There were many different things that led me to fall in love with French culture. I remember as an adolescent reading about the French, watching their films, seeing their fashion, and just falling in love. Then as I got older, I read about the greats like Josephine Baker, Nina Simone, and James Baldwin, who left for France for extended periods of time to escape the racial persecution in the States. My fantasy of what France was grew with each story I read. So it was much to my surprise to see a strong lack of black culture when I arrived in Lyon.
With an estimated 13% of the population of Lyon being mostly foreign born (especially in African countries), I was very surprised to see such a lack of black spaces in Lyon. When I say black spaces, I mean everything from hip-hop/afro-beats clubs all the way down to a lack of natural hair care products in stores. I was also coming from Philadelphia, which has a strong African American history. So maybe I was a bit entitled in thinking that there would be such safe havens for people of color in Lyon like there are in the City of Brotherly Love.
But even just looking around and observing the people of Lyon, I made a couple of other observations. I was born in 1996 and received my first chemical hair perm at the ripe age of one, but by the time I had reached high school in 2011, perms were becoming a thing of the past. More and more women of color were living a life without “lye” and wearing their natural kinks and curls loud and proud. It was shocking to see many French black women still putting these harmful chemicals in their hair, all to appease to a set of beauty standards that do not keep them in mind.
I find it very interesting to observe race relations in France while living here in Lyon. While in America the issue of race is very apparent and in-your-face, I have found almost the opposite to be true for my abroad home. Just from what I have experienced, it does not seem that race is the elephant in the room like it is in America. I have found several people very curious to ask me about my ethnic heritage, as I am ethnically Ghanaian and an American citizen.
I have also heard a lot of questions about whether or not generalizations about blacks in America are true. People want to know if the troubles spelled in Childish Gambino’s “This is America” are really more than just lines in a song. They become very shocked to hear about racial tensions bubbling over in my home country. They are shocked when I discuss things such as police brutality and mass incarceration, almost as if something of that nature could never occur in France. Nonetheless, it has been very interesting to compare the fantasy and reality of what I imagined France would be for me as a black woman.