“Just Black”

As a Black woman, there are many things that the world tells me that I cannot do. The pressures of stereotypes, racism, and misogynoir place an invisible weight upon Black women that we must lift in order to live fulfilling lives. Many African Americans have been manipulated into fearing international travel. There is a somewhat ingrained mentality that if you think racism in America is bad, just imagine how “they” will treat you “over there”. I am fully aware that anti black racism has no geographical bounds however, I refuse to uphold this toxic narrative. International travel can be an incredible opportunity for self discovery and interacting with different perspectives. This narrative fearmongers African Americans into closing themselves off from travel instead of holding different cultures accountable for contributing to antiblack racism.

This sculpture “Why born Enslaved!” by Jean Baptiste Carpeaux was made in support of the abolitionist movement but also to show the fetishization and commodification of Black women’s bodies by Europeans.

My experience in Toulouse has really changed my perception of blackness overall. My host mother, Carole, is of Angolan descent and she has lived in many different places across Europe including Russia, Portugal, Paris, France and now here in Toulouse. One of the first questions she asked me was what my *real* ethnicity and nationality is. This question is not unfamiliar in Toulouse, as there is a very large and diverse population of African immigrants and other members of the diaspora. However, for African Americans this question cuts like a knife. This was my first time being asked this question and when I responded saying that I didn’t know she looked very confused. Here in France, I have found that many African immigrants and Afro-French people face strong social pressure. Anti immigration and xenophobic rhetoric in French politics over the years has pressured many to assimilate the best they can into white French culture however, they still have a strong pride in their home countries’ culture and continue to support their communities. Due to my own personal experiences and America’s history, it is difficult to come to terms with an American identity, especially while in France. In the US it’s normal to identify as “just black” however, it feels like it’s not enough here. Black culture in the US is so diverse and vast but there is still a sense of cultural unity despite this. From my conversations here, blackness is interpreted more with a person’s distinct culture or nationality. 

Photo of me visiting the Eiffel Tower

Being a black woman abroad has sparked a more philosophical debate as to what blackness means to me as well as opened my eyes to the different ways African Americans are perceived. Overall, I am grateful for my experiences here and I am proud of the growth that this journey has brought me.

Between a rock and a hard place

One of the biggest cultural differences that I have experienced here is how people my age interact with each other. Back at Wofford, I made most of my friends through random interactions. It’s normal to just spontaneously compliment someone or bring up a mutual interest just to start a conversation that could eventually blossom into friendship.

Making friends with French students has been a comical struggle. The other French students are extremely reserved and typically only talk to each other. Even during side conversations and slight jokes in class, each student seems to be partnered up with just one or 2 other students that they talk to and no one else.

In addition to this the language barriers have made it even harder to talk to French  students. The other American students and I often joke about how speaking French with other young French people is almost an entirely different language. They speak super quickly and low and their slang and expressions can completely go over our heads. However, that is not to say that they have not  been helpful. Many of the French students speak English well and will explain things we may have missed after class. 

Despite some language barriers I have still been able to make great connections here in France. My host mom Carole has been a wonderful tutor and I am able to have wonderful conversations with her that make me feel better adjusted here. Recently, I, along with other CIEE students, volunteered to visit a local middle school to speak with students learning English. It was an amazing experience and it definitely helped ease my discomfort in France. It was nice to be around the students because they were just as nervous as I was and wanted to learn from me as much as I wanted to learn from them. 

Toulouse is listed as one of the top locations for study abroad students. There are many international students in my classes and it has been nice to interact with other people that are different from me that still have similar experiences. There are even programs that host parties and other activities to connect international students. 

Although there have definitely been uncomfortable situations, I have really been enjoying my semester abroad. Despite feeling isolated at times and insecure about my language ability, surrounding myself with people that have been very accepting of me has made my experience in France great.

Better late than never.

August 31st was the worst day of my life. It was filled with hard goodbyes, delays, crying babies, missed flights, lost luggage and horrible weather. I had never traveled alone before nor left the United States and the usual casual travel stress felt nightmarish to me. This new chapter of solo exploration and self discovery was getting started on a pretty bad note.

The following month of September was filled with amazing memories and new challenges. I have been studying French language and culture for 8 years and have always wanted to be fluent in the language. My study abroad program, CIEE Toulouse, insists upon only using homestays as housing meaning each student is assigned to live with a French family. I have already seen a huge improvement in my language skills because of this and it has helped me become more comfortable interacting with other French people.

Despite the challenges and stress, study abroad has been an amazing opportunity and I can’t wait to document more of my memories and experiences on this blog!