50.50: Opinion

Italy, it’s time to confront your own rampant racism

While Italians support Black Lives Matter in the US, we must look closer to home – at our own language, colonial history and racist politicians. Italiano

Nadeesha Uyangoda
17 June 2020
A sign at a Black Lives Matter protest in Milan on 7 June 2020
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Marco Piraccini/Mondadori Portfolio/Sipa USA/PA Images. All rights reserved

Exactly a year ago, I wrote an article entitled “The only black person in the room”. Yes, black. We don’t have an Italian word for brown – well, we do, it’s marrone, but you don’t say a person is marrone. Here in Italy, non-white people are either black or coloured. This article was mainly about my own experience of living, working, and talking in rooms full of white people.

As a journalist, I had been writing about Italians of immigrant parents (so-called ‘second generations’), identity and migration for some time by then, but that piece was a turning point for me. I think it was the first article ever to describe flat-out racism in Italian society: it wasn’t just people dropping the n-word, assaulting people or saying that migrants should die in the Mediterranean. It wasn’t just a racism you could see, it was a racism you could feel.

I’ve experienced it myself in rooms full of Italian intellectuals where I was the only person of colour; when I was asked to comment on the 2019 Sri Lanka Easter terror attacks on a national television channel, but they had no make-up that matched my skin; when I went home one night and switched the TV on, and realised there weren’t any characters that looked like me.

A couple of days after my article came out, my current book editor emailed me. “There’s a book in that piece,” he said. “Are you up to write it?” I then dedicated the last year to researching, reading and focusing on race and racism (my book comes out next year). It wasn’t an easy task; people don’t want to even say the word racism in Italy, let alone talk about it.

"People don’t want to even say the word racism in Italy, let alone talk about it"

While I was working on the book, George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis. I never thought the news would have made it across the Atlantic with such force. But suddenly all of the Italian media was reporting on America’s endemic racism and police brutality and the killings of African-Americans. I was startled.

However, they were quick to say that there wasn’t anything like American racism in Italy – according to some journalists, “Race in America is more complex.”

I don’t necessarily agree with that comment. The definition of systemic racism is the same in the US as it is anywhere else: it’s the normalisation and legitimisation of a range of behaviours (cultural, historical, institutional) that routinely advantage white people and produce negative outcomes for people of colour.

If anything, I believe that racism is more complex on this side of the Atlantic. The main difference between Europe and the US is that for a long time Europeans practiced their racism abroad. In Italy, systemic racism isn’t rooted in segregation, as it is in the US, but in colonialism and, more recently, immigration.

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Protesters in Milan on 7 June 2020 | Daniele Mascolo/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved

To some extent, Italy’s unwillingness to deal with its colonial past has made space for denial, historical distortion and, ultimately, the idea that Italians can’t be racists.

Historically, in Italy we never had a society polarised between black and white and that is one of the reasons why systemic racism may be more difficult to identify here. Its existence isn’t validated by race-related data, as happens in the UK or US (censuses in Italy don’t ask people about their ethnicity or race). The proof is in the collective experience of non-white Italians – who are rarely listened to.

"Our media has failed to acknowledge Italians of colour who are fighting for local racial justice"

In the narrative about the ongoing protests in the US, once again our media has failed to acknowledge Italians of colour who are fighting for local racial justice. If people working in the Italian media perceive American racism as quite distant from Italian society, it is because journalism in Italy is an almost-white industry.

To engage in a conversation about race if one is white and therefore has never endured racism, is pretty ambitious (to put it politely).

Transnational protests were brushed off as demonstrations in solidarity with Black America, #BlackLivesMatter, while Italian people of colour are also protesting for our everyday struggles with endemic racism.

In Milan, a huge crowd gathered in front of the central station. Some people were carrying placards with names: Idy Diene, Emmanuel Chidi Namdi, Assane Diallo, Soumalia Sacko and many others – all victims of home-grown racism.

Some people have asked me if the Italian media’s coverage of George Floyd’s death could have a long-term impact on the way that race is addressed in Italy. I am sceptical.

Of course, I can’t help but hope that this moment and this reaction will encourage a more public and honest conversation about racial issues in Italy. But this is still a country where openly racist politicians are invited by journalists on to TV shows to share their undemocratic views for the sake of “freedom of speech”.

For example, you can’t wipe overnight the memory of Gianluca Buonanno, an Italian MP (from the far-right Northern League), describing Romani people as “the scum of society”, just because a handful of Italian reporters are covering the death of George Floyd and its aftermath in America. Certainly, I can’t.

*Nadeesha Uyangoda’s book, The only black person in the room, comes out in 2021 with the publisher 66thand2nd.

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