Had I not grown up in New York City, I would not be Black. Had I not grown up in New York City, my conceptualization of race would not have been given the addition of developing in a binary fashion as it has.
I grew up in a country that tells me what I am, a country in which race is a constant conversation, one where, what you are, matters more than in most.
I grew up in a country that says “you are Black” and “that means something.” It means you must fear the police, it means you must work twice as hard to get half as much, it means you are less than the next, it means you carry history on your skin. But what if that history isn’t mine?
My blackness comes from my biological father, his parents, our ancestors; my blackness comes from Ivory Coast, brought to France for better opportunities, whisked with Brazilian and French, and shipped off to America. In my birth country, France, my blackness is not noticed without its lightness. Mixed I was born, black I became, from one side of the Atlantic to the next.
Racism, colorism, biased-infused behavior happens everywhere… the ways in which they figure and their framings differ, from one place to the next, one culture, one space, confusion, and community. While police brutality, white fear, racial slurs, and other expressions of racism persist in France and are daily occurrences, their representation and framing within the media and the collective mindset differ from that of America. When a Black man is murdered by a white police officer, we see it, we hear it, we discuss it, we are enraged, and we make it known. Such events operate more silently in France. Racial implications are hushed.
Taking a stroll, my hand wrapped around my biological father’s arm, his on my baby sister’s stroller, my second mother walking by his side; across the sandy way of Paris’s Jardin du Luxembourg, a fellow black man, pushing a stroller, métisse baby in, white woman by his side…. The two men, looking at each other, offer one another a nod, a smile, an acknowledgment. This is the black nod. I have seen it here, I have seen it there, but its significance is greater in America. Race permeates every aspect of society in the United States due to its entire history resting on racial conflict: from genocide to slavery, from segregation to systemic racism, race permeates every aspect of life. Children, products of their environment, gobble up stereotypes and expectations by the throatful.
I like sauce d’arachide, attiéké, and alloco – Ivorian cuisine – and I like it because I have been eating it ever since I could. Passed down from one generation to the next, recipes, ingredients, and special care, never ripped away, never forced into oblivion. The same does not apply in America. I am aware of my Ivorian culture because I am aware that many, here, are not privy to their blackness’s origin. Culture, community, taste, and theory developed out of necessity. They developed out of resilience. I question the relationship between my ties to Ivory Coast and racial privilege. Discussing this with African-American friends pushes me to acknowledge it as such: benefit, freedom, entitlement in knowledge.
America teaches privilege as whiteness, but there is no life without a form of concession. Wealth, support systems, networks, are all key facets of one’s positionality. A diversity and privilege corporate-job-mandated workshop pried my eyes wide open to the fact that I am privileged. I may not be white, I may not be a man, I may not be straight, but I, just like you, am privileged. There is power in shifting the framework of titles, in focusing on what fuels one’s privilege rather than reduces it.
I met a woman at a Well-Read Black Girl conference a few years back, we discussed Black history, she told me about the latch-key kids, I told her I didn’t know very much and felt lost in the culture my skin presupposes. She replied “it is not your story,” and invited me to join a book club. The conference had made me shaky, I didn’t know any of the Black women authors present. I sat in a room with hundreds of women that seemed just like me, looked just like me, but knew and connected to the texts, the history, the culture, in a way that was completely unattainable to me. The conversation, held outside on a bench, with the woman I had just met, left me feeling liberated in her seeing me, yet confused as to where I stood.
The truth is I do not feel Black, nor do I feel Métisse, rather I know that I am both, in different places. Speaking to race in the country that raised me is a challenge in that I struggle to find my voice while ensuring not to step on anyone’s toes. We, Black people, are expected to perform our blackness, we are expected to educate on our blackness, we are expected to have the ability to speak on behalf of an entire race. None of us can. No human can speak beyond their own experience. When it comes to me discussing historical events, what it means to be Black, and how a Black person navigates the world in New York City, I feel like an imposter. My words fall to the floor, jumbled, scattered, like word magnets on a fridge. The notions evaporate, confusion sets in, I feel like an imposter.
There is glory in community, glory in being unconditionally accepted into one, glory in multiplicity. Striving for long to connect more deeply to American Black culture, it was not until I moved to Canada for my studies, where I met a Jamaican young woman, that I came to comprehend how to connect to a culture that is not inherently yours while holding onto the one that you were born into. For her, knowing her blackness came from being in a new culture. While she grew up knowing that “people do not like black people,” moving to Canada exposed her to the idea of blackness as exotic. Her blackness became homogenized, she was no longer Jamaican, she was now, simply, Black.
Finally, I felt understood, seen, replicated. Moving to America had stripped me of my individual blackness, replaced it with a common manufactured label, and left me to ponder which was which and what terms and communities I truly belonged to. Ultimately, it does not matter. I may find and develop my own terms, be part of various communities at varying levels, and learn to accept the inability to “fit in,” which, frankly, is overrated.
It is not my story, but I have my own.
(Photos: David Rhodes / Instagram)
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.