Born and raised in France with a French mother and Malian father in a household that was more culturally French than anything else, blogger Fan Sissoko attempts to answer the one question that has been plaguing her her entire life: “Am I African?”
On the subject of cultural identity, I remember my childhood as being the most fruitful time for internal questioning. I looked at my mum, and I looked at my dad, and I wondered why they both looked so different to me. I guess I wasn’t the only one wondering. When I was about 6, a random woman in the streets walked towards my mum and asked about me and my brother, who were holding her hands: “Did you adopt them? They are so cute!”
Despite that, I don’t think I ever wondered if I was adopted. I accepted the fact that light beige + dark brown = a slightly darker shade of beige, or a slightly lighter shade of brown, depending on the season. My internal questioning was more about culture than ethnicity. I looked at other children at school and felt a bit jealous of how they managed to be so assertive about their own cultural identity. I grew up in a very diverse area of Paris, and every child I knew seemed to have a ‘bled’ to go to over the Summer holidays, be it Burgundy or Algeria, Portugal or Senegal. I had Montreuil, and the closest I’ve ever been to Mali were the Malian foyers (workers’ accommodation) where my dad first lived when he immigrated to France, and where he sometimes used to go to feed himself maafe when he had enough of my mum’s boeuf bourguignon.
By the time I was a teenager, I had learned to deal with annoying questions with either humour or icy cold silences and was no longer perplexed when people addressed me in Creole in the streets. I suppose I was dealing with a much grander type of identity conflict, wondering what I could do with the rest of my life, and discovering what it meant to be a woman, and all that jazz.
When I moved to Ireland, in my early twenties, the question disappeared altogether. I was just Fan. People knew I was vaguely French, but that was the extent of their curiosity. Or perhaps they were just to polite to ask (set aside the farmer who asked me if I knew what a tractor was, and if I had any in my country – he quickly backed away when I told him with a contemptuous stare that my country was France). Either way, the whole “being 20 in Dublin and making up my own identity as I go along” experience was very liberating.
Then I moved to London. I have lived in London for nearly four years, and have come up with two definitions to sum this city. The first one is a big hungry monster that swallows people forever. And the second is an identitary minefield. If you are not sure what I mean by identitary minefield, take a colonial past, mix it with a class structure that hasn’t quite been questioned yet, add to this a status of immigration metropolis, and finally layer with a sheet of truly exciting multiculturalism and you get what I call an ‘identitary minefield’ where every assumption you make about where someone else comes from and what they stand for is bound to be wrongly assumed, in the best case, or outrageously offensive in the worst case. Not only I moved to London, but I chose Brixton, out of all places. So add to the mix described above a backdrop of gentrification (which, of course, as a young creative professional, who has recently moved into the area, is not an issue I can ignore), and you rightly wonder how I can be at peace with who I am, where I come from, and most importantly what I represent.
For a long time, I ignored the question. Of course, I sometimes had bouts of confusion that turned into guilt, or the opposite. But a recent event made it clear to me that I need to be stronger and more assertive with my self-defined identity, no matter how complex it is.
So the event. Some time ago, in the office, someone made a comment about the fact that we were becoming more and more diverse as an organisation (it was not meant as a joke, but it could have been – I have never worked in a more homogenous organisation). This person remarked: “We almost have every continent represented! Well, apart from Africa and South America.” I interjected: “Hey, I’m African! My dad is from Mali!” To which she replied: “Well, that doesn’t really count.”
I was hurt. Why would it not count? I was born and grew up in France, and culturally, I define myself as European, yes. But my father is from Mali, and although he didn’t raise us ‘à la malienne’, 50% of me is and will always be Malian. Sometimes, claiming I am Malian feels like an imposture, because I did not grow up there. But dismissing my Malian self is much worst. It would be outrageous if I did it to myself, so having it done to me by someone who knows close to nothing about me feels like murder.
I drew the series of flags above when I was 24 and still living in Ireland, to remind myself and others that the “Where are you from?” question is never innocent, and the answer is always more complex than one expects. I am, and will always be confused about my cultural identity, and that is fine. I see it as a comforting symptom of the fact that I am an evolving being, and that I am lucky enough to be able to define my own identity, not only based on where I was born and where my parents are from, but also on the places I lived in and learned to love, and on the people that inspire me.
What I will not allow is someone else to be confused about my identity and to make assumptions about who I am, and where I should fit in their view of the world.