On October 1, 2019, activist and ambassador Susanna Owusu Twumwah presented Temple University Rome Campus with an open discussion on race in Italy and personal experiences as an Afroitalian living in Rome. Throughout this presentation, Susanna highlighted some of the critical elements while living abroad and the experiences one feels in regards to cultural and social displacement. Susanna provided this insight through self-disclosing personal accounts of trauma, growth, healing, and identity as a Ghanaian-Italian woman. Similarly, fellow Afroitalian activist, and Temple University Rome Student Life Assistant, Benedicta Djumpah expanded the group conversation with intriguing questions and personal testimonies as a Ghanaian-Italian woman on topics of racial discrimination and cultural identity in a global context. Benedicta illuminated racial tendencies embedded within Italian culture and facilitated a dialogue that aided in bridging the social, political, and cultural borders between the U.S. and Italy.
This style of open dialogue truly allowed for a more interpersonal group discussion that exceeded cultural and social boundaries. Throughout the discussion, I felt that my lived experiences provided differing parallels surrounding discrimination and cultural displacement. I found it incredibly moving to hear Susanna and Benedicta speak on the importance of history through language and linguistic freedom. Language, as a tool and vessel of culture, can become a crucial part of expressing identity and understanding one’s self in both an internal and external context. Benedicta and Susanna’s examples of having culturally specific names and surnames resonated with me, especially throughout my study abroad experience thus far.
My name is Paolo Lee. My family raised me to understand the cultural and historical significance of my name, specifically in regards to the pronunciation of my first name. (For clarification, Pá-oh-loh) My maternal grandparents are both first-generation Puerto Rican immigrants. Throughout my upbringing, both my parents and grandparents made sure that I understood my ancestral roots as a mixed boricua living and growing in predominantly white institutions. As a youth, I understood the challenges my name presented in both social and internal experiences. It was not until young adulthood that I was fully able to comprehend just how formative these instances would become in my life. For years, I have lived with people completely disregarding and mispronouncing my name. However, it became apparent in academic settings how quickly and profusely my name and identity would be culturally assumed and ultimately whitewashed. Amongst other students and particularly faculty members, I found that my name presented social and cultural borders that manifested themselves into both internal and external displacement.
Moreover, I can identify similarities between my youth experiences and my experiences while living in Rome, Italy. Living abroad can indeed expose people to varying levels of physical, emotional, mental, social, and cultural challenges. It has been my name, among other things, that has presented unforeseen obstacles when it comes to my identity and expression. It is no surprise that given the spelling of my name, people typically assume I am of Italian descent. This form of cultural and racial assumption is something I regularly experienced at home when people were not calling me Pablo, Paulo, Paoli, or any Hispanic sounding name that comes to mind. However, I have realized that my presence in Italy has conjured new external perceptions of my internal identity. I have found that based on my popular Italian name (pronounced PAO-loh) and my apartment’s location in a more residential area of Rome, that locals presume I am also Italian. Not that this is inherently negative, but I have noticed the immediate dissatisfaction in the faces and treatment I receive once the realization sets in that I am not native to Italy, nor do I speak the language. This cultural assumption based on language and names has, in a way, placed me in between these cultural borders while living abroad. I do, however, want to immerse myself into the Italian culture and take advantage of the privileges that studying abroad grants to those who dare venture beyond their comfort zones. Consequently, I have found that my name in Italian, has in a way socially erased me of my culture and personal identity. From an outsider perspective, people see me as a fellow Italian native, which is a stark contrast to the reception and expression of my identity back in the U.S.
In numerous ways, this month abroad has been a learning experience beyond the classroom. The assumed locality of my existence in Rome thus far has challenged and in some cases, threatened to erase myself and my cultural identity. The parallels between my experiences abroad and at home have provided me with a new perspective on how I conceptualize cultural, social, and internal identity. While the looming feelings of displacement are not a new development, I have found that the relationship between external perception of culture and internal identity through language is far more complicated than I had previously imagined. With that being said, I am truly honored to have attended the presentation with Susanna. I am grateful for the chance to listen to such an established activist reflect on their truth and expand on the intersectional complexities of cultural identity and societal practices. This event facilitated by Benedicta and the experiences alongside the other Culture and Identity Envoys has altered the trajectory of my personal development and professional attitudes. Although, as a program, we are just getting started, I already feel indebted to them and extend my deepest gratitude for providing a space that is receptive, engaging, and transparent. I believe these personal connections developed through organized events are vital to an experience that is fully immersive and beneficial during and beyond one’s time abroad.