I am part of the Culture and Identity Envoy program coordinated by Benedicta Djumpah here in Rome, together with Anna Cahn, a Jewish student from Colorado College. We are here to answer the call: to explore our identity (in my case, a multicultural one) within a global context and with the support of our group.
Our first Envoy event was with guest speaker Gordon Mensah, who was born in Ghana but grew up in Italy. Gordon is a fascinating person; he has many accolades and works now at the World Bank. He shared candid vignettes about his life as a Black/African/Afro-Italian man in Italy. He talked about his experience of feeling looked down upon by Italian men if he is not dressed well; in this case, they think he may be a poor African immigrant. While at the same time, that same Italian man might donate money to orphanages in Africa through his church. The Italian man’s initial condescending behavior results from years of cultural conditioning, which he will hopefully realize one day.
My experience has been different from Gordon’s so far. Most days, I wear just a white or a black H&M shirt and comfortable cotton shorts when I am not in school or at my internship. Nevertheless, I have not noticed anyone looking down at me. Four of my roommates are white, then Nate (who is African American) and me. They are all very friendly, and I am happy we are sharing this experience. Thanks to the fantastic staff at Temple Rome, I am also interning at Mercedes-Benz Italia. For an automotive enthusiast like me, this is like a dream come true. In the first department I worked in, I was the only non-Italian and the only one with a different skin tone. Nevertheless, everyone has been treating me so nicely, and I am excited to learn more about marketing and sales in the automotive industry.
I wonder if I’m feeling more accepted by Romans and Italians because my skin is a lighter brown, and right now, my hair is very short. I had my hair cut at an Italian hair salon recently. But really it was more than a haircut, they practically razored off all my hair to the point that my mom almost cried over Zoom when she saw it. I am not sure if they did not know how to do a fade, or how to work with my hair texture, or if that was the hairstyle they had in mind. Either way, my hair is so short right now that you cannot notice my coiled curls.
Before I arrived, my parents instructed me to speak English when I meet someone and share that I am from New York. According to my mom, who is an Italian citizen and spent a year working in Rome in her twenties, Italians have an infatuation with all things American. Additionally, my Italian grandmother gifted me a necklace showing off a giant cross. I usually don’t wear necklaces, but my grandmother insisted that the necklace would protect me in Rome. An Italian friend teased me that she insisted on wearing it because I may “look Syrian” due to my new haircut. Like in the U.S., there is much political tension around immigration in Italy, which has intensified because Italy is still in a recession and has not integrated the new populations well. Therefore, the political and cultural pressure is intensified further towards refugees and asylum seekers.
Italy is surrounded by water and is a predominantly Catholic country, inspiring many searching for shelter to come here. However, due to the lack of jobs and lack of access to jobs, many refugees from Africa are reduced to selling small homemade items at street corners. There is also a lot of tension towards Syrian refugees who came during the recent war. In a land dominated by the Vatican, Syrian and/or Muslim identities can be frowned upon by some people.
I was expecting to see more diversity in this city, called by many “Caput Mundi,” which means “Capital of the World.” I was hoping to see more inclusion of Black people. Nevertheless, in my neighborhood, an upper-class residential area next to the city center, I can count the people who look something like me on the fingers of one hand. Most of the Black people I have met have been at Termini, Rome’s Central Train station, selling goods off rugs laid on the station’s floor.
Yesterday, I saw a speech by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at the Humboldt Forum in Germany (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K1Cxhq0gF6E). She is a Nigerian writer, and her address focused on how Europe has developed a way of telling the story of its colonial history that ultimately erases what happened in Africa and the atrocities that occurred at the hands of Europeans there. But how can we be so quick to acknowledge that present-day Europe is shaped by the Renaissance and at the same time avoid what happened in Africa only 100 years ago? We cannot pick and choose which history we tell. That would be lying.
Her speech was all over my social media feed. I was the president of the diversity committee at my high school in Pennsylvania and participated in many forums about diversity during my education. However, no one was talking about her speech here in Rome. I searched for it in a couple of Italian newspapers, and I could not find a single mention of it. The Humboldt Forum was conceived as a place to tell the universal story of the human race from different points of view. The power lies in being able to tell the story. But in the end, who tells the story? How can an Italian man who has been culturally conditioned for years stop being condescending towards someone who looks like Gordon if he has never heard the full story of his history?
The power lies in being able to tell the story. The full story.