50.50: Review

‘The only Black person in the room’: The truth about racism in Italy

This is a translated excerpt from Nadeesha Uyangoda’s memoir about what life is like for a person of colour in Italy today

This extract includes highly offensive language

Nadeesha Uyangoda
31 July 2021, 8.46am
Nadeesha Uyangoda and the book cover of her memoir
Collage: Inge Snip

What makes a person of colour Italian is a question that is approached in two different ways: the racist approach and the anti-racist approach taken by progressives. The unconscious racism often denounced by the latter is – take this opinion with a grain of salt – a minor evil. What is unconscious racism? It's a question like the one I'm often asked: “Do you ever think of going back to Sri Lanka?”

I am, like many children of immigrants in Italy, a person with a pretty stable life. Sure, I don't know how my life will be ten years from now, so I can't completely exclude the possibility that one day I might migrate elsewhere. But it is reasonable to presume that I will always stay in the West. Still, this is a frequent question, one of a series of other questions that Italians of colour are often asked.

“How come you speak Italian so well?” “How do you say ‘dad’ in your language?” “Are your parents cleaners?” The kind of sentences that range from badly expressed compliments to stereotypes and provocations. We perceive them all as micro-aggressions.

But I'm sure the dishwasher who was beaten up after work “because he’s a nigger" doesn't care that your neighbour told you that you speak Italian very well. The problem for the graduate who can’t teach because he doesn’t have citizenship, despite living in Genoa since he was two years old, is not being asked if he is Italian; the problem is because he is not yet Italian.

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Pointing the finger at unwitting racism is like putting a basin under a leaky ceiling when the roof has already rotted away. By 'lesser evil', I don't mean 'marginal', but it is not the original evil. The unwitting racist is usually a person who leads an almost one-colour life. His friends are white, as are his colleagues, and the same can be said of his family; he rarely interacts with people of colour, and when he does, he does so on a very superficial level.

The unwitting racist has no idea what racism is. Because it's racist, you say. Yes, of course, but in a very similar way to your Black friend who says he would only date a woman of African descent if she has fair skin. I think this type of racism is somehow comparable to the problem of colourism in ethnic communities: it is internalised, sometimes made up of involuntary actions and languages.

You will agree with me in believing that there is an abyss between someone who says that there are no Black Italians and someone who publishes a photo of a white volunteer in an Indian orphanage, repeating the stereotype known in English as “the white saviour”. When Silvia Romano [an Italian aid worker kidnapped in Kenya 2018] was released, of the photos published in the newspapers, I was impressed by the one in which she was surrounded by a crowd of African children. Should we say that Silvia Romano is a racist?

I think that whoever finds himself perpetrating involuntary racism is in turn a victim of history, a victim of mental structures that are the result of centuries of inequality between white people and persons of colour. I’m not saying we should tolerate it, I’m saying that we should refrain from only pointing the finger and we should contribute to the dismantling of those mental structures, because not even the most anti-racist of us is immune from them.

‘What makes you Italian?’

White people have never had to think about what it means, in terms of power, to be white. They have always considered their experiences to be universal. This is a common argument among Black intellectuals in English-speaking countries. In Italy, white people have never thought, over the years, what it means to be Italian. They have always assumed that being Italian meant being like them – white Caucasians. They are convinced that their idea of ​​universal Italianness is correct because that combination of skin colour and nationality is normal.

Yet the concept of Italianness cannot be firm, immutable and fixed – it has already changed, it is still changing.

“What makes you Italian?” Skin colour is an element that very easily disappears in predictable and, I would say, old-fashioned responses.

'For me, being Italian means embracing the values ​​of Christianity.”

“It means eating and loving the food we are famous for all over the world.”

“A true Italian remains faithful to his state.”

Feeling Italian is such a personal experience, and so different today from what it was 40 years ago

“Well, I'm Italian because my ancestors have been Italian for, I don't know how long” is what a Northern League [far-Right political party in Italy] supporter with a white shirt and a sweater over his shoulders once told me. He looked like someone who can't put himself into someone else’s shoes, let alone their skin.

Feeling Italian is such a personal experience, and so different today from what it was 40 years ago, that those who give these kinds of answers should really stop for a moment and ask themselves how much self-centredness there is in their expression of Italianness.

His experience is not universal; he does not feel Italian in the same way that a boy born to foreign parents and raised in Italy does. My ancestors were probably all born in Sri Lanka (and perhaps in the UK and Portugal and Holland – because colonialism really happened), but this does not mean that my version of what it means to be Italian is less valid than that of a Northern League supporter.

Religion and racism

The religious reply is the stupidest answer that can be given, and it’s always the first one on the lips of racists. The reference to Catholicism presupposes that a Black person must have another creed, that they can’t be Christian. The narrative paints the person of colour as a foreigner because he is not white, and as a non-Christian because he is Black.

This argument does not oppose Christianity to any other religion (which would, in any case, be a problem), but always and only opposes it to Islam. Have you ever heard Giorgia Meloni [leader of the far-Right, nationalist party Brothers of Italy] say: “We must defend Italy’s Christian roots from the Buddhist threat?” Even if the Muslims of the European Union make up only 2.1% of the population, they are exploited by Italian politics as if they represent a risk to our traditions.

There are more atheists than Muslims in the EU, for a start. And it never occurs to politicians that by using Christianity as an easy slogan to disguise their retrograde ideas, they insult all secular citizens or those of different faiths who do not expect an agenda full of religious ideas.

The point is that in order to justify a secular aspect of one's life, Italianness, one has to resort to an element that should remain totally extraneous to the debate on citizenship.

I'm an atheist, but this shouldn't make me feel less Italian than someone brandishing a rosary at election rallies.

​​‘L’unica persona nera nella stanza’ by Nadeesha Uyangoda is published by 66thand2nd.

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