The title of this piece recalls David Theo Goldberg’s article “Racial Europeanization”, where “racial evaporations” could be extended beyond the insistence to push European nation’s colonial legacies “under the rug” to the present-day minimal and/or lack of interrogation of whiteness, and consequentially its accompanying unsaid social benefits in Italy and in Europe at large. As an African American woman in Italy, I’m primarily interested in the complex intersections of people’s experiences, as well as my own, who are subject to everyday racisms in the places I travel to. My identity while living abroad carries a lot of privileges, not limited to finances, African American cultural capital, my American citizenship, and my cisgender identity. My identity as a black woman allows me to live the practice of reflexive ethnography on my back, in the sense that I can reflect on my own experiences of racialization and privilege as a means to understand a snippet of the possible struggles that minorities in Italy may experience.
Racism and xenophobia, two intersecting forms of discrimination, impact immigrants and children of immigrants in Italy. One needs to look no further than the database or the gallery of Cronache di Ordinario Razzismo. How might reflecting on my own experiences and privileges as an African American woman in Italy illuminate a few historically constructed daily conveniences that white Italians may benefit from in their own country? Identifying how the ‘personal is political’ in regard to race, racism and xenophobia in Italy can be a useful way to break down prejudices and inform allyship and advocacy. Of course, this is not to deny the work of Italian institutions and activist organizations who actively counter racism and xenophobia, such as the charges pressed by the General Investigations and Special Operations Division of Viterbo’s police headquarters against the perpetrators who wrote racist, violent and xenophobic comments on the reportage of the drowning of Ivorian Morientes Diomande. Nonetheless, I’ve noticed that the relationship between whiteness and privilege has yet to be more discussed in Italian contemporary situations; I wonder how it might useful to “unpack” the benefits of the “default” race, even if one doesn’t identify with it, during today’s xenophobic political and social climate. Perhaps this process could be an additional step of discontinuing racial evaporation (Hawthorne and Piccolo discuss the perils of fighting against racism without tackling the problems of race and racism in Italy) and recognizing the unearned benefits that white Italians may experience compared to their non-white counterparts.
First, I will briefly explore what privilege is, how it may exist in Italy due to the country’s colonial past and who might benefit from whiteness in Italy when it has rarely been directly addressed. Then I explore my own privileges and experiences in Italy as an African American woman as a window to try understand the types of daily conveniences white Italians may have in their own country. Lastly, I list two forms of daily conveniences that white Italians may have compared to minority and immigrant communities in Italy.
Why talk about privilege?
Privilege can be defined as “a set of unearned benefits given to people who fit into a specific social group”. In 1988, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Senior Research Associate of the Wellesly Center for Women launched contemporary academic and everyday discussions about whiteness and unearned benefits in the United States. A pivotal piece of scholarship in whiteness studies, she discusses and lists everyday invisible social benefits she has due to whiteness as a white woman living in the United States. Studies about and related to the invisible hegemony of whiteness in Italy have been explored in academic postcolonial volumes, such as Bianco e Nero by Gaia Giuliani and Cristina Lombardi-Diop, A Fior di Pelle edited by Elisa Bordin and Stefano Bosco, Il colore della nazione edited by Gaia Giuliani and Leggere il test e il mondo: vent’anni di scritture della migrazione in Italia edited by Fulvio Pezzarossa and Ilara Rossini.
Race in Italy has a complicated history, which has impacted present-day realities of privileging certain types of people as eligible to be considered Italian and reproduce Italy. Debates about which racial populations made up Italy categorized criminology and scientific 19th and 20th centuries, which ultimately informed Italian racial unification and citizenship policies in Italian colonies (In my article Race, culture and colonial legacy in today’s Italian citizenship struggles, I summarize academic arguments how debates about race shaped Italian citizenship laws and Italian unification). Historical anthropologists Christina Lombardi Diop and Gaia Giuliani argue in their book Bianco e nero. Storia dell’identità razziale degli italiani. that race has been deployed as a political (and consequently social) strategy for specific motives during certain periods of time, such as the colonial fascist period. Language such as stirpe italiana was a coded means of removing and discarding the notion of referring to the self as white. Last year Addes Tesfamariam called out the Minister of Health, Beatrice Lorenzin, for perpetuating the insistence to sustain the Italian race during the national fertility campaign. Writer and activist Igiaba Scego traces the legacy of Italian colonies through Italian colonial monuments in Rome in her book Roma Negata with Rino Bianchi, and how this legacy continues to violate Eritreans, most recently with the cleansing in Piazza Indipendenza only a few blocks from Termini.
What do I mean by white Italians?
I think that privilege in Italy doesn’t necessarily require you to racially identify yourself, but rather be aware of how others are meant to feel excluded from belonging to Italy so that your identity can remain included within the notion and imaginary of Italy. When I say white Italians, I refer to people who have had not to put out emotional labor to combat prejudicial stereotypes of folks who look like them or share other commonalities in the media. Throughout the country’s history, whiteness hasn’t been explicitly referred to, whereas darkness, in regard to Southern Italians and Africans, has been made more clear through colonization and fascist propaganda. Sadly this legacy of fascist advertising can be linked to the Forza Nuova propaganda of illustrating black migrants as rapists.
I have noticed that a lot of explaining has been done by folks who are apart of citizenship reform, those applying for asylum, those who are saying that terrorists do not represent Islam. Activist groups such as Italiani senza cittadinanza and Giovani Musulmani must consistently do public relations work which bears the emotional labor of trying to challenge the ‘single story’, leading me to ask myself, “who doesn’t have to bear that emotional burden of challenging the single story?”
At this point in my reflection, I feel it necessary to share how I struggle even with the language available to discuss unearned social benefits. I struggle with the term privilege, as I feel it brings forth once again the hegemony of racial dynamics in the United States. Scholar Sandra Ponzanesi argues that postcolonial literature often gets expressed in English, which marginalizes other languages such as Italian Recalling the questions of anthropologist Tina Campt in her article “The Crowded Space of Diaspora: Intercultural Address and the Tensions of Diaspora Relation”, what are the ways in which these referrals to English terminally asymmetrically allow and limit people to authentically speak about their own experience? For this reason, I have decided to use comodità quotidiana, as I feel that this type of compound term recalls bringing one out of their comfort zone and encouraging a reflection as to how this comfort is merely a daily convenience limited to few and potentially a regular frustration and annoyance to others.
My self-reflective analysis is primarily rooted in my own readings in the field of Black European Studies, as these readings have provided a framework to help me complicate my own understanding and tease out further questions about being black and Italian, being AfroItalian, and being a black African American in Italy. Campt’s notion of the “intercultural address”, or the ways that we see the commonalities and similarities between African American and Black European experiences through references to the hegemonic black American cultural capital across the globe. She describes it as “a series of eruptions/interruptions that I encountered repeatedly in the process of interviewing where, as an African American, I often became the object of address, being directly and indirectly spoken or referred to—at times even becoming the topic of our conversation itself—by my Afro-German interview partners in their attempts to describe and explain their experiences as black people in German society”. In my conversations with AfroItalians for example, referrals to movements and strides by African Americans, as well as contemporary struggles, were commonplace to discuss being AfroItalian and blackness in Italy. How might my African American identity represent forms of hegemony that I benefit from while living in Italy? Combining the feminist praxis of the intercultural address and white privilege will inform my understandings of my own privileges and experiences in Italy.
- ”Ahhh! Sei Americana!”: Nationality and Cultural Belonging
When I arrived to Taranto with my fro and luggage in tow ready for New Years Day 2014, I was excited to have finally celebrate the beginning of the year in a Southern city. While waiting for the bus to Montalbano, I had asked a man nearby, who also appeared to be waiting, if he knew when the bus would arrive. Our conversation then leads to introductions, him Calabrian, and me American. “Ahh! Sei americana!” he responds upon learning about my nationality And the conversation then begins to talk about Malcolm X, Angela Davis, and other Black Panthers and their role in Black Liberation Movement. He’s not the only person I have met who looked at me in interest and appreciation, ready to discuss aspects of African American history and culture. What’s striking to me is that it’s so easy to feel looked over as invaluable in the United States, hence the movement Black Lives Matters, whereas abroad people are knowledgeable of African American political movements and want to discuss them. Even though the recognizing dichotomy can be a bit jarring, the hegemony of African American social capital presents new opportunities to discuss your history. But at the expense of who?
When I’ve gone out with AfroItalian friends, people have found learning about my background more appealing than those of my friends. In her recent interview with The Black Expats, Johanne Affricot clearly articulates the dominance of African American cultural capital, as Italians are more interested in other forms of blackness abroad such as African Americans, but demonstrate little desire to understand the struggles of black Italians in their own country. This form of dominance makes it easy to perhaps not even engage in the struggles of AfroItalians and other children of immigrants, let alone try to understand their struggles in an American framework.
- Christian privilege
Even though I’m baptized as Presbyterian, a form of Protestantism, compared to the Catholic majority in Italy, there’s still a privilege of moving to the country as a Christian. Of course, there are many different religions that exist and thrive in Italy. Perhaps the difference between identifying as a Christian, or simply having grown up in a Christian family, to those of other religions in Italy, is simply the nonexistent expectation to have to explain anything about my faith. This expectation is irregardless of how much or little I may practice my faith. The most I expect to clarify is that Presbyterianism is a form of Protestantism, compared to perhaps explaining why some women wear the hijab. Marwa Mahmoud shares about the constant expected emotional labor she must put forth to explain herself as a hijabi woman living in Italy.
- Financial privilege
I have the funds to come to Italy as a student, as well as the desired yet unearned skills and tools to make money. English as my native language, coupled with my blue passport, makes it easy it for me to find paid opportunities related to teach the language or babysit in English.
4. Heterosexual cisgender
To put it simply, I fit within the hegemonic gender binary that exists in Italy, like in the United States and many countries across the globe. I don’t have to fight to defend my sexuality. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t see how monumental the recognition of civil unions in Italy last May 2016. My gender and sexuality allow me to fit cookie cutter perfect into Italy if the opportunity presented itself and I wanted to. In a conversation with a student researcher from my alma mater, she shares that unfortunately in Italy, if one is gay or a single parent, then they are unable to create a family even through options such as IVF and adoption, and this greatly reinforced the ways imaginary and expectation of families in Italy consisting of a cisgender man and woman.
The two “comodità quotidiane” I have chosen to share are ones that I’ve found intersect with my own experiences as an African American in the US. Nonetheless, I find that highlighting these privileges or social advantages that people have to make their days just one step easier, one less thing to internalize or to ignore, is extremely powerful. They are necessary to begin recognizing how the personal is indeed political in Italy, and how ordinary racisms are shaped by history and contemporary bullshit.
Citing my own privileges help tease out potential comodità quotidiana that white Italians may face. The previously listed comodità will usually follow me whenever I travel outside of the United States, thus not requiring the responsibility self-critically reflect on them and how they may intersect with dominant groups in my travel destinations. Since I’m not from Italy, it’s understandable that people want to learn more about my background but that doesn’t negate that my narrative belongs to the dominant exported narrative of African Americans.
I focus on examples that relate to the ways white Italians may not get their cultural belonging to Italy interrogated by the paeseani. The following statements speak more to levels of xenophobia rather than other forms of prejudice (sexism, homophobia, ableism). Recalling the format of McIntosh’s list from 1988, I also use the first person, as if from the point of view from a white Italian. The main difference here is that McIntosh is white and I am not. I decided to add additional context by citing examples published online that demonstrate that these are realities that affect new generation Italians.
I haven’t gotten told a variation of “ma come parli l’italiano cosi bene?”, an immediate invitation to interrogate my origins.
The sentence “ma come parli l’italiano cosi bene?” translates approximately to “but how do you speak Italian so well?” If you are an immigrant, a child of immigrants, or mixed, you probably know all too well this phrase or a variant. Hearing this phrase may even be exacerbated by your skin color, especially if you are of darker tone. In the fotoromanza Apprarenze created by Rete G2, the white Italian protagonist Adriano, assumes that the black woman protagonist Lucia doesn’t speak Italian and he attempts to speak to her in English, only to learn that she does speak the language. He tells her that she didn’t even appear Italian, even though she speaks Italian perfectly, prompting a response to explain that her parents moved to Italy 30 years ago and she was born and raised in the country. Even though she begins to explain her background, complimenting one’s Italian, especially when they appear to have an immigrant background, elicits the individual to explain their origins and prove that they are Italian like their white counterparts.
One needs to look no further than the recent video of Sonny Olumati, activist of Italiani Senza Cittadinanza, discussing the need for citizenship reform, where viewers requested to “see the original video” and that “people of color have an unmistakable type of voice”.
I ask this one more time: Can you imagine this type of question more frequently, as a condoscending way to applaud your Italian language skills, and ultimately question your cultural belonging to Italy?
I don’t feel any pressure to claim, or resist, labels that refer (even incorrectly) to my skin color or profile my family’s geographical and/or cultural origins.
I find it odd that in a place that finds it easy to racially label people as black, Chinese, Filippina, Moroccan (in regard to the last three, when used to describe you it doesn’t matter which country your heritage is from) etc, there’s still uncomfortability in exploring or claiming what the “default” race is. Clearly, an Italian can come from any background as long as they have been born and/or grown up in Italy, however that does not negate the fact that people are ascribed racial markers which elicits various emotional responsibilities, such as claiming or resisting the labels and racial markers.
AfroItalian and Muslim Italian communities, in the words of researchers Annalisa Frisini and Camilla Hawthorne, have “re-politicised” these racial markers. In regard to hair politics and beauty aesthetics, Frisini and Hawthorne have argued that AfroItalian and Muslim Italian girls “re-politicise” afros and hijab as a forms of resistance against racialisation, and these gendered practices are linked to the women claiming belonging in Italy. On a similar note, the relatively new terms AfroItalian and Black Italian have produced new conversations about living in black and brown skin in Italy. Activist Ian Ssali rejects the label nero, as it is linked to stereotypes that fail define the diversity of African descendants, whereas writers Johanne Affricot, Celine Angbeletchy and Gaylor Mangumbu claim the title as means of both resisting anti-blackness and recognizing the commonalities of anti-blackness struggles across the diaspora.
I created this list as a starting point to create a discussion about the concept of privilege and how it might exist in Italy. As I mentioned earlier, this list of daily conveniences is inspired by my own experiences as a straight, able-bodied, African American woman. This list would only get significantly longer and more complex depending on sexual orientation, gender, ability, etcetera. Of course, there is when racism and xenophobic actions happen, call UNAR and report that mess and hopefully legal action will follow through. Lastly, I hope that reflecting on my own privileges as an African American abroad living in Italy can pull back some of the racial erasures in Italy, by citing experiences that white Italians may never have to anticipate or experience.
This piece was originally published in its Italian translation by Lorenzo Vanelli in La Macchina Sognante N. 8
I’m a Fulbright research alum’17, and during that period I conducted research on how the historical and political processes that shape Italy’s contemporary relationship with African countries impacts the promotion of products and business relations amongst African women entrepreneurs in Italy. Since receiving my Bachelors of Art in Anthropology and Italian cum laude from Mount Holyoke College in 2015, I have lived and worked in Morocco and Italy as a teacher and researcher. As an African American and a traveller, I’m curious to understand how self-identifying Black and African people perceive themselves, their surroundings, and their projects. When I’m not researching, I’m reading memoirs or essays, cooking up some chickpeas in a spicy sauce, or improving my rollerblading skills.
Featured image: photo by Melina Piccolo.