Why It’s So Hard to Have Conversations About Racism in Italy

by Sumaia Saiboub

racism in italy


Italy has a long and complicated relationship with racism. It finds its roots in the rise and fall of Fascism, its rooted legacy and most recently it has been perpetuated by specific dynamics created by the Italian media. This of course has consequences into how Italians of color are seen by the majority, but also in how they see themselves, sending out to the world an image of Italy stuck in the previous century.


Racism in Italy Begins With the School Curriculum 

They say that the future of a nation starts within the walls of classrooms, but when the school curriculum is decided by a majority of people who haven’t reckoned with their past and its rooted heritage, the future you’re building naturally benefits only those who look like that majority.


When it comes to teaching recent history, in most classrooms, Fascism is explained very superficially, Mussolini’s heavy propaganda to install a strong sentiment of white supremacy in all spheres of society, from schools to the street advertisement, in order to justify his intent to colonize the Horn of Africa, is usually left out. So are the war crimes committed in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia. There is little to no admission of guilt. I’ve met people who still say that all Italians did in Africa was bring civilization, by building roads and infrastructure. Which, in a way, confirms the notion that the perception that many Italians still possess about people of color and the African continent transcends from the Fascist period. And that’s because — maybe I’m repeating myself, but I want this to be very clear — the school system has not made any efforts in overturning that terrible narrative. 


The way I see it, this is not a problem that affects the majority and as such authors of school curricula and, in addition, teachers are ill-equipped to identify and bring out the truth. 


There are also two cultural aspects to take into consideration: the first is responsibility, the second is the common idea that Italians are good people. Proceeding in order, not wanting to take responsibility is typical in Italy even within the institutions. When money disappears or valuables are misplaced, actually whenever something is out of order, the person in charge always claims to never know how it happened. A few years back the leader of a now-defunct political party, transferred all of his electors’ funds to his own bank account and when he was caught, he claimed he didn’t know how the money ended up in his bank account. Again there was this strange episode where the leader of a conservative middle eastern country was invited to visit a museum in Rome by the minister of culture. When they arrived all naked statues had boxes covering them and when the minister was asked why he gave such an order, he said he knew nothing about it when at the time all museum directors responded to him. I could make hundreds more similar examples, but I’ll limit it to these two.


In the specific case of admitting responsibility for Italy’s past in Africa, would also imply that the stereotype that Italians are all good people — or as they say it in Italian “gli Italiani tutti brava gente” — is not completely true. Whenever Italy’s colonial exploits in Africa are brought up, Italians invoke the saying to defend themselves. The majority of Italians fail to understand that admitting your faults, or rather past mistakes doesn’t make you a bad person or a country of evil people. Rather, It makes you look aware and responsible because these two are usually followed by action that can create a more just society, where opportunities and equitable living standards are available for citizens outside of the majority population.


Immigration and Italian Media 

Around the 80s Italy — more than well recovered from World War II — started to open its borders to immigration. Fast forward to today, most of the people who moved to Italy at the time, have kids who were born and raised in Italy and are now in their early or mid-twenties. However, the media hasn’t taken an interest in addressing the phenomenon until recently, to be precise more or less when the Lampedusa crisis began (when people from across Africa started to arrive on rubber dinghies to the shores of Lampedusa, Italy — the closest island on the European continent). In its reporting, the media fails to acknowledge the full history of immigration in Italy and therefore spreads a skewed narrative that promotes the false idea that the recent crisis represents the first example of immigration in the country. A situation that gratuitously feeds into propaganda eschewed by far right-wing politicians like Matteo Salvini who want Italians to believe that immigrants come here to rob Italians of their jobs, engage in criminal activity, and exploit government-issued benefits. 


What’s probably worse is that the Italian media has created some problematic and static dynamics. In Italy, political talk shows still enjoy large audiences, there’s programming every night of the week, and although they claim to examine the latest news from a closer angle, they always fail to have enough representation on them. In other words, they’ll be speaking about an issue without having those directly affected by it in the studio. For example, they could be talking about the “Me Too” movement and have no woman involved in the talk, or about immigration and never interview a single immigrant. 


It’s all an “Americanata”, or American Problem

In a context like this, if you’re a young person of color, you are mostly seen as a foreigner, someone who’s not very skilled, who had little access to education, and so on. Consciously or unconsciously this bias has a significant impact when it comes to accessing employment, as in the head of the vast majority of recruiters, professionals are only white, with white names and men, a view they share with search engines as well. This also applies to the creative industry


But the bias isn’t limited to this, it also affects the general vision of who is considered Italian. In the eyes of the majority, you’re only Italian if you’re white, pragmatically Catholic, and have a typical Italian family name, which is part of the reason why so many second-generation Italians struggle to call themselves Italians or to feel as deserving as the majority. 


This is why racism can be so silent here, especially on the receiving end. Two new generations — Millennials and Gen Z — of Italians were raised to think they were guests in the only country they’ve ever lived in, they were always told they should settle when it comes to professional opportunities and that certain paths were only meant for certain people as if merit wasn’t the base for success.


On the other hand, white Italians have of course never noticed any of it and often when these issues are brought up in a conversation, most just try to justify themselves by saying that they have friends who are people of color. As if having Black friends meant automatically having asked about their experience in Italy as a minority, or that by having Black friends they automatically can empathize with their experience in the country, notwithstanding their ignorance of the history of Italy. But it doesn’t end here, on a more professional level when corporate and recruiting agencies get called out for their lack of diversity and get consultancy on how to solve the problem, they dismiss most of the feedback they receive. Keywords such as unconscious bias are usually dismissed as an “americanata”, which means a word, a dish, or even a habit invented by Americans that cannot be transplanted in Italy because the same circumstances don’t apply.


Frankly, I don’t think that what I have just described, can be summarized in any other way but this: it’s difficult to talk about racism, diversity, and inclusion in Italy, because white Italians are stuck to an idea of non-white people that belongs to the Fascist period, that they project on the vast majority of people of color living in the country. They are embracing the image of immigrants created by Salvini and extreme right politicians. 


I believe this cannot last for much longer, in a world so interconnected as ours, change is inevitable. Just a few years ago nobody would have delivered these critiques. Today the problem has a name: growing racism. We see it and we’re trying to solve it for good. Maybe it’s happening fast, or maybe this is just the speed that the young generation is used to. Repeating to them that they should settle, only made them realize that they had to be twice as good as anyone else to stand a chance. Unconsciously, they raised excellence.


Related All the Pretty Birds Culture Posts:

Anti-Racism & Black Lives Matter Movement Resources 

Willy Monteiro Duarte Wasn’t Just an Immigrant

Digital Creatives of Color to Know in Italy

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