Be­tween places and spa­ces

Ar­tic­u­lat­ing my iden­tity as a mixed-race wo­man

The McGill Daily - - Commentary - Francesca Humi Com­men­tary Writer

“Who are you?” I am a wo­man of colour. No, I’m a mixed-race wo­man of colour. My iden­tity is con­stantly gen­dered and racial­ized. While I have come to be very com­fort­able with my gen­der iden­tity as a cis wo­man, my racial iden­tity is dif­fer­ent.

My iden­tity as a mixed-race per­son is con­stantly chang­ing, felt with dif­fer­ent strength ac­cord­ing to time and place.

Grow­ing up in Paris, I knew I was not white and not French. Both of these facts were made very clear to me in so­cial in­ter­ac­tions, start­ing at school, where my non-french, non-white sound­ing name was fre­quently mis­pro­nounced in French mouths and mis­spelt in French writ­ing. It was picked apart and made fun of, from mater­nelle (kinder­garten) to ly­cée (high school). It was other and alien, just as I was.

I knew I was not white be­cause kids shouted “ching chong” at me in the play­ground, be­cause I cried when a boy made fun of my eyes, be­cause I was ashamed of my dark hair, my “al­mond” eyes, and my very non-white mother, whose French I al­ways made fun of.

This was also made clear when, at age 17, I ap­plied for French cit­i­zen­ship. Just be­fore I was handed the of­fi­cial pa­pers, the wo­man who had been han­dling my case said to my fa­ther and me, “Have you con­sid­ered chang­ing your name? This would be part of your in­te­gra­tion and as­sim­i­la­tion into France.” (Sounds colo­nial as fuck, right?) “This is stan­dard pro­ce­dure for any­one with a name that doesn’t sound French. A lot of new cit­i­zens find it very help­ful for em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties, es­pe­cially if their name sounds – you know – Arab.”

My fa­ther and I were both silent. I think it took us a while to process what she had just said. I was born in Paris and had lived there all my life. All of my ed­u­ca­tion had been in the French sys­tem. French cul­ture was what was most fa­mil­iar to me, in terms of habits and prac­tices. Did my name re­ally mean more than all of these ex­pe­ri­ences?

Although I was raised in France, I wasn’t raised French. My fa­ther is Bri­tish and was ed­u­cated in Lon­don, but his mother was Ital­ian and his fa­ther was Aus­troHun­gar­ian. My mother is also Bri­tish, but only be­cause she gave up her Philip­pine pass­port when she was nat­u­ral­ized as a Bri­tish ci­ti­zen, af­ter hav­ing lived in Lon­don with my dad for sev­eral years. My up­bring­ing was a mix of Bri­tish pop cul­ture, Ital­ian and Filipino food, trips to the Philip­pines, and close re­la­tion­ships with my mom’s fam­ily – all in Paris, phys­i­cally iso­lated from the places where all of these things came from.

When I ar­rived at Mcgill, peo­ple asked me all the time, “Where are you from?” Sigh. “I’m from Paris.” I’d say. “Re­ally? You don’t sound French?!” Sigh. Oh, my fam­ily is ac­tu­ally Bri­tish. “Uh? How does that work?” Sigh. “Well, if you you want the full fuck­ing low- down…” And, a few min­utes later: “Yeah, I fig­ured you were a hal­fie.” This was the first time peo­ple had not la­belled me as Asian, or Chi­nese, or an­other East Asian na­tion­al­ity. The con­cept of full and mixed race was new to me, af­ter years of be­ing asked if I was adopted when I was out alone with my dad, and years of peo­ple telling me I look just like my mom, which is highly de­bat­able.

I had to think about what it meant to be mixed and, most im­por­tantly, be­ing per­ceived as mixed-race Asian (even though a com­pletely wrong guess at my eth­nic­ity would crop up from time to time). In ad­di­tion to this, I was be­ing in­tro­duced to anti-racist lan­guage and so-called rad spa­ces. These tools fi­nally gave me the chance to ex­press my iden­tity in ways I couldn’t even fathom back home in Paris. This is how I came to iden­tify as a mixed-race wo­man of colour, con­stantly racial­ized and con­stantly re­minded of the colo­nial pow­ers toy­ing with my iden­tity.

Af­ter my first year at Mcgill, I flew home to Paris for the sum­mer. Sud­denly, I felt erased and si­lenced in ways I had not felt be­fore. I didn’t have the lan­guage I use in English to say things like gen­dered, wo­man of colour, racial­ized, or mixed-race.

The main ob­sta­cle to the ex­pres­sion of my iden­tity in French is the way in which race is con­cep­tu­al­ized in France. Race is seen as non-ex­is­tent – not only in­ex­is­tent as a bi­o­log­i­cal trait, but also in the sense that even the so­cial con­struc­tion of race is not viewed as real, be­cause ad­mit­ting to any kind of ex­is­tence of race would some­how be racist, ac­cord­ing to French so­ci­ety. The word “race” was re­cently taken out of the French con­sti­tu­tion, sup­pos­edly to fight racism. Fur­ther­more, in­sti­tu­tions like the Académie Française man­date what new words are per­mit­ted (or not per­mit­ted) to en­ter the French lan­guage, which cre­ates a clas­sist bar­rier for marginal­ized peo­ple who want to con­tribute to the shap­ing of na­tional dis­course on race and iden­tity. These are just some ex- am­ples of how French cit­i­zens are pre­vented from cred­i­bly voic­ing their racial­ized iden­ti­ties and their ex­pe­ri­ences with racism.

France’s motto is, af­ter all, “lib­erté, égal­ité, fra­ter­nité.” We, as French cit­i­zens, are equal un­der the eyes of French law, but this equal­ity is premised on same­ness, which is re­quired in or­der to re­ally be­come a reg­u­lar French ci­ti­zen. One must put aside their cul­tural, re­li­gious, eth­nic, or racial iden­ti­ties for the sake of be­ing a French ci­ti­zen – un­less they are white and Catholic, char­ac­ter­is­tics which are seen as the ‘nor­mal’ or de­fault de­scrip­tion of a French ci­ti­zen. No moniker of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism here.

How then, as a per­son whose iden­tity has come to mean so much, can I pos­si­bly re­turn to the place I (re­luc­tantly) call home? It’s where my cat is, where the apart­ment in which I grew up is, and my fam­ily lives there. When I’m asked where I’m from, Paris is my an­swer. I’m from a place that re­jects my iden­tity and sti­fles my ar­tic­u­la­tion of it. I know that there are rad anti-racist com­mu­ni­ties in Paris, but they are mostly oc­cu­pied by peo­ple whose ex­pe­ri­ences with racism and the French state have been so much more vi­o­lent or crim­i­nal­ized than mine. I had the priv­i­lege of grow­ing up in a very up­per-class area of Paris in a mid­dle-class lib­eral fam­ily. I’m not in­ter­ested in ap­pro­pri­at­ing a space that is not mine.

But even when I’m with my fam­ily, these con­ver­sa­tions are very dif­fi­cult to have. My mom doesn’t like hear­ing me say that I feel op­pressed or that I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced racism. She says I shouldn’t think about it, and should brush it aside and think about all the great op­por­tu­ni­ties pro­vided to me just from be­ing raised in France. Aside from the pa­ter­nal­is­tic un­der­tones of my mum’s as­sump­tions about the French state, even if I am thank­ful for free ed­u­ca­tion and ac­ces­si­ble health­care, that shouldn’t stop me from be­ing ac­tively crit­i­cal of the sys­tems and in­sti­tu­tions I was born into.

Where do I fit in as a mixe­drace wo­man? I’m not white, not truly Asian/fil­ip­ina. Where do I fit in terms of cul­ture? I can never say I iden­tify with French cul­ture, be­cause French cul­ture has never wanted to iden­tify with me. What do my cit­i­zen­ships even mean? I hold both French and Bri­tish pass­ports, but I’ve never lived in the UK, and the French state seems de­ter­mined to un­der­mine how I ex­press my iden­tity.

Fi­nally, in terms of lan­guage, although I’m bilin­gual, I can’t ex­press my­self like this in French. I just wouldn’t know how, which is why I’m writ­ing this for The Daily and not Le Délit. Does this mean that when­ever I’m in a fran­co­phone en­vi­ron­ment, I just have to put my iden­tity aside? Not re­ally in­ter­ested in that ei­ther.

Here lies the crux of my dilemma. My ex­is­tence and iden­ti­ties are caught in be­tween spa­ces and places, as dra­matic as that sounds. Rec­on­cil­ing this is go­ing to be dif­fi­cult, and maybe im­pos­si­ble, but why the fuck is it up to me to do all this work to make my­self fit into these spa­ces and places that have re­jected me? Through the ab­sence of nu­anced lan­guage to re­fer to peo­ple whose iden­ti­ties are equally nu­anced, the French state sys­tem­at­i­cally ex­cludes any­one who doesn’t fit the mold of the ideal French ci­ti­zen.

Francesca Humi is a U3 In­ter­na­tional Devel­op­ment Stud­ies stu­dent. To con­tact her, email

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