In 1979 a homeless Somalian by the name of Ahmed Ali Giama was burned alive in the Piazza della Pace, right in the centre of Rome. Killed because he was black and poor. Then there was Giacomo Valent, a 16-year-old who was stabbed 63 times in a frenzied racist attack in 1985. Last week marked 10 years since a young Afro-Italian called Abba was beaten to death by blows from a crowbar because, according to his killer, he hadn’t paid for a packet of biscuits.
Racism in Italy, far from being a novel feature of 2018, is something that goes way back.
This summer has been terrifying for anyone in Italy with black skin. Under the government of the populist Five Star Movement and far-right Lega, women and men are increasingly finding themselves targets of violence. Last week Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, announced that she was sending staff to Italy to look into the protection of migrants after an “alarming escalation of attacks” against asylum seekers and Roma people.
That Bachelet is coming is good: perhaps it will be an opportunity to discuss a form of racism which, though his rhetoric and policies have exacerbated it, was certainly not invented by Matteo Salvini, the interior minister from Lega. It is structural and, especially as this government launches its anti-immigration crackdown, it is something we must address.
When I went to school as a little girl, I knew my colonial history. I am of Somali origin and my parents had told me everything about the way their parents had been bullied and oppressed. And I remember all the times in my little school on the outskirts of Rome that I would go up to my teachers and ask them: “Sorry, Miss, but where in this book is the history of Italian colonial aggression in East Africa?” Not content, I would dig my heels in: “How come we never study Africa, Asia, Latin America? Why is it only Europe?” The teachers couldn’t reply.
One of the reasons was that there wasn’t yet any tradition of confronting the darker pages of the history of the Patria, the Fatherland: namely, Italy’s colonising of Libya, Eritrea, Somalia and occupation of Ethiopia. In all these countries, provisions were put in place whereby black subjects were forbidden from crossing into white zones, and discriminatory laws took away the rights of anyone subject to colonisation.
In Africa the Italians gassed defenceless populations, raped and humiliated and then conveniently forgot everything about it, maintaining that they had never been as bad as others and forging the self-forgiving myth that the Italians were brava gente: nice people. But the truth is that they weren’t nice people – they were colonisers on a par with other Europeans. The discriminatory legislation was a forerunner to the racial laws which targeted Italian Jews in 1938.
In Italy now there are few who condemn racism as it should be condemned. For far too long there has been a frightening tolerance of it, which, through its ever harsher, violent language, this government is promoting. Last week, to give just one example, Salvini compared African immigrants to slaves. The remarks prompted the foreign minister of Luxembourg, sitting nearby, to respond angrily. “Merde alors!” he said. Indeed.
I love Italy and Italy is my country; I know it can get better, and every day I see people of goodwill, people who crowd the piazzas and come up with anti-racist initiatives. But this is not enough. The cultural hegemony of the present government, informed by set-piece slogans and fake news, has to be dismantled piece by piece. At the same time we must present an alternative vision and a different representation of the society we live in.
This – and I say so as an artist – is a crucial point. Those of African, Arab and Chinese descent in Italy barely exist in politics, films, books, newspapers. Society excludes them and sets limits.
This state of affairs was denounced earlier this month at the Venice film festival by a group of Afro-Italian film-makers and actors known as Collettivo N. They are fed up with playing marginal, invariably stereotyped characters in films. The women told me they were tired of always playing prostitutes and carers.
Because of this, many have taken the camera into their own hands and decided to tell their own narrative.
I have often wondered how it is that in such a young country, only 150 years old, there is such pronounced and deeply rooted racism. I have my own theory.
In its heart, as a Mediterranean state, Italy knows itself to be a country with strong links to Africa. It could be the perfect pivot between continents, between Europe and Africa, yet it persists in denying its mixed-race identityas a country made of diversity. Everyone has passed through here: Arabs, Austrians, Africans, the French, the Spanish. This is Italy, a mixture of different blood and skins. When it finally accepts this identity, it will once again be the Bel Paese we all love.
Igiaba Scego is a writer and fellow of the international centre for humanities and social change at Ca’Foscari university in Venice.