Being Black in Italy: An Interview

What is it like to be black in Italy? We spoke to Awa about her experiences as a black Italian, as part of a larger research project.

Being black in Italy interview Awa
Awa is a black Italian born in Senegal. Photo courtesy of Awa.

Awa is 23 years old and was born in Senegal. She moved to France when she was four and to Italy — specifically to the Marche region — at the age of ten. She has a degree in language mediation and interpretation. She recently took Italian citizenship in addition to Senegalese citizenship and is fluent in four languages: Wolof, French, Italian, and English.

We spoke to Awa as part of the research project MIDIC – Migrant 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, Awa tells us about her experiences of the dynamics of othering, racialization, or exclusion that come from being black in Italy.

How would you describe yourself?  

The first word that comes to my mind is hybrid: the fact of being a mixture of different elements and being neither totally black nor totally white, but in a gray zone, of many shades of gray. So, quite eclectic, often unconventional, other times very normal. A person who seems out of the ordinary but actually is not. 

How effective do you feel you are in interacting with people from other cultures? 

From personal experience, I always try to use the most correct, respectful and neutral approach there can be, without letting differences stand out too much. If differences emerge, I welcome them positively and with curiosity. I would never want another person to experience what I have suffered — those people who sometimes on the street, without even knowing you, ask, “where are you from?” or “where did you get that color?” These are things that have happened to me!

So, I always try not to demand of the person, “Look, you’re different. Come out, identify yourself, introduce yourself!”

And which of your skills or personal features are most useful to you in interacting with people from other cultures? 

Sensitivity and empathy, because thanks to what I have been through I tend to understand how the person in front of me might feel. I sympathize so much with anyone who is different, who is not part of the majority, or who differs from what is commonly called ‘normal’.

So, I always try not to bring out that aspect that I believe the other person doesn’t want to bring out; I avoid invading someone else’s space and privacy abruptly.  

When you were a child, growing up in France, did you feel different from others? And how about in Italy? 

From what I remember in France, no, I did not feel different, because I saw a lot more people similar to me. I was in a fairly multiethnic context and perceived diversity everywhere.

In Italy yes, I felt it much more. I was almost always the only black person in the class — at one point at university even the only black person in my degree program. I was often told “you are an exception, a rare gem.”

And this fact of being perceived as the exception to the rule, what reaction does that provoke in you? 

Until a few years ago it caused me mostly pride, but then as the years went by, I realized that this means that, in principle, those like me are immediately discarded as something that is not positive.

Overtime I realized that this is not a compliment but a concealed insult, and I told myself that you have to question these kinds of claims. I try, but it is a very slippery slope and I am often told that I exaggerate and see the rot everywhere when I point this out. 

What are the experiences for which you say, “What I have been through makes me empathetic and sensitive to those who are different?”

I am referring more to micro-discriminations, to what is not visible or at least not perceived as negative nor discriminating by my peers or classmates. Like little everyday episodes, like when I go to the ice cream shop and everyone before me is addressed in the third person (a formula to express politeness) and I’m addressed as ‘you’ (which is infantilizing).

Or when in primary school the best in the class were me and a Lithuanian friend of mine and very often the teacher would rage against the other pupils saying, “Shame on you, these two girls despite being foreigners are much better than all of you!” The underlying thought here was, “oh my God, the invader outdoes us.” Instead of saying, “take example,” the professor was saying, “it is not normal for foreigners to be better than you.” But in fact I had ten years of Italian schooling! 

And what do you think fosters ability to interact appropriately with people from different cultures? 

Putting yourself in a position of inferiority, where you’re not the dominant group, where you’re not the norm. For example, if I am a woman, to go to a group of men to expound my ideas. Or if I am black, go to a white country. Alternatively, if I am white, to go to a black country, so that I feel like ‘the different one’ and understand what ‘the others’ feel. Then, it depends, it doesn’t necessarily work out.   

With respect to the expression ‘second-generation or ‘of color (di colore) or ‘black, what positions do you have? 

The expression ‘second generation’ doesn’t sound like anything to me: I don’t mind it, but on the other hand I don’t understand it completely. In my opinion it leads to confusion, because those of the first generation then who are they? Our parents? I mean… what does it mean? I personally don’t perceive it as annoying, more like confusing, because I don’t understand if it refers to the children of immigrants, the children of children… [laughs]

And instead ‘of color and ‘black

The one that I prefer is ‘black’, because ‘of color’ I perceive as a hypocritical expression, a bit of a roundabout way of not saying that a person is black. I don’t understand all this fear. If you say white why can’t you also say black? It sounds so very bad, but it’s not — it’s simply a color. It should be cleared as a word! 

Are there circumstances in which its easier for you to interact with people from different cultures? 

It helps to know that someone is on your side, that you are not in the minority, that not everyone will misunderstand you. This happened to me, for example, in Belgium, when we had dinners with both Erasmus students and Belgian students. We used to discuss the most varied topics. For instance, I was talking about the day an unknown girl sitting next to me on the bus had started touching my hair and asking a lot of questions, a bit pushy. I mentioned that I experienced this episode as a micro-aggression.

I got support from some of the guys present at the dinner, while others justified that person by saying that maybe she was simply curious and wanted to be nice. In general, however, I found it easy to talk about diversity and how I perceive certain attitudes. Everyone simply gave their feedback, very serenely, and I knew for sure that someone would be on my side and understand what I meant. In short, I had confidence that the ground was fertile for discussion. 

In your history or personality, is there anything that has made it more difficult for you to interact with people from different cultures?  

The fact that one gets tired of having to repeat the same things over and over again, having to justify, having to clarify certain issues. So maybe one throws in the towel because there are too many obstacles. Personally, I try not to throw in the towel, but it is no small effort. When I see that there is closed-mindedness, when there is a lack of that fertile ground I was talking about earlier — which allows me to express myself, to confront other people in a respectful way — I avoid discussion.

There are battles that are already lost from the beginning! I have to choose my battles in order to survive. 

In the restaurant where I used to work there was a manager who used to say, “I hate those who arrived by dinghy… you didn’t come to Italy on a dinghy, did you? I just can’t stand them!” I tried several times to have a conversation with her. But on the other hand I think she is a grown woman, and I won’t be the one who can educate her. She sees it that way by now, and my personal opinion will not even be considered. It would be a waste of breath.

How much did having foreign-born parents help you develop particular resources or skills?  

Quite a lot. The fact of settling into a different context from where I come from, which is mostly manifested in my outward appearance, has led me over the years to keep well in mind where I come from, who I am, and where I am going. This is a notion that my parents instilled in me from a very young age, and for me it is an added value.

My color is associated with a certain thing, often negative, so it’s my constant duty to prove otherwise. I always have to try to overturn the current narrative that “black is inferior, black is submissive, black is poverty, black is not culture, black is backward.” Then the fact that you have parents who were born in a different country but came to Europe with a certain cultural and education background, who were already ‘full-fledged people’ before coming here, that in my opinion is also important. It allows you to understand that immigrating does not mean starting from scratch! 

You spoke of a narrative to be overturned. What role do you think the media plays in the construction of this narrative? 

Sometimes on Instagram I try to showcase the problematic nature of an article and how it deals with immigrants. I highlight that if it’s a foreigner all the generalities are listed: where he works, how long he’s been in Italy, what he’s doing there, whether he has a regular residence permit or not, whether he’s a criminal, whether he’s a worker or a volunteer, maybe terms like ‘of color’ rather than ‘black’ are used. On the other hand, when writing of an Italian only the age is mentioned.

This is a totally wrong approach that breeds prejudice. But I also don’t like that other attitude I often see lately in those younger than me: a hyper-objectification of blackness, so having a black friend is cool. Or the guys who say, “eh but you black girls — you’re so nice, so beautiful, so sensual!” I could be the most annoying person in the world. However, if I am black then I am desirable. 

And why do you think this trend exists? 

In my opinion it is also very much a trap. American trends… things like that, which make for an attitude like “how good it is to be African-American, but being African-Italian is lame.” It’s a sad thing.