What I Learned About Race From Teaching French High School Students About Hip-Hop

Over the weekend, French citizens emptied into the streets. The attacks at satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo put some of the most entrenched political conflicts on hold as solidarity emerged from cataclysmic grief. The Parisian roads saw Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu marching with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Ukrainian and Russian representatives alongside 40 other world leaders, together, in France's largest ever public demonstration. But despite this awe-inspiring united front against terror, France will still have to address religious and racial tensions in the country in a new way if it hopes to move forward.

According to France's National Institute for Statistic and Economic Studies, the descendants of immigrants in France feel at least as — if not more — discriminated against than their parents' generation. In the greater Paris area, which holds 40 percent French immigrants, young adults from 26 to 29 are twice as likely to experience discrimination. Immigrants continue to flock to France from the French territories of Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guiana, Madagascar, and Réunion as well as Sub-Saharan Africa, Maghreb, and Asia — and not everyone in France is willing to adjust.

The Charlie Hebdo attacks appear to have provided an opportunity to address this divide. "Unity means that we must demonstrate our determination to fight against everything that can divide us. And first of all to be tough towards racism and anti-Semitism," French President François Hollande said when he addressed the nation following the attacks on a kosher supermarket this past Friday. "Those who have committed these acts, these terrorists, these mad men these fanatics, have nothing to do with the Muslim religion."

I didn't understand that it can be considered racist to actually talk about race in France. My students’ heads must have spun in a complete circle when I had them define the cognates “racism” and “multiculturalism” on our second day of class.

As the debris of an uprooted France settles, the French people will begin to process the past in a way that will redefine their future. I have a tremendous amount of hope for this process. Two years ago, some of the French community showed me their incredible capacity to open the discussion on the politics of difference, starting in no other place than a high school classroom.

In the fall of 2012, the French Ministry of Education accepted me as an English teaching assistant in Orléans, France and gave me little instruction on my position except this: Get the kids to speak English.

High school students don't always cooperate easily. When I heard them spitting out English rap lyrics and curse words in the halls — all while claiming they didn’t know enough English to ask to go to the bathroom — it upset me. These kids were shrugging off my language, yet they leisurely tossed around pieces of American culture without any knowledge of its past. They took the parts that they wanted, without knowing why.

After all that my own race had done to exacerbate the racial divide, I couldn't bear to let the profound meaning behind so many of these lyrics escape my students. What would The Last Poets or Grandmaster Flash think? This music came from a need for change. Without that message, part of its power evaporated.

My students came from a variety of ethnic, socioeconomic, and religious backgrounds in a suburb of Orléans, less than an hour south of Paris by train. The rich history of countries like Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Mali, Rwanda, Senegal, and others has integrated in the city's fabric with the immigrants and their descendants who settle there.

When I asked what they wanted to learn, they stared at me blankly and shrugged. But when I told them that I was from Philadelphia, a city "near New York," they shouted out names like Biggie Smalls, Nas, and Wu Tang. The night before my first class, my logic went like this: if they only perked up at the mention of big time rappers, then they deserve to know why hip-hop matters and where it came from.

A longtime volunteer career as an FM radio deejay and several years of following hip-hop, rap, jazz and poetry helped inform my lessons. I knew that as part of the oppressive, white majority, I could never adequately communicate the struggle that many of these artists faced. I could, however, let these artists communicate that to my students on their own, as long as I brought their words alive.

By asking the right questions and fleshing out the meaning of key English lyrics with these kids, I hoped to prop open the door for them to explore this culture and its history. I hoped to shed enough light on the past that they could question their own relationship with the present. Most of all, I wanted to engage them and hold them responsible for their words, to show them that words have historically had an immense amount of meaning — even the ones that they haphazardly toss around in the hall.

I quickly learned that, as a general rule, whereas Americans like to espouse political views, the French are much more likely to discuss a delectable meal, even in the most private company. Luckily, I didn't catch onto this until I was already far into the depths of my lesson plans. I didn't understand that it can be considered racist to actually talk about race in France. My students’ heads must have spun in a complete circle when I had them define the cognates “racism” and “multiculturalism” on our second day of class.

The discussion had closed, but they had demanded it reopen. My students took a stand against silence, just as the French people are now taking a stand against a cruel attempt at creating fear.

I decided on a lesson on the hip-hop song “Can I Kick It?” by A Tribe Called Quest and the Native Tongues, part of the all-inclusive movement of the Golden Age of hip-hop. We tripped through the history of rap and hip-hop’s samples: from Louis Armstrong to Nina Simone, onto the re-appropriation of race in the history of rock ‘n roll and the importance of community to conquer inequality. We discussed the political power of song lyrics and the context of their cultural heroes who used them — Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Tupac. As we worked through an explosive and controversial history in the universal language of music, they embraced looking into the social power structures that institute racial oppression.

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But by the time we reached the end of February, I’d lost my spunk. It took a lot of energy to make lesson plans on complex themes accessible to a wide range of young ESL speakers, and my students only seemed to care on certain days. Some days I felt like a tremendous burden, as though they strongly disliked how much my class required when it easily could have centered around light-hearted ESL games. I gave into my doubts and stopped the music lessons.

One day, an English teacher came over to me in the teachers’ lounge. Her students wanted more lessons attached to global issues, like my past lessons on race in the history of music. They wanted to stop playing games and discover the power of words. They wanted to talk about the songs they were singing.

So I plunged back into the depths of musical history. We ended the year following how America used jazz musicians as political tools during the Cold War. My students began my extended education on their point of view, giving me authors to read, and French rap and jazz to listen to. Some of my students even began to sustain complex conversations on their own struggles with race and community in English.

When I left the school, I felt entirely amazed by the intention and initiative of my students: The discussion had closed, but they had demanded it reopen. My students took a stand against silence, just as the French people are now taking a stand against a cruel attempt at creating fear.

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Their lesson stuck with me even after teaching ended. In the months that followed, I would have some profound experiences with race and religion in France.

One such instance happened while I backpacked through Normandy with another teaching assistant. Tired and exhausted after many long days of budget travel and sleeping on couches, we stopped for a quick coffee. An hour later, a Muslim Moroccan woman and her daughter sitting next to us had invited my friend and I in for a hot meal and a shower. Over a large helping of her famous lentils, the woman told us a story about an incident with a young boy who had commented negatively on her because of her race “It’s not his fault," she said. "It’s his education.”

What she meant was: Racism is taught, and we cannot fault our children for the harmful untruths that we pass on. We can only help them to understand the heavy history that will one day become their responsibility. We can only give them the messy past and hope they use it for change.

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Now, two years later, out of horrifying tragedy comes an opportunity to positively redefine relationships of race and religion in France. Most of my former students are now old enough that they can join in changing the future of their own country. They must come together and choose if they will follow Hollande's call to mercilessly face racism in France. They must take their heavy history and use that information to effect positive change — just like we must do in America.

At times, in both the United States and France, institutionalized racism feels solid, concrete, and vastly unchangeable. The fight against it is long and extraordinarily difficult. But we can create change — and, sometimes, the change will create itself. First we must be willing to listen to struggle of the past, and to see its effects on the present.

My students could do this. That is why I have no doubt that they will take responsibility for the past and create a better future in France. I only hope we can learn to do the same at home.

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