In conversation with Emmanuelle Maréchal: on Multiculturalism and ancestry

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Curiosity in the process of engaging with the human experience serves as an important element in fostering spaces to celebrate diversity and forge connections. When we ask questions, we allow ourselves to be open to another point of view as opposed to interacting with different ways of living from a set of rigid expectations. In discussions surrounding multiculturalism, this can often be dominated by a resistance to other perspectives or the idea that it is something that is impossible to achieve due to the innate differences between groups of people. Emmanuelle Maréchal is the creator of the LBD stories, a platform which seeks to engage with multiculturalism through conversations. In our discussion we spoke about her encounters with multiculturalism in various spaces, ancestry as well as race.

In one of your Instagram posts, you describe your introduction to your mother’s side of your ancestral culture through the Ngondo festival at aged 10 – what has your engagement with ancestry looked like since then?

Its complicated as my mum did not really want me to be interested in her culture. It was through my dad that I was able to find out more about my ancestry. He bought books which I read. He also brought back a lot of masks from Cameroon and has been exploring the story behind each mask, which he then writes about. I also find that Instagram is a really good tool to find information, I have connected with other Cameroonians telling their story which has helped me connect more to my ancestry. Part of the reason that I started the LBD stories was because I wanted to connect with other Cameroonians and Africans around the world and find out more about their link with ancestry.

It’s interesting that you mention your mother’s reluctance for you to engage as it links to another post where you mention that Doala people are not really interested in engaging with their history or preserving it – why do you think that this is the case?

I would say that it is something that is specific to the people of my mum’s ethnic group. Doala people were very linked to the slave trade, they provided Europeans with a lot of slaves. I think they have a deep bond with Europe even though some of them do not realise it. From the experiences that I have had in my family, I see that people love Europe to the point that sometimes you have to act European or look European. The behaviour when they are together is totally different when they are surrounded by European people, there is a totally dichotomy.

Moving to the topic of multiculturalism – what does this mean in practice to you?

I think that it entails being empathetic about the other person when they tell you their story. It is not only looking at it as an aesthetic, for example sometimes when I tell people about my story they often say “oh, that’s beautiful! Your family are beautiful”. This does not mean that people are actually engaged with my story, in the sense of trying to understand the dynamics behind and how a multicultural marriage works. I really think that multiculturalism first starts with empathy. When you really try to understand, even though it is not your culture, how the other is living, and their identity.

This reminds me of the quote you shared from your father, that “love isn’t enough, marrying someone from a different country, you can’t live on love only, you have to constantly be curious and understanding of your partner’s culture, if not the relationship won’t work’’ – I totally resonated with this perspective and I think this can also be applied generally as we connect with each other. In your opinion what steps can be taken to cultivate spaces that promote this sense of curiosity and understanding?

That is what I am trying to explore with the LBD stories. Recently I received a message from a woman on Instagram, she is Italian and has cousins that are half Cameroonian and half Italian. She shared with me their story and told me that she was looking at my page because she was keen to find out more about the other culture of her cousins. I think that is what I would love to see. Spaces where you invite people from different countries, to come together and hear the stories of others and see their similarities and connect with each other. I think it starts with people listening to each other, but I do not know in which form this should be. I feel like there is a need for spaces where you can engage with different people about this topic. I know that it is difficult because if you are not curious enough or you think that you have the knowledge already and somebody is telling you that you do not, this will create some reluctance.

You refer to the concept of intercultural and the fact that emphasis should not solely be placed on interracial – why do you think that this is important?

I really think that people erase the fact that people of African descent have culture too, it is not just about the colour. I think that they always try to put us in the same box – be it American, Caribbean or African. There are so many different mindsets, even within one country. For example, in Cameroon, we have more than 200 tribes and they do not all speak the same language, we do not eat the same food, we do not look the same. I think it is ridiculous to think that we are just one entity.

You were born in Cameroon, then moved to France and have lived in Italy, Germany and the UK – what has been your experience in seeing the different ways that multiculturism is played out in Europe?

I moved to Italy to study there – it was such a different experience for me as I hardly saw black people. This was a real shock for me. When I was at university I was one of the few black people attending, people were amazed by the fact that I was French and could speak their language. It felt like I was a curiosity for them. People would often say that I was beautiful, which made me question if they actually found me beautiful or whether they just saw me as exotic. I think when it comes to tackling the issue of racism in the Italian context, they need to learn about the slave trade, almost like little children because it felt like they did not know about any of these things. In Germany, I was based in Munich which was the city where Nazism originated. The experience was similar in the sense that I did not see many black people. I would say that there was a curiosity about my experience, I had some friends who would go and research about Cameroon and its history to educate themselves.

In the UK, especially living in London, it feels like freedomland. In my experiences, growing up in France it felt like you could not embrace both of your cultures, you had to be French only. When I came to the UK and connected with other people of African descent, they did not shy away from their other culture. Whereas from my experience in France, it felt like there was a sense of shame to be proud of your African heritage.  You were always trying to prove to people that you have the right to be French, so you did not mention where you were born or your family history. People would make comments like “you are a good French person” but if you tried to show a bit of your culture this was not seen as a good thing, especially for black Africans in France.

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All images published with permission.

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