The Italian Riveter: From THE ONLY BLACK PERSON IN THE ROOM: THE TRUTH ABOUT RACISM IN ITALY by Nadeesha Uyangoda, translated by Simone Lai

*This extract contains offensive language.

What makes a person of colour Italian is a question that is approached in two different ways: the racist approach and the anti-racist approach taken by progressives. The unconscious racism often denounced by the latter is – take this opinion with a grain of salt – a minor evil. What is unconscious racism? It’s a question like the one I’m often asked: ‘Do you ever think of going back to Sri Lanka?’

I am, like many children of immigrants in Italy, a person with a pretty stable life. Sure, I don’t know how my life will be ten years from now, so I can’t completely exclude the possibility that one day I might migrate elsewhere. But it is reasonable to presume that I will always stay in the West. Still, this is a frequent question, one of a series of other questions that Italians of colour are often asked.

‘How come you speak Italian so well?’ ‘How do you say “dad” in your language?’ ‘Are your parents cleaners?’ The kind of sentences that range from badly expressed compliments to stereotypes and provocations. We perceive them all as micro-aggressions.

But I’m sure the dishwasher who was beaten up after work ‘because he’s a nigger’ doesn’t care that your neighbour old you that you speak Italian very well. The problem for the graduate who can’t teach because he doesn’t have citizenship, despite living in Genoa since he was two years old, is not being asked if he is Italian; the problem is because he is not yet Italian.

Pointing the finger at unwitting racism is like putting a basin under a leaky ceiling when the roof has already rotted away. By ‘lesser evil’, I don’t mean ‘marginal’, but it is not the original evil. The unwitting racist is usually a person who leads an almost one-colour life. His friends are white, as are his colleagues, and the same can be said of his family; he rarely interacts with people of colour, and when he does, he does so on a very superficial level.

The unwitting racist has no idea what racism is. Because it’s racist, you say. Yes, of course, but in a very similar way to your Black friend who says he would only date a woman of African descent if she has fair skin. I think this type of racism is somehow comparable to the problem of colourism in ethnic communities: it is internalised, sometimes made up of involuntary actions and languages.

You will agree with me in believing that there is an abyss between someone who says that there are no Black Italians and someone who publishes a photo of a white volunteer in an Indian orphanage, repeating the stereotype known in English as ‘the white saviour’. When Silvia Romano (an Italian aid worker kidnapped in Kenya in 2018) was released, of the photos published in the newspapers, I was impressed by the one in which she was surrounded by a crowd of African children. Should we say that Silvia Romano is a racist?

I think that whoever finds himself perpetrating involuntary racism is in turn a victim of history, a victim of mental structures that are the result of centuries of inequality between white people and persons of colour. I’m not saying we should tolerate it, I’m saying that we should refrain from only pointing the finger and we should contribute to the dismantling of those mental structures, because not even the most anti-racist of us is immune from them.

By Nadeesha Uyangoda

Translated by Simone Lai

This is an extract from L’unica persona nera nella stanza by Nadeesha Uyangoda, published by 66thand2nd, 2021. This article first appeared on Open Democracy (www.opendemocracy.net) in July 2021. Republished with permission.


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Nadeesha Uyangoda lives in Italy. She is the award-winning author of L’unica persona nera nella stanza (66thand2nd, 2021) and creator of the podcast Sulla Razza (Juventus/Undermedia). She writes for national and foreign media.

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