Ariam Tekle had just begun co-hosting a podcast about black identities in Italy when, in late May, George Floyd was killed in police custody and a series of Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the United States.
That outcry for social change resonated across the Atlantic, hitting many cities in Europe with unprecedented force, including her hometown of Milan. And for local black communities, the protests became an opportunity to speak out about issues of endemic racism beyond the U.S. experience.
“We stand in solidarity with what is happening in the U.S., but we also want this to be a starting point to openly confront racism at home that is no less alarming than police brutality in America,” Tekle, a 31-year-old documentary filmmaker, says.
Since the beginning of the protests in the U.S., Tekle noticed a growing number of young Italians who were interested in educating themselves about black narratives. This was confirmed by the fact that the number of her podcast’s followers jumped from a few dozens to a few hundred within a couple of days at the beginning of June.
“Our voices are rarely listened to because we are not represented at the institutional or media level,” says Tekle, who is black. “The only way we try to be heard is through independent productions, but until recently those struggled to attract mainstream audiences, creating a gap.”
In early June, Tekle participated in one of the many peaceful sit-ins that took place across Italy’s main cities. They were mainly organized by young Afro-Italians, descendants of African immigrants to Italy who are now second-, third- or fourth-generation, with the goal of taking action against systemic racism in Italy. Black women, in particular, have been at the helm, both organizing and leading protests.
Meanwhile, Italian coverage of the U.S. protests has thus far adopted a hasty approach, labeling racism as an “American exception” because of its specific social and historical structures.
In Italy, censuses don’t ask people about their ethnicity, so racism isn’t substantiated by statistics such as income. That makes it harder to grasp, but it exists. Italians say it’s obvious in the country’s inability to face its colonial past in East and North Africa and, more recently, in its hardened migration policies.
This tracks with nationalism taking on a bigger role throughout Europe in recent years. As a result, support for populist and far-right parties has grown stronger in countries like Hungary, Spain and Italy. During his 14-month tenure as interior minister, which ended in 2019, Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s far-right League party, passed anti-migrant laws. They are still in force and strip many migrants of humanitarian protection.
In the past six years, more than 1,500 agricultural workers of color have died in Italy — three have been killed since Black Lives Matter protests started — because of poor working conditions and a lack of labor rights. Similarly, more than 300 migrants deaths have been registered in the Central Mediterranean since the beginning of 2020. (There has been little reporting on the impact of race or migrant status in covid-19 deaths.)
Italian protesters have brought these deaths to light as examples of home-grown racism. But many still feel that Italian media and politicians have been quick to brush off protesters’ calls as a simple solidarity movement with black America.
“It began with the death of George Floyd in the U.S., but this is also our battle,” says Esperance Hakuzwimana Ripanti, who helped organize a 2,000-strong public gathering in Turin, Italy, on June 6. The event was meant to elevate the voices of black Italians who say they face racism at home.
“We don’t want this to be a kind of activism that lasts one or two weekends,” says Ripanti, a 29-year-old activist and writer.
Ripanti spent the first three years of her life in an orphanage in Rwanda before she was adopted by a family in northern Italy. She say that growing up in an all-white environment meant her daily reality was one of normalized microaggressions. To many Italians, dark skin is still considered “un-Italian.”
“I knew no other reality, so I, like many black or other minority kids, thought it was fair to just accept it in silence, that we had no reason to claim a different treatment,” Ripanti says of the judgment around her own blackness.
But as Ripanti grew up and began to travel, she realized that didn’t have to be the norm. In 2019, she published a memoir — “Manifesto of an Italian Black Woman” — which tackles the experience of growing up in a country that constantly identifies you as a foreigner based on appearance and name.
“When at the age of 11 or 12 years old, men already start stopping us in the street to ask ‘How much?’ — either as a joke or because they actually cannot conceive the fact that a black girl can also be an Italian student — that becomes a very traumatic way to start confronting ourselves with our identity and sexuality,” Ripanti says.
According to Igiaba Scego, an Italian-Somali writer and scholar, the context of a highly patriarchal society that sees women, particularly black women, as complacent sexual objects is what has pushed them to play a greater role in leading the BLM discourse in Italy.
Now, they’re at the forefront of the movement, leading protests and online debates, and amplifying their voices as they point out Italy’s biggest faults in relegating black bodies to background roles.
This plays out most obviously in citizenship rights. In recent years, young descendants of immigrants have been advocating for a reform of a 1992 citizenship law that awards Italian nationality mainly through bloodlines.
As a result, a large number of immigrant children who’ve lived in Italy for over a decade are not formally recognized as Italians. A report highlighted that during the 2017-2018 academic year, 842,000 foreign-born students with residence permits but no Italian citizenship were enrolled at Italian public schools.
Born in Rome to Somali parents, Scego is an Italian citizen and one of the most prominent voices in Afro-Italian literature; her fiction and nonfiction books tackle the topics of colonialism, migration and racism. As a small but growing number of authors of color makes their way through the publishing industry, she believes representing experiences like hers is key, but still thinks it should no longer fall solely on black people to educate Italians on racism.
For this reason, she was pleasantly surprised to find out that white protesters were reading excerpts of her writings out loud at protest in various cities. “After all these years believing I was working in the shadows, this made me feel that my work wasn’t vain, that it’s giving space to start conversations,” Scego says.
For Benjamina E. Dadzie, a 26-year old anthropologist of Ghanaian origins who obtained Italian citizenship in 2012, language is crucial in this movement:
“Many Italian terms don’t have the same modern connotation they have elsewhere,” she says, explaining that the Italian term for “race” is still associated with 1938 fascist laws against Jews.
Dadzie is now part of a black collective developing critical vocabularies to provide tools to decolonize Italian language and allow black minorities to verbally express their discomfort. They are working to adapt some concepts and words — such as “blackness,” “resilience” and “white privilege” — from English and other languages of countries that have a more solid history of talking about racism.
On June 12, the statue of a prominent Italian journalist who defended his decision to buy and temporarily marry a 12-year-old Eritrean girl during Italy’s colonization of the area in the 1930s was defaced by a group of students supporting the local Black Lives Matter protests. To this date, the mayor has refused to remove it, and defended the man’s cultural contribution to Italian journalism.
Tekle’s Eritrean parents immigrated to Italy in the 1970s. She says “it’s honorable that, finally, female black voices are getting attention.”
She adds: “But until Italy comes to terms with its past and acknowledges its present-day faults, there will still be a lot to do.”