My Mom was right, a story on microaggressions and addressing my own privilege

Article by Zoé

Drawing by Dionne

On legal prohibitions and the so-called “Reverse racism” 

Sometimes, your thoughts appear to meet at a cosmic intersection, everything coinciding and suddenly unlocking another level of understanding about your reality.

In this three-part story, I share my perception of denied racism in France, the country I grew up in. These three short essays form as a whole a synthesis of my journey to understand my mother’s experience and reactions to racism as a black woman and mother in France.

The start of Summer 2020 was a cosmic intersection for my reality. As populations around the world led global protests against racism and police brutality while social tensions and public anger against Police-state-like situations in France kept on escalating. That summer, I found myself drawn to a literature genre I do not usually adopt as my summer readings. Books like « So you want to talk about race » by Ijeoma Oluo and my perception of the current events confirmed an uncanny feeling I grew to have an increased acuity for: my Mom was right, the world around me, despite how privileged I had seemed to be so far, was viciously racist. And it struck me, being blind to the racism I suffered from did not make it unreal. 

Growing up in France with the myth of colorblindness, « because we are all one, indivisible and equal » in the eyes of the Republic and the Laïcité, makes it easy to deny the existence of institutionalized racism. French secularism, as the central pillar of our civic culture, provides a logic for our republic to conceal its racism under the soft blanket of a republican model of integration. 

The French government officially rejects both censuses and data collection based on ethnic, religious or linguistic nature of groups. As such our national social cohesion solely relies on the idealistic dream that from the moment that we have a French nationality, it grants us all an absolute equality in treatment, legally ensured by our all-mighty constitution. Since then, even laws aiming at allowing the study of diversity, social integration and discrimination have been deemed anti-constitutional. As such, there is no way in France to account for socio-economic inequalities of ethnic and religious minorities, which -of course- makes it easier to deny their existence since they legally cannot be accounted for and studied. 

Don’t get me wrong: I loved this principle that the state should be outlawed from monitoring race and constitutionally obliged to treat us all equally. I loved attending my civic education classes and having a program that preached that we were all included because what mattered was that we were all French before anything else. I loved feeling like it was true thanks to my already existing privileges. I’ve had the luxury to believe in this illusion, all of it, until I had to navigate the « adult world » on my own, face racism with my own eyes and discover how the facts were radically different from our nicely designed middle-school-civic-education program.

While my privileges allowed me to swim in sweet denial of the social reality of our country, I now can’t help to ask what happens if you’re not French? What happens if you’re not perceived as French by the rising extreme right wing and populist political parties, by the people in the street, by a large portion of the voters in local and national elections ? What happens when the social reality doesn’t match those beautiful principles of equality and both the public discourse and authorities turn blind to systemic injustice ? 

The problem is that not every French kid of color has the luxury of feeling included and valued within the French society like I felt growing up. When adults outside of your house are biased towards people that look like you, whether it be in the street, in fancy shops or even teachers at school; when politicians and people in the news are framing people from your ethnic or religious group or even from the neighborhood you come from as dangers, criminals or frauds of the system; how can you feel French before all, equal and included ? 

Unfortunately, when sociologists and researchers are interested in studying this phenomenon, it is virtually impossible for them to do so since such data and measures are deemed inherently illegal in the government’s eyes. Even minorities asking for acknowledgment of systemic discrimination and inequalities through ethnic and/or religious demographic statistics are called separatist and/or communitarist by our own politicians, all of this based on the adoption of the Law on « Informatique et liberté » in January 1978 which prevented public authorities from collecting data based on racial, ethnic or religious criteria.

This lack of acknowledgment does translate into French society and the way many French people think -regardless of their skin color and religion, even though more regularly among people of caucasian appearance-. Since I started growing more and more aware of the insidious racism around me and calling it out, I received backlash on many topics like cultural appropriation or reverse racism and a lot of denying of racial issues in our country. 

In France, like in many Western countries with large non-white populations, many people refer to the existence of a so-called « reverse racism » when minorities start to call out systemic racism in our societies. So much that even some of my own relatives have thrown this term in my face when I started arguing against them on institutional racism in our country. In the context of social justice, the goal is to highlight the institutional character of racism in our societies. Reverse racism in this context does not exist, because caucasian populations do not suffer from systemic inequalities and discrimination in Western societies. Because last time I checked, Caucasians looking people in France do not risk institutionalized racial profiling,  suffer racially motivated violence from the police nor discrimination in employment because of « reverse racism ». 

Sadly, in France the inability to account for discrimination, inequalities and even violence against minorities makes it virtually impossible to prove with numbers how rare what they refer to as « reverse racism » is compared to the urgency to address the too common racism against people of color.

To have family members, who can witness how racism plays out in my everyday life and still believe in reverse racism comes to me as a denial of the experience of people of color when facing racism. It is like turning the cheek to the other side and say « yes you may suffer because of racism but please let’s not focus on your pain because I found a concept that fits me and all my unchecked privileges and allows me to deny the experience of a whole part of the population justifying it with a form of racism that does not impact my everyday life and doesn’t exist on a systemic scale »: News flash this is extremely insulting.

My mom was right: On my own privileges 

Sometimes, your thoughts appear to meet at a cosmic intersection, everything coinciding and suddenly unlocking another level of understanding about your reality.

My mom was right, in the tender years of my childhood I was privileged enough to virtually not see a difference between me and the “white” kids (apart from the hairstyles I couldn’t do or that I was darker than them regardless of the seasons). I unconsciously benefited from the insidious forms of white privileges in people’s discourse. “To be able to be blind to racism” and deny its existence because it does not affect your everyday life are microaggressions to people of color. Growing up with the French “laïc” ideal, I had not realized I was personally taking part in the denials of our pain and preventing a fruitful debate on how to solve the issue of institutionalized racism in our societies with my own mother for example.

My paternal grandfather was white and mayor of his small town. I loved going to his workplace as much as I could, always showered in compliments and candies. Sometimes I would look up at the portrait of the current French president, hung in a big ceremonial room in the town hall, despite knowing that my parents didn’t approve of him, still I felt so at home within the bounds of our republic. 

And while such privileges didn’t lead me to be « colorblind », it did make me blind to a large part of the discrimination I suffered from when I finally old enough to face it myself. I was convinced to be living in a post-racist society, convinced that only a minority of uneducated countryside freaks who had never seen a black person could be racist. I was convinced of all of this because I lived in a country with such beautiful laws and principles on equality and republican inclusion that it seemed unimaginable that the contrary could be real. 

When my Gabonese mother was trying to make me notice micro-aggressions and subtle racist situations from our everyday life, I was denying everything (“it’s not racism mom, it’s -enter whatever excuse I could make up for them-”). Sometimes I’d even make fun of her for being so imaginative and overly sensitive. Worse, I would go crazy with my democratic propaganda when she’d tell me she couldn’t be bothered to go vote because she did not feel included or represented in the elections. While I still condemn not voting because (forgetting the debate on whether it is rational or not) it is both a right and a privilege that isn’t respected by the autocratic leader in my maternal country, now I also understand my mom’s stand, feeling ignored and not included in political debates. 

Today, I’m calling myself out for blindly believing in this integrative republican lie despite my own mother’s truth. When first generation but also second, third or even fourth generation immigrants are massively deemed as frauds of the system, it is logical that they have a reluctance to waste their time and resources on getting informed and involved in a system that pisses on them while still exploiting with joy their labor for the benefits of the national economy. 

My mom was right: On Microaggressions

Sometimes, your thoughts appear to meet at a cosmic intersection, everything coinciding and suddenly unlocking another level of understanding about your reality.

In this three-part story, I share my perception of denied racism in France, the country I grew up in. These three short essays form as a whole a synthesis of my journey to understand my mother’s experience and reactions to racism as a black woman and mother in France.

After reading books and many essays on the issue of race like « So you want to talk about race », I felt discouraged as the wanna-be essayist I am. I didn’t want to become yet another mixed essayist since we all apparently had the same stories on the way our bodies had been shamed, fetishized and sexualized whether it is our shapes or hair, the same stories on exceptionalism and belittling compliments we receive, either making us exceptions of the group we identify as (« you’re pretty for a black girl ») or even categorizing our successes solely as a result of affirmative action (when I was applying to one of the top universities in Political Science in France, a friend of mine who was also a person of color told me that I was sure to get in because I was a great and lucky token black person). 

Such discourses are so normalized and internalized that as I entered adulthood, I found myself sharing with my Caucasian father my deep fears of making it in life only because I was very often the only black or person of color in the circles and institutions I evolved within. Luckily, after a year of attending university abroad, I recovered confidence in my intelligence and abilities; but still had this fear when writing about my experience to not want to be seen as yet another angry black woman. But now the cosmic intersection struck me like a truck in my face: we all have the same story, not because we are whiny individuals and all the same but because everywhere people of color are suffering from the same discrimination and/or micro-aggressions.

What I had interpreted as my non-originality which would make me unable to succeed as a writer is just yet another proof of the systemic nature of racism and the discriminating ways of thinking and standards of our societies which we all suffer from.

Somehow, I found myself wishing at times that I had been an outcast growing up, but sadly I was socialized to match and please people’s expectations. When puberty and reality hit, I found a way to fold away myself and straighten the black out of me to fit the mold: whether it be in school, in my mostly white friend circles, in my behavior or appearance.

Growing up in France, hair on TV ads and the hair products on supermarket shelves were different than mine, the same way my friends at school could all have those flowy ponytails which I felt very sad my hair type didn’t allow I couldn’t have (until I begged my mom to relax my hair and she agreed when I was 7 because being a kid of a divorced couple she couldn’t take care of my hair for the whole month of summer at my father’s). But in any case, my relationship to my hair was the first instance where I felt part of a “minority”. 

From the start of my teenage years, I began internalizing all the ways societies and people told me that my “blackness” was ugly. How my hair was too big or deemed disgusting, how my fellow classmates saw me as a milking cow for starting puberty earlier than most girls. It came to a point where I genuinely believed that I could never be seen as beautiful if I let my natural bouncy curls and curvy shapes out. I was in denial of how much daily microaggressions had destroyed my self-esteem and flawed my standards of beauty. 

Micro-aggressions are actions or remarks that are received as subtle or non-intentional forms of discrimination against minorities and/or marginalized group. An example of micro-aggression is someone telling you that you’ve never been arrested by the police because “you’re not that black for a black person” or that your hair is “impractical” and annoying because African hair requires more time and care to be maintained.

Of course, everybody gets criticized, shamed or made fun of for their difference in middle school: it’s unfortunately part of a whole experience, if I may. But when innocent teenage bullying cross-cuts a subject which society marginalizes you for (as futile as hair and physical appearance can) it’s truly ostracizing. All of this tends to weigh on one’s mind especially if all the while, one’s ethnic features are deemed unattractive by the male gaze, then this innocent teenage bullying suddenly makes you internalize racism and hatred towards your own self; with the courtesy of mainstream western beauty standards. (And yes, still today some men that I’ve frequented have dared to tell me they “didn’t mind my hair curly but they preferred my hair straight because they think I’m much prettier with” DID I ASK YOU FOR YOUR OPINION ON MY HAIR?) 

The problem with such microaggressions isn’t necessarily the intent or the way the person who made it but rather the way it is received and hurts the receiver. Oftentimes, when we do dare to stand up for ourselves against a micro-aggression, we are being told the same things. These are the same things I used to tell my own mother when she was reacting to or pointing out racism in our everyday life. I would tell her that she was too sensitive or easily offended. Only now, can I understand how disrespectful and insensitive my privileges made me towards my mom. I was so blinded by legal formalities and public discourse on the way society was supposed to be based on our laws that I was completely disregarding my own mother’s experience and struggle and some of you still do. That’s what unchecked privileges do. 

But the violence of micro-aggressions generally isn’t rooted in the action or statement or its intent per say. Rather, most of the time, it’s in the way they are enshrined in wider systemic discrimination as repetitive and accumulated attacks on an individual across different moments and perpetrators. It turns an action which might appear inoffensive to the perpetrator (like touching someone’s hair) but will be taken as something extremely disrespectful to the receiver. 

I hope now it is pretty straightforward, why when my relatives tell me that my hair is impractical, I go bonkers. I’m simply sick of society, of my relatives, of men, of my teenage years, everything that made me internalize white beauty standards and told me that my natural appearance was not enough, not practical or not fit for them. And don’t even get me started on the ones that feel entitled enough to touch a part of my body without asking for my consent (here, only, my hair but still): Don’t touch my hair nor feel entitled to give me a judgement on my appearance.

Lastly, to put it all in perspective, would you go around touching people’s ass and telling them: “well I don’t really like your butt, I’d rather you wear shapewear to change it” ?


Oluo, I. (2018). So you want to talk about race. New York, NY : Seal Press

About the writer:

Zoé Baize is a French-Gabonese woman studying political science and law in the Netherlands. Her hobbies include writing, filming and editing in order to capture the realities and people that surround her.