The Freedom to be Me in France

By Zadie Stevens-Telesford

There was something liberating about being mistaken as a possible Trump supporter. Or maybe it was just being thought of as an American girl, not a black girl.

One night, after dinner with my host family and their friends in Rennes, France, the table had been cleared and the attacks on Trump began. I could have been listening to a conversation in New York City, only they were speaking French as they demonized Trump. Suddenly I realized I was in another country when one of the guests said: “Zadie is American. She might like Trump. Maybe we shouldn’t talk about him like this.” 

She was serious. The moment demonstrated the freedom that comes with lifting the weight of race from my identity. Few people in America would assume I support Trump (which I do not) because I’m black. However in France, I felt I could be whoever I wanted regardless of race. Living with this new reality awakened a sense of my past battles with race. 

During Lower School, January was a painful month – one to dread. It wasn’t the cold weather or the grey skies; it was Martin Luther King Day, which became isolating for me. I truly felt like “the only.” For the first five years of my education, I was the only black girl in my grade. Around MLK day, we sat on the mat to discuss Dr. King. The pressure of eyes zoomed in on me from every direction, as if they wanted me to take over teaching the class simply because Martin Luther King and I shared the same skin color. I wanted to disappear. Being the center of attention was not fun when it came to talking about the injustice that the ancestors of most of the people in that room may have forced upon mine. It was awkward, uncomfortable and I wanted nothing to do with Dr. King. 

 I was comfortable being the only black girl in my class as long as the subject of race was absent. I formed close friendships from the age of six when the differences in the color of our skin were insignificant. Looking back, I realized I wanted to avoid being thrown in the box as the black girl who loved King. My resistance to such a box endured, which is why being considered a Trump supporter was refreshing. 

In middle school, more black girls joined our grade and new pressures surrounding race emerged. My closeness to white classmates, who I had known for years, created eye rolls from many of the black girls. I tried to use black vernacular as a bridge to connect with my new black classmates. 

Black vernacular had been a cloud floating around me but it never seemed to make a landing in my life. I heard it on the streets of Harlem, on BET, but never from my family because they spoke with Caribbean accents. Now my acceptance among other blacks seemed dependent on an ability to code switch, saying to blacks: “girl I need some lotion, I’m ashy today” but to whites: “I am going to Duane Reade after school to get some lotion for my dry skin.”

In France, this division of language disappeared. Being so focused on mastering French, there wasn’t a need to switch between white and black vernacular anymore because all the American students were striving to learn one common language. I was no longer worried about not sounding “white” or “black” enough. My only worry was sounding French.  

My analysis of racial identity also extended into new dimensions in France. The year I spent in Rennes showed me that I am more than my race, and provided a life where code switching was not necessary. Now, I am comfortable embracing the work of Dr. Martin Luther King and explaining what “woke” or even “ashy” means to my white friends. 

Zadie Stevens-Telesford, a 2019 graduate of The Spence School, will be a freshman at Duke, where she was accepted Early Decision.