Being Afro-European: An Interview

What is it like to be Afro-European living at the crossroads between Italy and the UK? We spoke to Eddie as part of a larger research project.

Eddie is an Afro-European born in Italy.
Eddie is an Afro-European born in Italy. Photo courtesy of Eddie.

Eddie spent his childhood and adolescence in Italy. He was born in Schio, in the province of Vicenza, then moved to Ancona. At 15, he moved with his family to Bristol, England. He still lives in the UK and is 23 years old. He has two sisters, studies Information Communication Technology, and loves technology. He is a first-gen ambassador and is fluent in three languages: Italian — which he considers his mother tongue — English and Twi, a language that was passed on to him by his Ghanian parents. He is Pentecostal Protestant.

After Awa, we spoke to Eddie as part of the research project MIDICMigrant descendants’ intercultural competence and their recognition in the English and Italian labor market (GA 841716 and GA 874979), funded by the European Commission through the Horizon 2020, Marie Sklodowska-Curie funding scheme. The research project is lead by Annavittoria Sarli at the Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRiS), University of Birmingham and explores how the descendants of migrants, growing up at the crossroads of multiple ethnocultural environments, understand and face intercultural interaction.

In this context, Eddie tells us his experience of racialization, exclusion but also empowerment at the crossroads between his Ghanian origin, Italy and the UK.

How would you describe yourself?

I would say that I am a human being in so many extraordinary ways that do not fit into the mainstream. Until recently I would have described myself as Afro-Italian, however, I slowly realized that the term more appropriate to the richness of culture and knowledge I have been lucky enough to accumulate is Afro-European. I really relate to what Europe is becoming: a multi-ethnic place. There are French, Spanish people, then there is the diaspora and its by-product who is us, born and raised here. That’s why when it comes to European programs, I’m the first one to raise my hand and say “I’m ready to participate, so that we too can really be considered as European citizens.”

How did you experience moving to the UK?

I struggled a lot with settling in. I didn’t know the social norms, I had no etiquette, my Italianness was too evident, it was slipping away — it was out of control! I refused to conform to an environment that did not recognize me as I was. I felt that my way of doing things left people disoriented. Here in England, they have a hard time giving black people born or raised in the EU a place, but I would have liked to have been asked the question openly, “Why aren’t you like everyone else who immigrates straight from Africa? Or why aren’t you even like a black person who grew up in England?”

I had to explore the idea of having multiple personalities [laughs]. I remember when I was trying to transfer my Italian personality to the English, here. I wanted to be witty the way I am witty in Italian, and I realized it wasn’t working. Then I realized that your personality is also shaped by the way you are perceived in a certain environment.

Thus, an existential crisis began, that I experienced as a ‘battle of languages’. I met many people of my own descent who had come from Italy and had completely lost their Italian. I told myself: “I will not be this person. I hold Italian close to my heart!” But then sometimes I would get to a point where I would say: “Enough, I can’t take it anymore! I have so much to learn in English that if I don’t leave a part of me behind, I can never get far!”

Turns out I was wrong, and fortunately I realized that. I had to struggle to hold in me a cultural and linguistic multiplicity that is broader than the norm. Anything outside the norm is hard to achieve.

Through my experience I would really like to convey the idea that ‘the Italian’ is not just this white person, made in a certain way and living in a certain place. ‘The Italian’ is part of the social fabric of the global world. He or she can be a polyglot, have different pigmentation, move around, have an inter-racial relationship and have Asian-Italian, Afro-Italian, Latino-Italian children… So many varieties.

Would you like to move back to Italy?

Yes, I would like to because I feel very connected to Italy. However, I’ll be honest, it breaks my heart to see how people of my origin are treated there. I would not know how to live in a society that basically does not recognize me. I will certainly engage in working relationships and friendships in Italy, but I would not feel comfortable raising my children there, to have them live in a place where they are racialized.

Personally, I was lucky with my experience in Italy, because I never felt I was subjected to actual acts of racism. Yes, I may have been bullied, but I never considered myself as such. I thought, “whatever, they’re joking!” The thing is, they would bully me and then we would become friends again, so I was confused: “but so what? Do you like me or not?” The truth is that they liked teasing me! Above all, they liked that it was so easy to tease me, moreover, holding me under my arm, so as to make themselves look good, you know? [laughs] In general, I had a lot of friends in Italy, however, I remember well all the little jokes, the reminding me that I was black, different, that Italy was not my country and that possibly I would better go back to where I came from. It all happened in ‘playful’ terms and it was hard for me to understand how serious it was. Now that I am in England, however, this perception of mine has changed. Here you cannot dare tell a person “go back to your country!” It would become a political issue, because in England people from ethnic minorities occupy positions of power. Here diversity is recognized as the social norm.

In fact, one thing I’ve always missed in Italy was representation. I never saw a person who was black, at any level, doing anything major. In England at first it felt strange to go to a store and find a black salesperson, to get on a bus and find a black driver, to go to a bank and interact with a black banker. At first, I was surprised, but then everything started to make more sense and I told myself: “I mean… But in what kind of society did I live in Italy?” Yes, I felt integrated, but in fact it seemed like there was no diversity or that society did not recognize it.

Who are your friends?

My history sometimes leads me to be a bit misunderstood. The only people who can understand me to the core are those who have an existential path similar to mine. With them it is already easier to come across, with everyone else I always have to give a thousand explanations. Instead, when you see people who look a little more like you, who really come from where you come from too, immediately something magical is created — I can’t explain what it is, but I know it’s true for me.

I say this, and yet my best friend is from Poland. She studied psychology. At first, she was not particularly interested in getting to know me, but we became friends because of a personality test [laughs]. She submitted it to me and apparently, we turned out to be compatible. She trusted the data, she is very scientific [laughs]. However, she is also a person of faith, as I am. Our complicity lies in the fact that we both belong to religious minorities: she also grew up as a Protestant in a Catholic country. There is a world of diversity between us, but this single thing has bound us together.

Is there anything in your story that has helped you have positive exchanges with people who are culturally different from you?

When I was in Italy, I thought they had nothing in Ghana. Coming here, however, I realized that in some parts of Ghana people live very well, that there are books, written by Ghanaian authors, that are read all over the world. Living in England has changed my mindset, because in Italy information about interculturality is limited. This helped me to interact with cultural diversity, because I felt empowered. I said to myself, “Wow, we too have something to offer this world.”

Has it occurred to you to mediate between people from different cultural backgrounds?

Yes, for example, when it happens that people who have a similar story to mine, who grew up in Italy and then came to England, make a bad joke that no one here understands. In those cases I will do my best to help the person by saying, “I know you’re weirded out, but it’s just a cultural and language barrier.” Then I will try to tone down the awkwardness by trying to find a universal level of communication, to rebalance. I don’t like when in a group conversation there is someone who feels like a fish out of water. That’s why I always try to be someone who keep people together in groups.

Do you know people who are not effective in intercultural interactions?

Yes, many of the people I know are unable to appreciate diversity. I am really attracted to these people, because I like to expand their worldview by challenging it. I cannot think of the ideal world I would like if there are still members of society who are unwilling to welcome those who are not like them. That’s why I try to invite them into a conversation. I talk about myself, about what I have experienced. This helps them a little bit to open up, to listen to me. Then as time goes by, as we bond more, I start suggesting new ways of doing, of seeing, some inputs so they can loosen up. I don’t want them to preclude themselves from becoming a little more welcoming.

How do you think one can learn to interact constructively with people from cultures different from one’s own?

By espousing the causes of minorities and empathizing with them. You do this by deeply understanding their point of view, by educating yourself, even independently, on your own. You have to challenge your own way of thinking. You have to go to a library, immerse yourself and go deeper to fully understand the story that led the other person to see things a certain way. In short you need humility, to understand how ignorant you are [laughs] and then you need to question yourself.

In short, in my opinion to become stronger in intercultural interaction it is important to stay out of your comfort zone, to resist even if you feel disoriented, uncomfortable, your head seems to explode. However, as you deal with uncomfortable situations, especially at the level of cultural misunderstanding, you begin to realize that by wearing another’s lens you can see different reasons besides your own. One should simply be open-minded, but it doesn’t come so naturally — that’s the problem. Humility is not easy, especially if in Italy you are esteemed as particularly erudite, then you go to Africa and they are like, “But… where did you learn this?” Many people have a hard time understanding that “I mean, I studied more than 20 years and I still don’t understand?”