The first time I came to Italy I was 8, maybe 9 years old. I spent 2 weeks on the coast, in a small Calabrian town where my father grew up. Bright days faded into cotton candy sunsets into starry midnights over the Tyrrhenian Sea. For a long time, this was the grander part of my understanding of Italy, furnished by my brief interactions with relatives and the far-away accounts of my dad’s youthful escapades. As the years have gone on and I have become more familiar with Italy, through classes as well as my own extended stays, I have come to understand that the country–and my relationship with it– are more complex than my 9-year-old self could have begun to decipher.
Often I am overpowered by the beauty of the Tiber River and the solemn history, ancient structures standing stately at each corner and in every piazza; but in turn, I have had the privilege of being part of conversations that demonstrate the tragic history and continued oppression that rests in the cracks of cobblestone and hieroglyphic inscriptions on those same statues. As these aspects of my new home intersect, I am working to accept my otherness as an American student here, as well as my participation through heritage in these rights and wrongs, and to learn and grow from Italy’s deep, and ever on-going history.
I currently have the privilege of studying here for roughly 4 months through the Temple University Rome Program; and I have concurrently participated in events organized by the campus to offer a wider breadth of what the “Italian Experience” really entails and how that may shift based on what you look like or where you call home. Recently an activist, Susanna, came to speak about the conversation around race in Italy, or it seems, lack thereof. She voiced her struggles in interacting with other Italians, who often make assumptions based on her blackness or demonstrate surprise when she speaks fluent Italian. I, in contrast, stutter an American-accented attempt at “Ciao,” while my dark hair and Calabrian features pass me off as a local. I listened to Susanna speak and began to shrink at the thought of my unquestioned assimilation; it felt to me unearned and misplaced. She and I seem to be on the outskirts of a wall that defines “Italian enough.” Previous to hearing her speak, I think a part of me wanted to climb that wall; to convince everyone I belong here; to master the mannerisms and forget my American upbringing. The power and self-awareness with which she spoke about her experiences and declared her identity (not to be validated by others or explained in a way that seemed palatable, but to be lived and loved and defined by herself) demonstrated that the better course of action is to tear the wall down. Her insights have encouraged me to consider my own privileges here.
I came to Italy, in part, to connect with my heritage. Being unable to speak the language, however, can often make this effort feel inauthentic. When I wander around with my Italian name and my American accent, I always feel obligated to explain myself or validate my own Italian-ness, (“no, my dad grew up here, I have family here”). This kind of questioning can feel like it’s forcing you into deciding on your “identity” and being confronted with how that defines who you are. I often have to remind myself that my connection with my identity is not rooted in a singular place, be that the U.S., or Italy, or anywhere else for that matter– but the various ways in which those places have influenced who I am or who I will become. More so, as Susanna emphasized, I do not owe anyone an explanation.
Of course, the work she is doing has much grander implications than my narrative here. She is working with movements that are broaching and shaping the conversation around race discourse in Italy. Like the United States, the country has a long way to go in terms of progress; with women like her at the helm, however, I have faith it is progressing in the right direction.