I closed Americanah three years ago. It was my first time reading a novel in which I could see myself through the main character. Just like the protagonist Ifemelu, I had struggled with my kinky, untamable, and frankly, impossible hair. Just like Ifemelu, I had been subjected to microaggressions from my peers. And just like Ifemelu, though I didn’t know it back then, I would also set foot in the United States three years later.
In Americanah, Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman, moves to the United States to go to college. Ifemelu and I come from different backgrounds. She grew up in Nigeria, in a predominantly black neighborhood. I grew up in France in predominantly white neighborhoods and attended predominantly white schools. But just like her, I was struck by the importance of identity politics in the United States.
My French upbringing had been marked by an endless uncomfortable questioning of my identity. Was I French or Beninese? To my French peers, I sure looked Beninese, and to my Beninese family members, I sure behaved like a French woman. By both accounts, I was neither French enough nor Beninese enough. I did not know how to reconcile my French upbringing, which instills that France was the country of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, with my ancestors’ history of subjugation and colonization. I did not know how to voice my experience as a Black woman in France; French does not have a word for race. The brief solution I had come up with was that I was Afro-pean, which placed me at the crossroads of my parents’ culture and of the culture of the country I was born in.
After coming to the United States, when people asked what my nationality was, I was left stuttering incoherent made-up words such as Franco-Beninese or Benino-French. This unsettling feeling followed me during the activities fair. I was asked whether I was a Christian student, an Asian student, a South-Asian student, an African student, a European student, a Black student, or a Muslim student. My very first thought, imbued with French universalism, was that it was a pity to see people isolating themselves into groups because of their identities. My second thought was to sign up for all the associations which could apply to me. Before I knew it, I was suddenly a Black, African, student of color; a woman in politics; a French, European Columbia student.
Weeks later, while deciding which classes to add or drop, I realized I would have to do the same for segments of my identity. This intersectionality was never an issue in France. In a French university, dealing with this Afro-pean conception of my identity was easy. On campus, the different identity-related clubs were groups promoting and celebrating their culture. I could one day go to the “SHAKARA” gala organized by the African Students Association. The following day I could attend a lecture on French-American relations or on La vie des noir.e.s compte (the French Black Lives Matter) and the following week enjoy a buffet organized by the overseas students from Science O. I did not have to choose—all communities were easy to access.
The buzzword during the activities fair was “community.” Community like a litany, repeated again and again as if that was all that mattered. “You’re going to find a community with us…” “Our motto is community building…” “It’s better to have some familiar faces when you walk into Butler.” In Americanah, Ifemelu managed to navigate the culture shock thanks to such a community. How would I find a community on campus?
That’s the appeal of identity-based clubs. Joining identity-based associations is a way to reclaim one’s culture amid a pressing mass. A way to reconnect to one’s hometown or home country. In this sense, they create a voice for minorities and foster a diverse environment on campus.
Back home, cultural events on campus helped me shape and celebrate my identity, but I could not imagine any of those associations challenging the university administration. For French people, when it comes to ethnicity, promoting one’s culture is common, but advocating for one’s rights gets pushback. That might shatter the French myth of colorblindness, challenge the widespread belief that racism is a strictly American problem, and ultimately wake up the dormant volcano of structural racism within the country.
Even though I regret not being able to attend most events organized by identity-related groups in Columbia thus far, I must admit that it was truly a relief to find a French association on campus. Being able to interact with people in my mother-tongue, as if I had never left, feels amazing. Finding a group of people who enjoy wine and cheese is truly an honor.
Enjoy leafing through our second issue!