The Black Men of IES Roma: a personal reflection
Editing my vlog took a ton of time, but interviewing Massimo, Jawaun and Joe was a ton of fun, and very enlightening. My aim with my vlog was simply to give them a voice. Shockingly, they represent 100% of the black male population at my program – students and staff included, yet both Jawun and Joe go to Amherst College. I would say about 7% of the students at my program identify as black, in comparison to Amherst’s 13%.
There’s a brilliant video I came across on Facebook by Dr. Tamara Pizzoli, a black woman, about black women in Rome. It offered a fresh perspective for me because, although they all could identify negative experiences, some felt more appreciated and accepted here in Rome than in the US. One of the women noted that the stares she receives in Rome are simply appreciating something different and not condescending.
This was particularly new for me. I hardly notice anyone staring at me in in the first place because I don’t notice anything I’m not specifically focusing on, or so my friends have informed me. In fact, right at the beginning of my time here I felt more comfortable in my skin than I had in America. I felt America was continually bringing up race, which made me overthink things, but race wasn’t really talked about here so I could forget about it. Moreover, when I have my afro out, I expect people to stare because it’s not the most common sight, not even in Nairobi or Kampala. So I’ve never really been bothered by stares. However, since then, I’ve become more self-conscious; worrying about why people stare at me so much. Is it because they think I don’t belong? Or are they just looking at something new? Are they appreciating our differences? Or do they think their mainstream beauty is superior to my own? Is exotic a good or bad thing? These thoughts now plague me every time I walk through the streets of Rome and I’m not sure whose fault that is. I’m glad that the woman in the video offered me a different angle. Maybe if I just think, “they must be appreciating my dark skin and afro” then it won’t even matter what’s right because I’ll be at peace.
Whereas, I’ve found, all over the world really, that people do not find me threatening. They may assume I’m poor or uneducated or even ugly, but never a threat. That’s not the same for black men. Joe once told me that a woman grabbed her things and moved to the other side of the sidewalk as though she feared he might steal them.
One might say that Italy has not had the smoothest relationship with its black population thus far – using a racial slur for a black minister and allegedly rejecting asylum seekers by nationality. But, though small, there is a black population in Italy and Massimo is optimistic that the experience of the black Italians is going to improve greatly with time, as this population increases. Not necessarily the population of immigrants, but that of black men and women born and raised here in Italy. I’m equally hopeful but less optimistic. During my Spring Break, about two weeks ago, I was having dinner with my uncle when he explained that a lingering joke among Europeans is that Italy is really an African country, because of how close it is to the African continent in proximity and the fact that many African immigrants that journey through the Mediterranean sea land in Italy. As you might imagine, this is not a compliment. I think that as long as Italians are fighting for their own identity within Europe as European, and as long as being African is an insult, the black or African experience here, as all over the world, will be difficult.
Italy is not unique in its struggle to accept different races as equally belonging in its land, and it’s definitely not unique in its struggle to welcome black immigrants or tourists. There are many positive black experiences here in Italy, just as there are many negative ones. I do not personally feel any more welcome in the US than in Italy, but the presence of the African American community in the US means that people first assume I’m American, whereas here people first assume I’m American or African, but definitely not Italian.
Hopefully, Jawaun’s belief that Europeans pride themselves in being the most humane people group, will lead them to have improved racial relations as their countries become increasingly racially diverse. Luckily, there are others who have gone before us that have made the world accept racism as abominable, and so very few people will be openly racist. So Europe probably won’t need quite as much work as the US did, having come from a time when it was generally accepted that black people were closer to their apelike ancestors than white people, and therefore were not as evolved, as a New York Tribune article asserted in 1924.