Going into Susanna Owusu Twumwah’s presentation, “Race in Italy,” which focused on the Afroitalian diaspora, I didn’t necessarily expect to relate to the discussion. I was invited as one of the Culture and Identity Envoys, so already I adopted a more introspective perspective. Susanna is Ghanaian and Italian, which seems worlds away from being Asian and American; in both the U.S. and Italy, I benefit from light-skinned privilege and living in Rome for a month now, I know that I’m not subject to the same daily discrimination as others. But I was glad to go for this reason because I don’t anticipate many other opportunities to learn about a Black diaspora outside of the U.S. articulated by a member herself. And I wasn’t disappointed. Susanna was an excellent speaker who, through years of activism, clearly has honed her ability to articulate her experience, whether by delivering prepared talking points or responding questions from the audience. What ended up surprising me was how deeply Susanna’s words could resonate with me personally.
At one point when she talked about going back to Ghana, Susanna said that understanding Twi, the majority language of Ghana, was key to also understanding her roots there. By the time I was born as the youngest of four children, English had become the more commonly used language in my house. I understood basic Cantonese, but even that has atrophied with time and years of exclusively English education. And that means there are pieces of my parents that I can’t reach because I lack the key. I think my parents intentionally emphasize English because they see it as a different key – to an easier life than they have. They both left their respective birth countries under the duress of war. I can’t fault them if they believed assimilation into white America would protect us, especially when they’ve been proven correct. My easy-to-pronounce name and Northeastern accent put people at ease. But there was a price paid for that comfort that I have only just started to seriously consider. What have I lost in vying for a seat at the table?
The common metaphor for children of immigrants is that we feel trapped between two worlds. Susanna brought up the idea of dual identity, which for her meant beginning to see herself as Afroitalian when she was a teenager. At the same time, she acknowledged that Afroitlalian does not feel all-encompassing or capable of completely rendering her experience. Labels in the U.S. are much more freely given, and though I’ve never actively chosen Asian-American for myself, I haven’t strongly opposed it either. Understandably it is a dubious label for some, especially South and Southeast Asians who are routinely edged out of the popular understanding of “Asian.” However, its generality allowed me to gloss over the complications of being ethnically Chinese but raised by parents born in Vietnam and Cambodia. Maybe existing in that gray area has made me now want to reject a binarism. It is not as simple as assigning parts of myself as American and other parts Chinese. Part of an American identity requires acknowledging its colonial past and present – victims of which are my parents’ home countries. Reconciling those contradictory parts is more complex than combining them into a blended label. I’m still trying to find the answer, and I expect that process will take longer than four months in Rome.