I was about thirteen when she taught me we are at odds when it comes to my melanin, or more so, its dosage. My motherland finally spoke out, letting me know that although she had birthed me, I had gone on to live my life across an ocean, and that had its consequences. Through the eyes of others, she revealed how divergent conceptions can be across that ocean.
It turns out she and I were in a Black versus Métisse debate. I am black, I tell her. You are métisse, she hisses back. I do not bother asking why as I know quite clearly it’s because I am, despite my reluctance to accept it, mixed. When born, a child bears no notion of race, ethnicity, nationality, location, skin tone, or melanin. It seems strange, doesn’t it, that we quantify it? Melanin. And it seems strange that in a country where race is everything (the US), mixed tones and solid tones are all placed in the same bag. But. In a country where racism persists but is consistently ignored, mixed tones and solid tones need remain in their own separate bags. France believes itself to be color-blind. Ridiculous, I know. It is their – well, unfortunately, our way of denouncing racism ever so quietly. Ridiculous, I know. As much as racism operates similarly on a day to day basis, in the big cities at least – supermarkets, public transportation, and so on – the rationales behind why and how Black people come together are fundamentally other from one country to the next. In the European one, Black people form communities based on ethnicity rather than race. In the other, Black people are all considered part of this one community. I am proud to label myself as a Black New Yorker. I am proud to have grown up here, to have grown up Black; it simply shifted my entire world to be served with this misunderstanding between my birth land and my chosen one.
Deeply perplexed by these bipolar views, I look to history. She tells me: the countries you are looking at have two very distinctively different upbringings. The first, a colonial power, the second, a colony. Despite the two countries fully abolishing slavery just one decade apart, France’s colonial background meant that much of its slavery practices took place overseas instead of solely on the motherland. Contrarily, slavery, in the United States took place on its land. Millions of, now termed, African Americans were illegitimately ripped from their homes, their descendants, left to aimlessly wander the inprecisivenes of their roots. Most Black people in France know where their blackness comes from: we know our specific nationality. France, with all of its crass colonial entitlement, forced its language down its colonies’ throats with such tenacity, one forged by the ethnocentric wish to indoctrinate the entire planet. This means that many people from said ex-colonies moved and continue to move to France, predicting the large majority of Black people in France as direct immigrants rather than descendants of slaves.
Having been refused any set of cultural practices from “back home,” the American Black community created its own. Through the evolution of music, dance, visual art, literature, film, style, food, and virtually every area of life, came to be the modern American Black Culture as we know it. As opposed to France, where Black people assemble based on nationality or ethnicity, in the US, we see ourselves as a single community and assemble as one. Necessity may be the reason why. Imagine being forced away from your home, or having it as your heritage, wouldn’t you forge alliances with humans like yourself? Necessity. The need Black people have to band together persists until this day, arguably, due to the country’s racially conflicted past’s bleeding into its present.
Jazz, Blues, Hip Hop, Rap. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, Obama… represent our shared heritage as Black people in America, one that I am, by nature, privy to…to some extent. Although I maintain that we are one big community, the difference between being light-skinned and dark-skinned is perceivable. How you speak, how you dress, what you do, determines what type of Black person you are. I have been accused of talking white, like that’s a language. I have received dark stares, which I’ve interpreted as attempts to shame or marginalize. But, all in all, when it comes down to it, we are one, we are Black, and that is all that matters in the face of the oppressive threat we face. In France, we are not one. We are the Ivorians and you, the Senegalese. We are the Ghanaese and you, the Nigerians. We are same but, unusually, different. That is the French reality.
The truth of mixed or métisse children in North America is fundamentally different than that of those in France, rendering the reality of the French child living in North America that much more confusing. The most painful part of such reality is that some of us do not have a direct line into the culture. I was raised by a French Brazilian mother and an Irish step-father, none of which are Black – and even less so Black American. As far as I can remember, I have longed to feel completely immersed in my inherited culture. The lack of a Black American role model continues to trouble me. Granted, I have made friends, acquaintances, that have awarded me a peek behind the curtain, but I will never fully grasp what it is I quest. Nevertheless, it is not my story. I, not unlike many métisse children, am multi-faceted, puzzled by my relationship to blackness, whiteness, and this “mix” they produce. Again, nevertheless, there is joy to be found in this truth. Joy that all parents, métisse, white, or black, can assist in finding.
My french, curly-haired, white step-mom, will tell you that her biggest struggle with raising her métisse children has been how to, and what to, do with their hair. She trained on my head before dealing with my siblings’, but the sheer complexity and societal stigma tied to métisse kids’ heads is frankly, overwhelming. She’s cut them, groomed them, braided them, had them made into locks, been pressured to chemically-straighten them…I mean, must I go on? Personally, I don’t believe in cutting young métisse kids’ hair, especially when it comes to very tight very kinky curls, simply because our hair does not grow like the one we see on magazine covers. It’s like a spring, pull on it, it bounces back; it doesn’t grow straight, it grows in coils. I suggest letting your children grow up enough to let you know what they wish before reaching for the scissors.
As much as my scalp has endured years of weekly “torture sessions” – term coined by my grand-parents, traumatized by my exagerated screams – I chuckle softly at the prized milestones of my hair’s journey. The memories of a Brazilian grandfather ruining my hair before sending me off to a white-mother-to-métisse-children-in-afro-training, who then returned me to a mother with expertise to finally solve my bad-hair-month, can only make me laugh! The countless memories of my Ivorian grandmother pulling and pulling and pulling, so much harder than my mother would (according to my unreliable child memory), as I winced in prayer that it was almost over, makes me roll my eyes as I shake my slightly smiling face. And the memories of my mother patiently parting, wetting, brushing, and braiding my tight tight curls, every sunday, make my heart glow. My hair, just like my entire self, thanks to this multitude of cultures and people, was raised by a village, and that, can turn the sorest memory into a gloriously happy one.
Any parent wants their children to be happy and wishes to carry them through any and all traumas they will eventually encounter. Her biggest fear, not understanding what we’ve been and will go through: “ma plus grand inquiétude…ne pas comprendre, ne pas avoir vécu , le racisme qu’ils vont subir” (my biggest concern…not knowing, not living, the racism they will endure). She is somewhat calmed by the fact that her children have other métisse children in their lives. What calms us, métisse children, is being heard. White parents, understand that you will never understand. Understand that it is okay not to. Inquire, engage in conversation, do your best to surround your child with people that can and do comprehend. Your inability to relate to your mixed child’s race does not make you any less capable of helping them through the battles their skin foreshadows.
I am proud to be a French Black New York City-raised woman and on some level, I rejoice at the gift of wonderment. A gift that my multi-national, a-drop-of-this-a-drop-of-that skin has given me. I speculate, wonder, devise theories, question, discuss…what it all means. Luckily, I meet people like myself and, as we all do, I live and tell stories, and learn, that being multifaceted and oddly confused, is an orange.
About the Author
Iman M’Fah-Traoré is a French New Yorker. Originally born in Paris, she moved to New York in her young years and majored in Politics and Governance at Ryerson University, Toronto. She is now attending the New School in NYC for Global Studies. The Ivorian and Brazilian writer works with The Womanity Project, a non-profit that challenges gender equity with innovative workshops. Currently, she is working towards assembling her first poetry book. Her writing specializes in LGBTQ+, grief and trauma, and race and ethnicity poetry and essays.