This two-part story captures what it is like to be a woman of color in one of the most diverse cities in Europe. Indeed, Marseille represents many lineages, but operates within a white supremacist structure that is sometimes hard to navigate for its residents of color, and the poor.
“We can go here.” Samia and I are standing in front of a huge door that opens up into a small courtyard with steps leading up to a bench. Not sure if we are allowed, I hesitate. I am not from this country and do not have the right complexion to argue with cops. She says it is a government space so it should be fine.
“We can always leave if anything happens.” I enter with her, walking in with the confidence built on her words. We spend the next two hours delving into her short stint in England, her upbringing and how she made Marseilles her home.
While at a university in Leon, Samia was accepted into an apprenticeship for a semester in Manchester. For the program, she was placed to live with a white English family. In hindsight, she begins to understand subtleties of their behavior, their private jokes and their descriptions of people in their neighborhood. Based on assumptions of her heritage, members of the family would often make jokes at her expense. Over dinner one evening, pointing at her nose, the father said,
“Oh [you’re] Indian! Have you been to the P*ki around the corner?” The racial slur is often used against Pakistanis in the U.K. When the racists cannot be bothered to be specific, it is hurled at South Asians in general. The family would laugh and she would accept the laughter without fully understanding what was going on with her level of English being limited at the time.
The subtities of the racism meant that she did not feel like she could report it to the programme heads. “It was not brutal. It was somatized,” said Samia. I did not ask about the symptoms she had because of her experience, but it was clear that it overwhelmingly created anxiety. She said she did not fully ‘digest’ and understand how the situation affected her confidence until much later. As a result, Samia’s experience embittered her impression British culture and mirrored the racialised experience she had as a French person of Algerian descent.
Samia’s parents pushed her to do well in school. During her formative years, she was sent to a music conservatory where she was classically trained as a flutist from the age of 7 to 19. “It was great!” She beams. Unfortunately, her mastery of the instrument in no way shielded her against the daily aggressions the environment inflicted, the remnants of which still cause distress until this day.
“It was horrible, really…”
As we talk about school and experiences of being talked down to in class, shouted at, singled out and belittled, she relates this to her own experience.She was the only non-white person in the entire school and the only one in her neighborhood.
Samia dims as I can see her reliving the memories in her head as she speaks. She mentions teachers, meant to nurture and inspire her, antagonising and marginalizing her in class. She said that they would talk down to her and undermine her very clear talent in front of her all white class. She describes it as ‘a humiliating experience . . . [but] we have been living this [life] for such a long time.”
Samia’s experience was not unique. The white, western educational system can never fully be a nurturing space for a non-white child. The dynamic often arises between a white teacher or student and a non-white student in predominantly white spaces. Even more traumatic, it is often a savagely colonial one. Subsequently, the talent, aspirations and academic progress of the child is placed in a subordinate position where bullying by teachers and students becomes commonplace.
Her tears remind me that crying is for the strong. I can see that she continues to rise through the sustained efforts of those, savage in attitude and drunk on the fading memory of their colonial inheritance.
As a child, lonely and unable to fully digest the ills of her surroundings, Samia found refuge in the library. Reading all manner of books and listening to CDs, based solely on the album covers, she created a parallel reality through words and a multitude of sounds. When we first met, she talked to me about Garage and Grime. Still, I am shocked at the specificity of her knowledge. Today she speaks of Mötley Crüe and Mozart.
In an emotional state, she tells me of finding home in the writings of Franz Fanon at 16-years-old. How she learnt about her own Algerian history reading about Fanon’s involvement in Algeria’s struggle for independence from France is something that she never was taught at school.
Feeling the weight of her words, I imagine encountering Fanon at such a young age must have made for intense reading. “Growing up in that environment was heavy. Growing up in an environment where you don’t see anyone like you represented, no doctors who look like you… nothing.” Her voice strengthens as she tells me of how she found herself and answers to many questions reading his words on decolonization, philosophy, Pan Africanism and more.
“He was really engaged in the liberation struggle of Algeria,” she informs me. “He worked there for 20 years, he was a psychiatrist, he was giving lectures there. He taught me many things about my own history.”
With Fanon, Thoman Sankara and other revolutionaries as a base, she found more confidence within herself. Though she did engage in resistance movements during her adolescent years and early 20’s, she has now come to find more healing and fulfillment through creatively engaging with the Black and Arab community through photography, creative direction and journalism.
Samia is grounded in large part because she was fortunate to have found strong, revolutionary role models like Fanon that reflected resilience in the face of injustice. While we walk around Marseille, I wonder how many of the young people I see around me have been able to find that.
To a future further afield
At length, we talk about she and and her partner’s issues with finding housing as a non-white couple. Included in her experiences are landlords barely covering their disdain in their presence, and how the sweetness in her voice causes many to expect another face when they meet her. I asked her what she and her partner did when met with these situations.
‘‘We were ourselves, polite . . . Maybe too polite!” Visibly upset by the memory, she pauses before continuing, “even with this situation, I was still speaking like a sweet person, but with hindsight . . .”
Frustrated, she speaks in French before going back to English. “That is how it went. You do not want to point out the obvious and say ‘oh, [you’re a] horrible man.’ You also do not want to put yourself in that situation of always confronting people.”
As we continue, we talk about how repressed emotions can manifest in physical symptoms. We talk about how white insecurities and their replaying of colonial memory through their actions, can inflict real damage. She says as non-white people growing up in France, “We are living with micro aggressions constantly. We have been living with this for such a long time.”
There is a kindness in her eyes and a powerful determination in her presence. I praise her for not exploding in anger and burning everything down. Not because I am against this kind of dissent—quite the opposite—but because of the physical and mental toll it can have on a person.
“I used to,” she laughs. “I was a punk, I was really engaged and involved in protests and petitions, but…” she pauses to exhale, “now I am no longer giving them my energy. It is exhausting.”
We talk about the ruins of European Colonial empires, what it means to have looted artifacts placed in museums, and the clear compulsion for many to antagonize. I ask her where she thinks this bitter expression towards “the other France” comes from.
“They attack us because they are jealous. They attack us because we are powerful, why else have they hoarded our stuff in their museums?” Samia questions with force and disdain. “I think their behavior is a kind of inheritance from slavery, from colonization. It is like a defense strategy against owning the horrors of the past.”
Like many French natives with heritage from other lands, she sees herself abroad, where she envisions more of a concrete chance of her excellence and personhood, being recognized. Her experience has shown her that France has a very clear ceiling for people of Black, Arab and Asian descent.
“I have a degree in Art History, a Masters in Cultural Anthropology and a qualification in journalism. I know that if I stay here, I will never be in a position that recognizes this.”
Samia plans on leaving France. She wants to find a place where she can properly use her creative skills and have more possibilities, to be less helmed in by the discriminations of French culture. Wanting to leave home because one feels limited and made uncomfortable by their own culture, is a dilemma many young people are facing in Marsielle.This brain drain taking place sees many non-white French people go to the lands of their parents or places like Canada, in the hopes of finding ground that can contain their identities and nourish their ambition.
In the pursuit of what she deserves, Samia intends to use this frayed identity of “Frenchness” abroad to create her own success. Though the thought of this makes me uncomfortable for many reasons, I think she is courageous to harness and expand it, to create the life she imagines for herself. So as we say farewell, I wish Samia the best of luck with her plans, as sometimes one needs to experience the devil unknown in order to breathe a little easier for a while.
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