On a Monday evening I got the opportunity to sit in on a conversation entitled “Race in Italy: Meeting with Benedicta and activist Susanna Owusu Twumwah about Afroitalians in Rome. This event was facilitated by Benedicta Djumpah (the Assistant of Student Life at Temple Rome). She was in conversation with her friend Susanna, whom she met through the activist community in Rome. I was completely enamored and honored to be able to share space with the dialogue in this conversation. There were many things said in this panel discussion that stood out to me and led me to begin to reexamine and reconstruct my experience as a black woman here in Rome.
The first topic they discussed was in regards to identity and its repercussions on black people in the Italian context. Most black people in Rome have immigrated or migrated from places in Africa like Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal and Ivory Coast. In my own life, I had huge difficulties deciphering where I belong and to which place I am native. This was something that Susanna described as well, being the child of Ghanaian immigrants, while also being born and raised in Rome. She touched on the price that assimilation plays on identity and the struggle of belonging. The realities of isolation and displacement are not discussed as much in Europe, and race is not even a term used when talking about these experiences. Due to historical events, such as the Holocaust, words like “black” and “white” are not common in Italy to describe the racial categories of people, unlike in the U.S., where we have specific terminology that we are expected to use when discussing the complexities of racial experiences.
Susanna also touched very briefly on how in Italy, the white, male gaze can feel threatening to the black female body. She stated, and I quote, “white (Italian) men “want your body because you are different.” Black women’s bodies are desirable because we are “unnatural” and “new.” Black female bodies have very little autonomy. We are not expected to view our skin or selves as sacred. This situation exemplifies the intrinsic worldview from a cultural context in which the presence of over sexualization and fetishization inevitably further perpetuates feelings of displacement. I am familiar with this, as it is similar in the U.S.; the main distinction is the historical and cultural context.
Walking around in Rome, I have observed that I cannot rely on endless variations of myself being reflected back to me. This experience promotes a feeling isolation, which in and of itself feels violent. The lack, or even the absence, of difference has caused a dangerous monolithic conceptualization of what it means to be black to develop within the Italian culture.
Susanna mentioned that she used to wear wigs and sow-in’s, but in the last couple of years, she made the intentional decision to cut off all her hair and embrace the natural experience. I loved how she included this story in her discussion. She mentioned how empowering and self-defining this choice was to her identity as a black woman, which for me, being here, continues to carry me throughout my time here in Rome.
Everything discussed in this panel, for me continued to come back to the topic of displacement and how that influences black identity here in Italy. I believe there are many forms of displacement that affect black communities within a global context, and that all of these need to be offered the same amount of acknowledgement.
I am beyond grateful to Susanna and Benedicta for providing this space, and for engaging courageously in a conversation that required them both to relive trauma and pain in front of a group of predominantly white students. To me, these are the issues we need to be thinking about, dissecting, debating and creating intentional dialogue about, especially, in a country like Italy, where most people, including most visiting U.S. students, are white. In order to embark in this work, you need to be able to see, stomach and tell whole the truth.