Dear Italy,                             Your disregard for Black Italians is deafening and must stop
Photo credit: Melissa Zemagou Ndoungtio
Treviso, Italy

Protests took place around Italy as many joined in solidarity with America over the senseless killing of George Floyd at the hands of white police officers in Minnesota. 

However, the rapid discussion about race and racism that is visibly present in other countries, such as the USA or UK, is unfortunately in its infancy in Italy. Just last week, the idea that Italy is branded as the central hotspot for black people’s horrible experiences of racism was trending on Twitter. 

A tweet highlighting the nature of discourse around racial issues in Italy.

How is it possible that seeing Italy protest for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement is perceived as a novelty or ‘extraordinary’ for many Italians, including myself?
A tweet showing Black Lives Matter protests around the world, with the capiton ‘The day I see Italy doing this, will officially mark 2020 as an extraordinary year.’

This is because Black Italians feel disregarded when it comes to race issues in their own country. 

This is a nation that stands on its feet at the first alarm bell for whatever happens in America but fails to tackle its domestic issues. 

Systemic racism is closer than you think with the deaths of Emmanuel Chidi Namdi, Ahmed Ali Giama, Idy Diene, Modou Diop, Jerry Essan Masslo, Soumaila Sacko, Abdoul Salam Guiebre, Samb Modou, Diop Mor,  Mohamud Mohamed Guled, Giacomo Valent and so on.

Dear Italy, change starts at home.

Let’s now explore some sections of institutionalised racism present in Italy.

The media

A quick google search for the best selling Italian newspaper ‘Il Corriere Della Sera’ brings you to zero Black Italian journalists. 

When Loretta Grace, a prominent Afro-Italian influencer, asked her followers on her Instagram story if they’ve ever seen a black broadcaster on Italian tv, the final survey was 95% NO 5% YES. 

The results of an Instagram poll conducted by Loretta Grace, a prominent Afro-Italian influencer, asking her followers whether they had ever seen a black broadcaster on Italian television.

While the UK and US media are calling for more black journalists, and involving them more heavily in reporting on the latest series of events surrounding Black Lives Matter, this is simply not possible in Italy, where the system has yet to be dismantled in the first place.

If the media is so white-washed and, is under-representing an entire section of the country, how can it truly say it is incorporating Black Italians?

It should come as no surprise, then, that I left Italy to pursue my journalism career at the best university for journalism in the UK. 

Political and Social Issues

First, the most controversial issue yet to be tackled is Ius Soli, commonly referred to as birthright citizenship. This is active in the USA and UK, and guarantees the right of a child born in a country to claim citizenship. 

This law is absent in Italy. Children of foreign parents born and schooled in Italy are not immediate Italians.

The legislative process to change this started in 2015. It was passed by the Chamber of Deputies but was subsequently rejected by the Senate in 2017. Notably, it was opposed both by the Five Star Movement (M5S), and the far-right Northern League, both of which won the election in 2018. The latter, in particular, linked the reform to an influx of migration to Italy. 

According to a campaign group ‘Italiani senza cittadinanza‘ (Italians without citizenship), there are now one million people in this position. 

As beautifully put by The Local, this is simply ‘politics of metaphorical white children, causing maximum damage to real-life brown and black ones.’ 

Secondly, there is the exploitation and underpayment of migrant labourers in the agricultural sectors. 

In 2018, the Global Slavery Index, estimated that there were over 50,000 enslaved agricultural workers in Italy. 

Yes. Modern-day slavery is happening in Italy and there are not enough policies to stop it.

Paid an average of £1-3 euro per hour, approximately 100,000 live in 50-70 slums across the country. They are deprived of basic services such as running water, electricity, or waste disposal. In the past six years 1,500 of these labourers have died, and just last week, we heard news of yet another victim: 37-year-old Mohamed Ben Ali. He died in a fire in the slum of Borgo Mezzanotte (Puglia), one of the many slums that hosts immigrant farmworkers. The causes of the fire and death are yet unknown. 

A screenshot of a tweet relaying the news of the death of a black labourer, Mohamed Ben Ali, in a fire that broke out in the slum of Borgo Mezzanote, in Puglia, southern Italy.

More needs to be done to avoid the loss of life of innocent black and brown workers, of which many escape hardship to start a new life in Italy. The need for more regulations, and a series of inquiries into the cause of these deaths, and the inhumane treatment so often faced by this marginalised group is long overdue. 

Italian doctors’ appeal in the British Medical Journal said: ‘We must put a stop to the exploitation of migrant farmworkers, which makes it possible for Italian tomatoes to be sold at a low cost worldwide.’

But how much do these tomatoes really cost? What is the human cost of these products?’

Thirdly, who are the people at the bottom of the Mediterranean? The bodies of migrants who drowned at sea. 

The UN revealed that last year more than 1,000 migrant refugees died trying to cross the sea.

Currently, former Interior Minister Salvini is facing a trial for preventing the rescue of migrant boats on Italy’s shores last July. 

Last year, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said Italy had breached human rights obligations by encouraging Libya’s coastguard to return migrants to detention centres where they suffered serious abuse and torture.

They added: ‘Governments also need to stop blaming refugees and migrants for economic and social problems, and instead combat all kinds of xenophobia and racial discrimination.’ 

‘Doing otherwise is deeply unfair, stirs up tensions and fear of foreigners, and sometimes leads to violence – even death.’ 

It is extremely important to note that Libya was an Italian colony. The flight of migrants from this country and many others is simply a consequence of hundreds of years of enslavement and oppression. An awareness of this is a step towards change. 

As a result, education is an essential part of racial cognitive awareness.

The Italian curriculum  

Much like the media, the Italian curriculum is heavily white-washed. Italy colonised Libya, Eritrea, Somalia, and Ethiopia. A refusal to acknowledge this horrific past drives the institutionalised racism that is present today.

The constant discussion purely of WWI and WWII is certainly not going to help in addressing the multifaceted nature of systemic racism in Italy today. 

Let us start with the war crimes in Ethiopia (1935-1937). Around 19,000 Ethiopians in Addis Ababa were stabbed, beaten, and incinerated.

Flamethrowers were used to set fire to their cottages ‘where thousands of innocents – defenceless children, women and the elderly- were immolated.’

During the conquest of Libya and Ethiopia, the Madamato Law was established. This allowed Italian soldiers to buy 12-year-old girls as their partners. 

For example, the then famous Italian journalist Indro Montanelli admitted having bought and married an Eritrean girl, aged 12, while serving in the Second Italo-Ethiopian War in 1936. He openly confirmed this without hesitation in multiple interviews as you can see here.  

Today, ‘Sentinelli di Milano’ organization calls for the removal of his statue in the Milanese gardens named after him. The same statue was daubed with red paint and defaced with the words ‘racist, rapist’ in Milan this week. Reportedly, the first such attack on a statue in Italy. 

A screenshot of a tweet showing a statue doused in red paint. The statue is of an Italian journalist who openly admitted to having a 12-year-old Eritrean bride during the second Italo-Ethiopian war of 1936.

Meanwhile, General Rodolfo Graziani, known as the ‘The Butcher of Ethiopia’ has monuments in Italy dedicated to him. He is recognised by the United Nations as a war criminal.

If Italians are not aware of their history, how can we have a collective and conscious understanding of how the current situation is a direct consequence of our past?

Learning about this should start from a young age so that the future generation of Black Italians will feel emboldened enough to claim Italy as their country too. 

Such exclusion translates into the rapid migration to other countries. It is no surprise many black Italians leave Italy at the prospect of a better future elsewhere.

This is because they, too, want a chance at pursuing a successful career in other countries that are willing to accept and foster their talents, and what they have to offer. 

As of 2018, there has been a surge of 64.7% in the number of Italians living abroad. 

To conclude, there is far more institutionalised racism than there appears to be at face value. 

As placards are filled with phrases such as ‘The system isn’t broken, it was built this way’ and a new surge of efforts to confront the racism that engulfs today’s society is underway, it is time for young Italians who are currently educating themselves to make an extra effort to break down this system at home. 

We have been blessed with social media platforms to make our voices heard. The internet to search and educate ourselves. Multiple ways to access books and movies about black history in Italy and abroad. 

Always find ways to contribute through donations and signing petitions. Speak out against friends and family for being racist and using discriminatory language. White silence is indeed compliance.

Get involved in politics, especially at a local level and text, call and email your representatives. And most importantly, VOTE.

I have hope that my generation will notice these differences and come to terms with the fact that change starts now. 


Borgo Mezzanone: 37enne morto carbonizzato, “ucciso dalle fiamme e dalla miseria” Le proteste e la rabbia per il decesso di Mohamed Ben Ali

History: Italy’s 1937 Ethiopian Massacre Finally Comes to Light

Italian War Criminal Rodolfo Graziani