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People share their earliest memories of racism - part one

Words: Anahita Diba

Photos: Rafael Yaghobzadeh

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That first encounter with racism is burned into people’s memories. The injustice. The sadness. The anger. Or the sheer incomprehension. We asked a group of people – one born in every decade from the 2000s right back to the 1920s – to share with us their recollections of that moment.

Much has been said and written about racism since the killing of George Floyd in May. There’s a sense that the topic is now out in the open, and that we can no longer pretend it doesn’t exist. But that was over two months ago. What now?

It’s important to keep talking about racism – what it means and what it does. Not just for society as a whole, but also for the individuals who experience it. We wanted to learn about how it feels to experience racism for the first time. What is it like to suddenly understand that you can be judged based on nothing but the colour of your skin? How have people experienced these moments differently over the years? And what influence has it had on the course of people’s lives?

For this series of personal portraits, we asked nine people from around Paris to share their memories of that first moment. Here are the first three portraits. (See the second and third parts of this series here and here.)


Denisa T, 16, high school student

You live in a caravan”, “You’re a thief”, “You dig in trash cans”. Ever since I can remember, these comments have followed me throughout my childhood years.

“I was little, I didn’t understand what it all meant”

Denisa T

Soon after I began going to school in Bobigny, at age six or seven, the teasing started. At the time, my family was living in a caravan because we couldn’t afford housing. Some children, mainly black kids, made comments like, “You live in the garbage”, “You’re begging for money”. I was little, I didn’t understand what it all meant. It traumatised me to the point I didn’t want to go to school anymore. But I kept on going because I didn’t want to quit school like my parents. Some days, it was a nightmare. I was excluded from kids’ groups, I’d keep to myself. And I wouldn’t say anything: I would let them speak, but inside, I felt bad, sad. I wanted to shout: “I’m like you, why do you treat me differently?” It took me a while before I told my mother because I thought the other kids would eventually get tired of it. When I finally talked to her, she went to the principal. After that, with other Roma girls, we stuck together, so nobody dared to bother us anymore. It was over.

After her school dealt with her first experience of racism, Denisa T hoped it was all over. It wasn’t.

Denisa’s first memory of racism takes her back to being a child in school.

But it is never really over. Last year in my middle school in Aubervilliers, the teacher gave us an exercise about racism. I was the only Roma in class. One of my classmates turned around and said: “You Romanians, you are all thieves! You steal!” He began to laugh and everyone else burst into laughter. He went on and even threatened me: “Shut up you dirty Romanian! You’ll see when class is over!” The teacher told him to stop or he would get a warning and be expelled from class. This incident hurt me, especially since the whole point of talking about racism in class was to avoid such situations. I felt so humiliated.

In today’s society, racism is everywhere. They say it should stop but it never does. Some people are so racist. Instead of being open-minded and learning from each other like, “I introduce you to my culture, you introduce me to yours,” it’s all criticism and insults. It’s crazy. We shouldn’t judge others at first sight. We should be happy there is diversity and people from other cultures. I just hope it’ll change one day because if I have children I don’t want them to suffer as I did. Now I don’t accept it anymore. I fight back.


Yassine Alami, 29, co-founder of the movement “Hrach is beautiful” and youth social worker

When I was a teenager, around 2005-2006, I went to a boarding school in the countryside near Paris. It was an all-boys school. All white. I was the only kid from North Africa.

I shared my dorm with three other boys and used to keep a red prayer mat under my bed. I only prayed when I was alone. It was after 9/11, after the attacks in London and Spain, and I knew I’d better be discreet. My roommates had seen me pray a few times. We didn’t talk much. I was isolated, without any friends.

“I’m from those generations whose parents advised us to hide, to make ourselves as small as possible, to be invisible”

Yassine Alami

One day, I got to my room and saw a crowd at the door, laughing. I looked inside: about 10 boys were gathered around Anthony, a huge guy with blond hair who later joined a rugby team. He was on my prayer mat, imitating prostration, making obscene gestures, shouting “Allahu Akbar”. He then stood up and spat on the mat, as everyone sneered. I felt like I was in a slow-motion movie with the camera spinning, from the extreme brutality of people sniggering to see me so upset.

I was petrified. Traumatised by the humiliation and the shame. I did nothing. I didn’t tell anyone. I’m from those generations whose parents advised us to hide, to make ourselves as small as possible, to be invisible. Unconsciously I had understood that if I complained, it would be worse. As a child, I knew there was racism related to skin colour. For a very long time, I hated my brown skin and my curly hair. But this was racism linked to my faith. Later, I learned that on top of systemic state racism, there is also systemic Islamophobia.

Yassine Alami’s early experiences of racism made him hate his appearance. Not anymore.

A prayer mat like the one Yassine was using when he encountered racism for the first time.

Around that age, I started to read a lot and realised this was not an isolated act. I told myself France was a racist country, that it would last so I needed to forge myself a shell.

Things haven’t changed much since those years. There is an overall hypocrisy which prevents our society from changing positively. How do you want to solve a problem if you don’t dare to look at it? When George Floyd was killed, it became bankable to talk about racism and police brutality for a while and then nothing… What’s the real impact? As long as there is no serious and courageous show of will from the state, we and the media can keep on talking about it, it won’t change anything.

We need official apologies. About the slavery. About colonialism. There should be a national summit on racism and police brutality with concrete actions, like a dedicated hotline. An official recognition of the problem by the state would be a great step. We’re not there yet.


Rokhaya Diallo, 42, writer, documentary maker

When I was six or seven years old, I used to hang out a lot with Nina and David, who lived on the second floor in my building, in the 19th arrondissement of Paris. David was three years old and Nina, his sister, was six. They were white and they were my friends. What I remember from Nina is that she had brown hair, she was nice, reserved and good at school. We used to play all sorts of games little girls play like hide-and-seek, tag, jump rope or hopscotch.

“He said it to me in a blank way, as if he was talking about the weather”

Rokhaya Diallo

One day I realised she looked worried when we played together, she was constantly looking around. And then slowly but surely we didn’t play together anymore. She was avoiding me and so was her brother. I ended up asking her what was wrong. She never said anything. Eventually her brother told me, “Daddy doesn’t want us to play with the blacks.”

He said it to me in a blank way, as if he was talking about the weather. I didn’t understand. I was surprised to be described as such. So when I got home, I told my mother. I remember she got very angry. So angry that she went out to see Nina’s dad and told him he wasn’t any better than us.

As a child, Rokhaya Diallo played happily with her neighbours – until someone put a stop to it.

Rokhaya learned at an early age how racism can be passed from parent to child.

After that, everything changed. We never played together anymore. I would be in the courtyard and see Nina watching me from the balcony of the second floor. I was so disappointed, sad to lose a friend.

I had forgotten about this incident: it came back to me later at an adult age. When I think about it, it was violent, and the fact that it came from an adult made it even more impossible to comprehend.

Today, there is a huge transformation of the public space compared to the 1980s. At the time, there were actual skinheads and fights in Paris. The year I turned six years old, 1984, SOS Racisme [the anti-racism NGO] was created … Since then, many things have improved. I feel we are at the end of the certain point of denial in society. The debate on racism is exposed, it is public in a manner that it is now impossible to deny.

I have hope for the future, because there is immense awareness among young people. They know we are all on the racial spectrum in a way. At the same time, I see many far-right youth groups, which makes me less optimistic. But I know that with each public victory like the Black Lives Matter movement and the Comité Adama demonstrations [triggered by the death of a Malian-French man in police custody in 2016], there is always a backlash.

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.


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