In January of 2012, my high school decided to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day for the first time. We had an assembly that afternoon; the choir sang, the jazz ensemble played, and I performed with my fellow cheerleaders a dance routine that had absolutely nothing to do with the life and works of Dr. King. The final performance was a skit by the 7th grade class. They demonstrated the impact of Rosa Parks by re-enacting her refusal to move to the back of the bus. The only problem? There was no African-American girl in the 7th grade, and they had to get an 8th grader to play the role of Ms. Parks.
To me, this story illustrates what it was like attending high school in Italy. My senior year, there were five black students in the high school and middle school combined, and all were children of diplomats. There are virtually no “black Italians” in the country; most are African immigrants and not legal Italian citizens. I lived overseas for 16 years, and moved to the United States for the first time this summer, right before starting at Rhodes. This has offered me an interesting perspective at racism in other countries, not just the United States.
Italy has produced discriminating legislature concerning immigrants, especially those from Africa. One example is push-backs; intercepting ships coming from Libya to Sicily and sending them back. These ships are full of immigrants, often escaping persecution and harsh living conditions in their own countries. This is something that isn’t taught in school; I had never heard about push-backs until my parents told me about them.
If immigrants (either from South Asia, Africa, or Romania) do make it to Italy, they face harsh working conditions. Most are uneducated and have few opportunities for work. Anytime I walk in downtown Rome, I see dozens of men selling roses, cheap toys, knock-off handbags, and chestnuts along the street. Some have limited English skills, but will try to get your business by using all the words they know: “cheap” “come buy” and “discount.” There are inadequate housing opportunities for immigrants and many sleep on the streets. Two years ago, when heavy rain caused severe flooding, the only person to die was an immigrant living in the basement of a building.
Racism isn’t just directed towards immigrants; the few blacks at my school were also treated poorly due to their race. They were often called “negro” by the Italian students, which literally translates to black or negro, but is used more as the word “nigger.” There’s even an expression in Italian, “lavorare come un negro” (literally work like a black), which means to slave away at something. People from Romania are derogatorily called “gitani”, which is like the word gypsy in English. Racism is a part of culture and language.
Returning to MLK Day assembly, I think that there could have been a better way to address racism and civil rights than a dance routine and a song by the band. Racism and immigration should be discussed in schools, and educators should focus on reducing racial slurs towards other students. Just like in the United States, racism in Italy is a problem that continues to this day.