My relationship with race has always been complicated.
I found myself thinking about this last week, musing over how much my understanding of race has changed in the past year. I will say, though, that our relationship is still complicated and I still don’t fully understand race.
I grew up in a predominantly white town in Italy. My parents were the first foreigners there. I knew and at the same time didn’t know that I was different. I knew my skin was the color of chocolate, and that it happened to be smoother than that of the other kids thanks to the moisturizer my mom was obsessed about.
Growing up, I knew that I was one of the few black kids in school, but I never felt that it was important. It was a reality that said nothing. I was not bullied, and the only experiences of taunting I had were because of my name that happens to rhyme with ‘pasta’.
I noticed a difference only when everyone started dating in school and I felt somehow left out. But I did not care as much since plenty of my friends had yet to snug a boyfriend themselves.
Now, looking back at my teenage years, I remember a time when things changed. Pretty much all my friends were white and I felt like I had little in common with Black people if it weren’t for the color of my skin.
I did not see myself as black, and I didn’t recognise myself in the stereotypes. I had both parents, I did not live in a violent neighborhood and despite being technically working class I had received a middle class education. I spent my time reading and attending piano lessons. I listened to Avril Lavigne, and I had an emo phase. I was not brought up a Christian, but spent much of my time at Catholic Church camp every summer, and during the year I was part of the Church’s theatre group and choir.
I was basically brought up color-blind, I had a few ideas of race by then, and my main comments reflected what many whites say. Some people are just lazy and do not understand what it means to work hard. Some black people hide behind race and get nothing done. How could discrimination be a thing, if I have never been discriminated against?
Some of my friends joked that I was one of them, and I would laugh and agree. I was clearly white inside…
When I imagined the man of my dreams, I saw a guy with blue eyes and medium length hair that at times looked dramatically like Zac Efron – yes, I was obsessed with High School Musical. Our skins would contrast awesomely and we would one day have amazing golden skin babies.
But I guess the more you grow up and the more you get confronted with harsher realities.
I had only seen blatant racism once. It was directed at me by a parent of a classmate of mine. The guy called me the N word for no justifiable reason. I remember feeling shocked and insulted and upset and confused. And I remember the tears as I rode my bicycle back home and telling the stories to my parents who comforted me. My dad was pissed off and swore that he would sue. I just wanted to forget the whole incident had ever happened. I was 13.
But that was the only type of racism that existed right? And if there were other types, they would still be blatant…
A few years later I had a chat with my dad who enlightened me with his reality once he had moved to Italy in the late 80s. He had faced discrimination when it came to renting flats. The landlords would say that they were not willing to rent to Black people. If he entered a store, or a coffee shop people would stare at him and see what he would do next. Would he act uncivilized?
It is only thanks to the #BlackLivesMatter movement that I finally acknowledged the reality that many face in some parts of the world. Yes, I knew racism was a thing and I didn’t understand why. I knew people looking for jobs had been discriminated against for being Black, and I knew that Black people who wanted to aspire to better professions in Italy were met with opposition, if one is just to think about the example of the first black minister in Italy, Cécil Kyenge, and the amount of racism she faced.
Police brutality I thought had been relegated to the history books in the US. I mean 21st century, right? Systemic racism then showed itself to me and I was shocked and angry. How come stuff like that still happens? I thought we had progress. I had always looked up to the US for overcoming their racist past…I guess that was premature. Racism exists in a variety of forms and is insidious and managed to permeate so many aspects of society. You can’t see it but that does not mean that it’s not there. It was so deep that even I – a black person – could not see myself associated with all the connotations attached to the label Black.
But then I saw the light. Even I, with my white person mentality could see the injustice without having ever experienced it. Even I, who once laughed about being a coconut could see how much is wrong with being called a coconut in the first place.
I realized then that racist ideals of black people had conditioned me to think that I did not fit the mold and hence did not belong to the group. I had internalized what I saw in the media and what I heard around me and I was acting like many white people out there who forget to acknowledge their privilege. That’s just 50 shades of awful.
But on a more positive note I acknowledge the fact that every black person is an individual and all our experiences are different. Just because there are boxes that society wants us to fit, that does not mean that if we don’t fit them we need to reject our blackness. Blackness is varied and beautiful. Some of us love books and some of us don’t. Some of us love hip-hop and some of us love indie music. And that’s okay.