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My earliest memory of racism - part two

Words: Anahita Diba

Photos: Rafael Yaghobzadeh

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Nine people – one born in every decade from the 1920s to the 2000s – recount the first moment they became aware of racism. Part two in a three-part series.

In the first part of our series of photo portraits on people’s earliest experiences of racism, we heard accounts of discrimination from neighbours, schoolfriends and roommates.

In the second part, we hear from three more people about the first time they became aware of racial injustice. This time, it’s authority figures who were responsible, causing our subjects to reflect on how racism is intertwined with power, and how it doesn’t always have to be spoken out loud.

(See the first part of the series here, and the third part here.)


Sadia Barèche, 75, retired, and member of the cultural association Coup de Soleil

In 1956, I was 10 and lived in the colonial neighbourhood of Tizi Ouzou in Kabylia, Algeria. There were many Europeans and a few “natives” as they called us back then. These families would say hello to each other and live side-by-side. It didn’t go any further, but there was no animosity.

I was one of the only two Kabyle kids in a class of 25. In my class was a girl called Marie-Pierre. We would always sit next to each other. She was an adorable chubby brunette with straight hair, while I had lighter curly hair. I loved her hair and she loved mine. She would come to my house, we would walk to school together. That year, we had a new teacher, a tall, unsympathetic woman who didn’t particularly like me.

“What I felt was fear. I didn’t call it racism. I only understood it much later”

Sadia Barèche

One day, we had a dictation exercise. The teacher showed the correct text on the blackboard and asked us, “Who has no mistakes?” Marie-Pierre had one. I had none. I raised my hand. The teacher walked up to my desk and slapped me. “You cheated,” she said. I can still feel the burn on my cheek. I didn’t understand. Marie-Pierre didn’t dare to say anything. The teacher went back to her desk. Class was over.

I went home crying. I didn’t want to go to school anymore. What I felt was fear. I didn’t call it racism. I only understood it much later.

A few days before this happened, one of my uncles had disappeared. The military had come to our house looking for him. About 20 or 30 soldiers had lined us up, adults and children, me, my brother, sister and cousins, five children aged six to twelve. They slapped my brother and cousin, to get them to talk. A week before, my uncle had gone to the mountains to join the maquis [the Algerian resistance against French rule]. We were on the other side of the barrier now. We were becoming terrorists. That’s when I realised what the word war meant.

Sadia Barèche lived alongside Europeans in French-controlled Algeria – and remembers the day she realised they were far from equal.

Sadia’s achievements in school should have been praised, but they were punished.

From then on, doors started to shut and greetings between families stopped. Marie-Pierre stopped coming to pick me up for school. In the courtyard, she would only wave at me from a distance. I could feel she wanted to come but she was probably told not to. After that, I left Tizi Ouzou. The situation had become unbearable.

I have always been wary of pernicious, insidious racism. A racism that does not look you in the eye, that wants you to “assimilate” – a word that drives me crazy. Today, the laws exist but they are still not respected as they should be. France is a society based on colour and class. The history that Algerians rejected in the war of independence is being reproduced here. French society has not learnt the lesson. My grandfather fought during the First World War. My father fought during the Second World War. Back then, Algiers was the capital of the French resistance. It’s never taught in history books. Why?


Mohamed Mechmache, 54, founder of ACLEFEU

When I was about 15, we used to be targets for racist attacks at our school. Often when classes were over and it was dark, about a dozen young men in their twenties with shaved heads, baseball bats and chains would wait outside the gate and insult us as we walked out, calling us rats and other derogatory names for North Africans. For us, it was pure fear and panic. We were innocent. We didn’t understand such hatred. We would run back into school where the hall monitor would lock the doors to keep us safe, but we could still hear the insults through the closed gates. After a while, older kids from the neighbourhood would come and walk us home.

“I was seventeen when I marched in 1983. I still fight”

Mohamed Mechmache

When I was 18 my little brother, who was four years younger, was hanging out in front of a building with his friends. An alarm in a mall nearby went off and the cops arrived. At the time, they used to send the riot police to our neighbourhood to “educate” us. My brother had a Walkman. The police searched him, found batteries in his pocket, so they tried to take him to the station, although he kept saying he had bought them. A neighbour ran to our home. My father and I rushed to the area. When we saw the cops arresting my brother, we got scared he would never even make it to the station, so we tried to stop them. There was commotion, people screaming, us pulling my brother one way, the cops pulling him the other.

A few batteries in Mohamed’s brother’s pocket was enough to trigger a violent incident with the police.

The attacks Mohamed Mechmache experienced at school opened his eyes to how racism pervades society.

One of the policemen was drunk. He had brown hair, a thin moustache and wore a kepi. He suddenly pulled his gun and told my father, “You’re gonna kneel down now and say you love Le Pen!” It lasted a few seconds. Other officers saw things getting out of hand, so they took him away and left. We were shocked. My father was petrified. He remained dignified in front of us and stood up as if nothing had happened. Once at home, he told us we would simply have to face such things, that it wasn’t over. That he had lived similar incidents before – beaten up by French soldiers in Algeria, thrown in a ditch and left for dead. He was constantly worried for us, always telling us, “Don’t make noise, don’t be visible.”

Some thirty years later, my brother is still traumatised. Each time he sees cops, he walks away as fast as he can.

Once you experience such things, you pay more attention. You see that at school, they prefer Mathieu to Mohamed. At football games, they never let you play although you’re more talented than others. At the birthday party of a friend, you overhear his mum say, “I forbid you to play with this Arab. These are dirty people, thieves.”

Recently I heard a young girl say, “I’m twenty years old and I never imagined I would still be marching against racism in 2020.” I was seventeen when I marched in 1983. I still fight. I wouldn’t if I didn’t have hope.


Manel Ben Boubaker, 33, teacher and member of the union SUD Éducation 93

When I was 13, I went to a middle school in the 11th arrondissement in Paris, back before it was gentrified. One of my classmates was Wissam. We were both of Tunisian origin. He had brown hair, green eyes and was one year older than me. He wasn’t very good in class, whereas I always got A grades.

One day, we were all chatting. No one was listening to the history teacher, Madame Driff. She was in her mid-fifties and couldn’t really handle our class. She was writing on the blackboard and suddenly she turned around and burst out: “You Wissam, you’re a savage anyway! Go back to your country!”

“Racism is not only people who don’t like you, it’s a system that forces you into an inferior position”

Manel Ben Boubaker

We were stunned. She froze. Wissam rose, walked up to her desk and overturned everything. Some of us stood up and shouted, “Racist, racist!” Eventually a friend pulled Wissam out, the bell rang and we left.

“Savage”. The stigma of this word coming out of a white woman’s mouth – a history teacher, of all people – felt like violence and loathing. “Go back to your country,” meant, no matter what, you aren’t in the right place. The school never did anything. I didn’t tell my parents. But from then on, we were at war. Without even discussing it, collectively, the blacks and Arabs of the class, we decided we could never respect her anymore. It was the first time I stood up against authority.

Manel Ben Boubaker experienced racist name-calling as a child. Since then she’s learned that racism isn’t always spoken out loud.

It was in a lesson on history and geography that Manel got her first taste of racism. Now she’s a teacher herself.

Twenty years later, I’m a history teacher myself. Sure, such words aren’t said out loud anymore, except by far-right people. But kids are still treated as inferior, especially the boys. The difference is that our generation has more means, more power to fight back against the system, through social networks, politics and unions. To survive, the system had to promote some of us. But it’s just some of us. Racism is not only people who don’t like you, it’s a system that forces you into an inferior position, that pushes you aside. In reality today, when an Arab or black boy starts school, he has less chances than an Arab or black girl or a white boy, from kindergarten all the way up to university.

Within the education system, the racism you encounter as an Arab or black teacher is very diffuse. There are comments about Ramadan, about African culture or education. Teachers who speak badly to parents of African descent. A principal who asks a black teacher who comes in as a substitute whether he is the cleaner… The power of representation is so strong. The fights we face within the education system are the same as in the media or against police brutality. Our fights converge.

The photographer Rafael Yaghobzadeh comes from a cosmopolitan family with Egyptian, Lebanese, Armenian, Assyrian and Iranian origins. He recently documented the protests against racial injustice in Paris and was impressed by the crowd of thousands of young people who gathered hand-in-hand for a better society.

In this portrait project, Rafael photographed not only the people who told their stories, but also ordinary objects that symbolise the stories.