, that my little brother was making this up and that his composition was therefore irrelevant. A classmate said my brother was stupid as a consequence of our mom’s blackness.
A note on France and race: the universalist argument
We did face overtly and covertly racist comments but it’s fair to say that is pretty much all we had to overcome. My mother always stood up for my brother and me and, as light-skinned mixed kids, we were seldom robbed of opportunities for the color of our skin. We had access to quality education and healthcare and we grew up in low crime areas. If anything, doors would close because our Black mother spoke up whenever we faced injustice, and educators would punish us for her protecting her children.
Leave it to our mother, to our aunts and to our grandmother to tell you about what they experienced as Black women. Malcolm X rightfully stated that Black women are the most disrespected, unprotected and neglected people in America. From my family’s experience, that statement appears to be true in Europe as well.
On that note, I’d like to point out that I do make a difference between them and me. They are Black. I am Black and also white. I’ve always felt like this. That feeling was reinforced when I started studying Black French authors in order to learn more about the impact of racism in my country.
Diving into the works of French Mulattos such as Martinican-born writer Aimé Césaire and Senegalese poet Léopold Sédar Senghor (to name a few) allowed me to understand the power and privileges that biracial people held over their dark-skinned counterparts in colonial France. Having a white parent allowed Mulattos to gain access to education and noble positions, which were, in themselves, ways to affirm their dominance. Possessing such power encouraged them to adopt the same racist codes, morals and behaviors as French settlers and their descendants, the békés (who still control a lot of the French West Indies’ local industries).
Because France is a socialist and universalist country, its constitution is based on three values that we can still read above the doors of many French city halls: “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” — Freedom, Equality and Fraternity. Supposedly, these values must be standardized in all contexts and must be applied to all humans. We are all equal in the eyes of the law, independent of all personal characteristics such as gender, skin color, origins, age and so on. In that spirit, the Republic itself has to be neutral with regard to these attributes.
However, white French politicians, philosophers or even journalists will use the universalist argument to accuse anti-racist activists who point out differences of treatment between whites and people of color as triggering racial discriminations. What I personally hear when they make such a statement is “we claim to not see color and neither should you, because if you do, you’ll realize that we do treat you differently and we don’t intend to do anything about it.” As a biracial woman, I always had to see color. I always had to because people would often remind me that I was one or the other (and not one and the other) but also because it is one of my responsibilities to acknowledge the privileges that I possess and have benefitted from on many occasions in my life.
Then I moved to the United States, and when I started to take interest in race-related issues in this country, I gained new perspectives on what being mixed represents outside my home country.
From universalism to communitarianism
It began when I noticed biracial American activists fighting to attain equal rights and life opportunities for Black people, speaking in the name of Black people. It was new to me, a bit strange to see “half-white” people taking “full-Black” people’s space and telling their own stories instead of amplifying Black people’s ones. They are partly Black though, I thought. In fact, I am partly Black myself! And what if they were raised only by their Black parent, with a fully Black culture? What if they are dark-skinned?
I guess the overall question was: What will my experience as a biracial person be in my new land of residence? In attempting to answer that ostensibly selfish question and understand the significance of race and its nuances in the USA, my reading led me to communitarianism, a philosophy that emphasizes the importance of community and affirms that individuals do not exist independently from their culture, ethnicity, gender, religion or social class. Contrary to what universalism broadly states, those traits do very much define us in many aspects of our lives.
On good days, to put it simply, the communitarian philosophy gives us a warm sense of identity and belonging. On the worst days, it gives rise to unfair legislations such as the One Drop Rule, a legal principle of racial discrimination from the 20th century which pronounced any individual counting a Black person among its ancestors as Black. I was originally witnessing a Twitter debate about whether or not we should still consider biracial kids as Black in America when one user stated that it was time to “drop the One Drop Rule”—never signed into federal law but certainly an element in American politics; how many people refer to President Barack Obama as biracial or “half-white”? It is time, the writer continued, to start holding mixed folks accountable for actively participating in racism and in the further empowerment of white supremacy.
I guess I do feel a sense of pride when I see biracial people being viewed as Black in America. I am happy to belong to a community instead of feeling like I don’t fit in anywhere. However, I still have to check my privileges as the daughter of a white military man. I have the privilege to be academically educated and to have had doors opened to me that wouldn’t have been open if I were a shade darker.
Will life in the U.S. be different?
That had me thinking. While I did have to hear and heal from racist comments in the past, all I really was getting from the curious inhabitants of South Jordan, Utah was some un-welcomed stares. That city, my first home in the U.S., is very white, very Mormon, and apparently very unused to seeing people of color other than the Latinos and Pacific Islanders whose food they absolutely love. So, unless I was completely oblivious to it, I don’t think my physical traits inspired anyone to behave in a blatantly racist way towards my little person.
Because I was raised taking full advantage of the opportunities my whiteness gave me, I don’t feel threatened like dark-skinned Black people do when they see the police or simply walk in a predominantly white space. But because I’m adulting in a country where the One Drop Rule still influences the way we see race, do I also need to be worried about being put down by coworkers or neighbors or harmed by the police? Can I still use my body as a shield for oppressed communities? Am I right to take more space in order to share my story?
Conversations about race are complex but this matter holds nothing I can’t decipher. As of now, my devotion to social justice is too great to swipe away all that I’ve learned to start again with a clear mind and fewer headaches. It takes effort to unlearn the biases we are fed from a young age. And I have learned that my light skin is a power that I can and will use to acquire the long overdue opportunities and equality that Black, Indigenous and People of color deserve.
Yaël Fiedel is a French journalist currently living in Sandy, Utah. She has been an enthusiastic participant in Salt Lake City’s ongoing Black Lives Matter rallies.