On Being Black In A Country That Does Not See Colour: What I Was Told When I Went Teaching With My Head (Half) Wrapped
I have recently moved to France France. I say France France because I am from what we call overseas territories, a 2.0 French colony, which is technically France in the Caribbean with all the contradictions and uneasiness that this status can cause in the 21st century … But I digress. I am now in France France, in a peaceful and bourgeois neighbourhood with beautiful houses, gardens, clean pavements etc. Of course, I stand out with my big hair, dark skin and love for Ankara, but that is ok. I knew beforehand that I was moving into a “white” environment and the chances of me being the “black lady”, were pretty high, but I did not mind.
What could happen to me, a black French speaking woman in 2016 in France France, my country… technically?
I work in a secondary school with lovely children and lovely colleagues. I felt welcomed and cared for. Apart from being taken for the other black colleague and a few comments on my hair I had no complaints. One cannot expect everyone to be down with the fro, especially if there are great chances for the said fro to be the only natural African hair that they have seen in real life. So yes, I did not mind. I spent the first semester looking fabulous with braids, two strand twists, chignons and very occasional twist outs (winter is coming…). I was fine, really, until yesterday when I was properly humiliated in the teacher’s room 5 minutes before the bell.
I pointed out that this was head wrap was as secular as it could be but apparently, in some weird syllogism involving fairness and secularity my scarf had to go. 8:00, the bell rings. I am in tears, looking a hotter mess after discarding the scarf. The children are staring. I feel small, humiliated, alien and tired. This totally shat my day!
The previous day had been very long and tiring. I had two end of semester meetings, copies to mark and I got home at about 9 pm. Amidst classes to re arrange (I am a trainee so I am always fixing stuff), and my children to mind, I went to bed without taking care of my hair. In the morning, I looked a hot mess: spiky, dry and tangled, my hair had decided to give me a hard time. Class starting at 8 with about 1 hour commute, a solution had to be found and fast. There was only one solution, wrapping! I took my most discreet dark brown scarf and went for a “Rosie we can do it” tie, no bow, no double layers, no fuss. I felt pretty proud of myself with my 1950’s look and ready to start the day… well technically the night because of that sun never getting up before 9 am lately… but I digress.
7:30 am arrival in school. No comments from the few teacher present while I wrestled with the photocopier. 7:55 my tutor takes a good look at me. She is horrified, telling me that my head wrap along with bandanas, cloth bands and of course Islamic veils, go against the school policy on secularity. I pointed out that this was head wrap was as secular as it could be but apparently, in some weird syllogism involving fairness and secularity my scarf had to go. 8:00, the bell rings. I am in tears, looking a hotter mess after discarding the scarf. The children are staring. I feel small, humiliated, alien and tired. This totally shat my day!
Now I want to understand. It appears that natural African curly hair is not republican. Natural African hair is styled differently from European hair. I cannot wash and go in 10 minutes. I often need help to style, detangle and part my hair, I see this as a special bonding with my friends or my husband, who is, by the way, becoming quite an expert in late night hair twisting. Moreover head wrapping is not only a very convenient styling method, it is also cultural. Throughout history, women of African descent have used head wraps to make fashion or social statements, especially in dehumanising environments. (read up, Patricia hunt explains how. . . Nowadays, headwrapping has become a cornerstone for Afrodescendent fashionistas eager to define beauty according to their own standards. From the traditional Geles to the Mare Tèts, hair wrapping gives an unapologetic swagger to black women – it is orgasmic, you should try).
Here I would like to shout out Emmanuelle Soundjata in the French Caribbean, Fanm Djanm in the US and my favourite Gele guru on youtube Christina’s Closet, for giving me this invaluable beauty tool.
We are therefore teaching children that there is a “proper” way to be French citizen and that being too black (and proud) will cause you to run into problems. We are teaching them that there is one way to be French and that anything else must be put in check
Hence, I do not understand the fuss about my scarf, as I made sure to keep it “Lady Clementine” rather than my usual big bold flower. Asking me to remove my scarf in a public school is as ridiculous as asking a white woman not to use … I cannot even think of an example. The crux of the matter is that this French take on secularity/assimilation is more marginalising than uniting. One must, according to former president Sarkozy, claim Gaul ancestry in order to be deemed a good French citizen. We are therefore teaching children that there is a “proper” way to be French citizen and that being too black (and proud) will cause you to run into problems. We are teaching them that there is one way to be French and that anything else must be put in check. We are teaching them to discriminate under the banner of “Liberté Egalité Fraternité”.
The worse is that I knew better, I knew that a respectable black person could not be too black (and proud), but since I have always lived in a 2.0 colony with a majority of people looking like me, I was never frontally stigmatised by my hairstyles (I am used and immune to those well-meaning people recommending relaxers or weaves to have a more “professional look). I felt brutalised, assaulted diminished. God knows how the Muslim women cope with this bull shit on a daily basis. I had to call upon the ancestors not to cuss and leave. I shall not wear scarves anymore, but ti papa, I am gearing up for my second semester’s hair, which will be grand, black and proud!
This piece was sent to us by a teacher from France wishing to stay anonymous
Photo credit: From Blakes article on headwraps by Emmanuelle Soundjata