Black History Month: It’s difficult to be what you cannot see

Senior Personal Assistant, Emmanuelle Besnard
Senior Personal Assistant, Emmanuelle Besnard

In celebration of Black History Month, various colleagues share their reflections of what Black History Month means to them, and this year’s theme of ‘proud to be’. In this article, Senior Personal Assistant, Emmanuelle Besnard, shares her personal story.

I want to share with you why I wish a Black History Month existed when I was growing up in France and trying to find my feet as a mixed-race child.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t like what I was seeing in the mirror (yes, you read that right – I didn’t like) and so recently I decided to raise this issue with my therapist. She asked me to describe what I wish I could change about myself and after sharing my list, she asked me point-blank: “Do you realise that all you have listed are your black features?”. I was shocked, I mean shocked. Did I really hate this part of my identity? Did I really wish to be different? I couldn’t understand how this divide appeared in me until I started looking into my upbringing and noticed what was missing.

My dad is half Black African and half white, but he never embraced his Blackness due to family issues and so my siblings and I never got to claim our quarter of Blackness either. It wasn’t a taboo subject, but it was also not talked about, so we were basically raised as the white kids in the community where I lived, albeit with tolerant parents who taught us about inequalities. But despite my upbringing, I could never pass for a white child; my skin colour and my features were not those of a white girl. I knew I was different; I wasn’t like my friends because no one asked them ‘where they were from’ or “what they were”. I must have internalised that because once, after a racist incident, I cried to my parents saying, “I told you I didn’t want to be black, I wanted to be white”.

Growing up in a white town, with white friends and no mention of colour or race anywhere forced me to negate a side of me. This side was the reason I didn’t look like anyone in magazines, on TV or in films. And so, I started to see myself as white and not claim my heritage; it was easier that way. I wanted to fit in, and my white side was the way to do it. But people couldn’t help but see what I was trying to erase so that’s where the internal rift started. I could never be fully white, nor could I claim to be fully Black, and a lack of representation made it difficult to be mixed race.

What shocked me when my therapist told me that I hated my Black features is that I had started educating myself in the ongoing inequalities, reading, watching documentaries, and calling out white privilege when I saw it. I had become really vocal about it but without accepting it inside me. It was like I was a white ally and not a person of colour. And that’s when the deep dive into my childhood started with a tense conversation with my parents and several arguments (we’re French after all). It’s been a hard journey and I am still figuring some bits out, but the world has changed, some attitudes have changed, I have changed, I’m more resilient than when I was growing up, my self-awareness is more sharpened and it is helping me. I see people who look like me have a presence, a voice, and I don’t feel like the odd one out anymore.

My story and experiences will differ from fully Black women and other people of colour of course, but that’s why Black History Month is so important. It is key to ensure everyone can see themselves represented and talked about; it’s about continued engagement with our history as it helps give context for the present. Black History Month is an accomplishment that we should be proud of in the Black community. This year’s theme is “Proud to Be” and I can finally say that I am Proud to Be a Woman of Colour (every inch, colour, curve of my body being something I’ve learned to accept and love).

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