An Interview with a Young Woman About Her Life as an African Italian and Her Heritage
Marie is a 25-year-old girl with a passion for shapeshifting: sometimes she covers her natural short afro hair with a colourful headscarf, sometimes she applies long braids she wears in different ways. She loves wearing old-school jeans and simple t-shirts and in the last few years she started exploring African fashion by wearing colourful shirts with typical African patterns. Not only is she capable of using different styles, but she also manages to change her attitude towards people in order to adjust to any kind of social situation.
Marie represents the generation of people who migrated to Italy in the ‘90s with their families and was brought up here.
She arrived in Italy with her parents from Rwanda in 1996, when she was only six months old – “probably the best period for African refugees to come to Italy”, she says. Her parents left Rwanda in 1994 to escape the Rwandan genocide and stayed in a refugee camp in the Congo (where she was born) for a year before leaving for Italy to stay with an uncle, who at the time was studying at the University of Padua.
As a kid, she received a special upbringing from her parents, both because they transmitted part of their culture to her and also because they found themselves in the situation of being immigrants in a country like Italy. She has always been told to pay more attention than other kids to her behaviour – “You will always be judged differently”, her father used to tell her. In such a context she quickly learned to adjust her look and attitude to different situations. Her particular situation had a peculiar impact on her inner self, stuck between her Rwandan heritage and the country she grew up in. Marie’s perception of reality is different from both that of her parents and that of white people of her age, a unique transversal sub-culture in which she often struggles to define her concept of ‘home’.
I got the chance to meet her and asked her a few questions about her experience as a young woman with a Rwandan heritage living in north-eastern Italy.
Can you describe your perception about how Italian (or Venetian) people’s attitude towards black people has changed through years according to your own experience?
Marie: “I think it got worse. I arrived here when I was six months old and I have always experienced racism, even in elementary school, but racist people to me were a minority, I always felt as if I had a whole other group of people I could turn to. I grew up in a small town and I never felt like too much of an outsider, I never felt I was discriminated too much. I’ve always felt that I could fit in. Throughout all my life I’ve always felt I was something else, but it’s mainly due to the fact that maybe I grew up as a black girl with all white friends.
Whereas when I turned 17 or 18 years old the whole political scene changed, and the right-wing parties started gaining more and more popularity. When I used to see Bossi I couldn’t take him seriously, I used to laugh, but when Salvini came, it was a turning point for me and many people that I know. It was as if Italians felt entitled to show their true colours, so to say. Before, if someone would say something to you on the street, the tram, or the bus,there would be someone who’d answer them and have your back, whereas afterwards I felt that more and more people began to be disrespectful. When I go out, I always feel attacked in some way or another, it’s either the bus driver who refuses to answer your questions even though the person before you had something to ask and got an answer.
When I go out with my white friends, this never happens, but when I’m out with my black friends it’s different. It would happen for example in a restaurant that people would annoy us or be mean to us. When I’m out with my white friends I feel that people look at me in a different way and treat me with respect. It seems as if they were reassured by the fact that I’m out with white friends, they’re willing to treat me respectfully just because I’m surrounded by Italian people, as if that means that I’m well integrated. Sometimes I think that they wouldn’t dare to say anything to me just because then my white friends would say something back. Usually when people are disrespectful to me,they never dare to say something to my face, it always happens for example when they are in a car and yell something out of the window. They don’t have the courage to say anything to my face and let me reply.
Sometimes I don’t feel comfortable going to new places alone, I would ask a friend to come with me first. Once I went into a bar with a black friend of mine and I noticed that as soon as we got in the atmosphere got weird. We discovered later that that place was a popular bar for Forza Nuova (a neo-fascist party -JB) supporters. I know my safe spots I can go to, but there are places I prefer to avoid.”
Culturally speaking, what kind of aspects were the hardest to compromise with for your family?
Marie: “My parents were lucky, they arrived in the best time an immigrant could arrive in Italy. In the ‘90s there wasn’t a big wave of immigrants from Africa, so people would approach them with curiosity. Luckily, my uncle was studying in Padua, he had been living here for many years, so he got a place for us to stay and introduced us to many people here. Our integration happened quite easily. But I have to say that we’ve always had this feeling that in Italy you can be integrated only if you kind of forget about your background in front of other people. We’re allowed to be Rwandan only in a very private way. You must fit into the image of an Italian person as much as possible. We’ve been lucky because my parents are Christian and Catholic, so that was never an issue, but I have a lot of friends from Morocco and Tunisia and they had a different experience. They were sometimes treated as outcasts and the only ones who were not treated so were those who would dress in a western way. I remember that my mum has never worn African clothing too much, only in specific occasions, mostly with other African people.
Luckily, they didn’t have to compromise a lot, they were quite lucky, but integration in Italy means that you have to act like an Italian. Appreciating Italian culture and speaking Italian well is not enough, you’re requested to resemble an Italian in every aspect in order to be recognised as a well-integrated immigrant.
When I started to embrace my African identity, which happened quite late, I felt that it got much more difficult for me to connect and interact with new people, whereas before it was never the case”.
Do you ever feel that you and your friends have different perceptions of reality? How?
Marie: “Yes, definitely. Our background shapes our perceptions. Even within my group of friends there are people who have very different backgrounds, but one thing that I know is that I’ve always felt there was no place I could really call ‘home’, even though I had a really nice childhood and grew up in a nice family.
This is a big difference between me and my parents too, they consider Rwanda their home, their identity is there, my white friends grew up in Italy and feel Italian, whereas I feel torn between hundreds of sides, I feel like a hybrid. Right now it’s not something that hurts me, it’s just the way it is, but it was hard to come to term with these multilateral parts of me. I’ve always felt much more attached to the people I love rather than the place itself. I consider Italy important to me because my friends and family live here, but I don’t consider the place itself as my home. With Rwanda it’s even worse, my parents didn’t teach me the language, I was supposed to visit it for the first time last year but then then the epidemic started spreading so we had to postpone our visit”.
Do you and your parents share the exact same culture in terms of values?
Marie: “We have way different values, especially my dad. My mum finished her studies here in Italy, education plays a huge role in shaping one’s mindset. She got a bachelor’s degree in social assistance in Ca’ Foscari, the same thing she studied in Rwanda, but the completely different environment shaped her mentality much more than my dad’s. She understands concepts like feminism or sexual identity even though she was not accustomed to it before, whereas with my dad it’s harder, because despite him being very smart he still finds it more difficult than my mum to understand certain things. He studied a lot of European literature, he used to be a French linguistics professor, so I expected from him more openness. He has a strict Rwandan perception of family roles, for example. In Rwandan culture women are the centre of the structure of the family and because of this they have many responsibilities, especially in educating children. If a kid is well behaved it’s because the mother taught him well, if the kid misbehaves it’s the mother’s fault. In his mind this is just the way it is, sometimes it’s difficult for him to understand the different structure of the European family. The very same thing happens when I meet other Rwandan relatives: it might happen that we get invited somewhere, but even if we are the guests, women are expected to cook. This is just the way it is for them”.
How have your parents transmitted their culture to you and your sister?
Marie: “They gave me a lot especially through music. When I think about Rwanda the first thing that comes to my mind is music. They would always play Rwandan music and try to teach us [Marie and her sister] Rwandan traditional dances. Even food is really important, at home we eat much more African and Rwandan food rather than Italian dishes. One thing that has always been really important for my parents is respect for authority. Rwandan people are considered to be really quiet and observant of the rules, so as a kid they always told me to me observant of the rules both outside the family and inside. I remember when I was five that I would try to be loud with other kids in the church choir, but I would see my dad from afar looking at me and I would immediately stop. Everyone would compliment my parents because me and my sister were so well behaved. This is also because they were immigrants here. They would always say to us: “When you behave in a bad way, you are going to be more scrutinised than your friends”. They had to come to terms with the reality of their social position.”
How would you describe your relationship with black and white people of your parents’ age?
Marie : “I would say that in some ways I don’t relate and I do relate with both groups for different reasons. When I talk with my friends’ parents, it’s because I’ve learned how to adapt to any kind of situation, I’ve also learned dialect. I’ve learned how to talk, what topics I can talk about, but it’s never a completely free conversation, so to say. It’s a sort of ‘survival mode’ I had to learn to use. I constantly switch from being sick of it and being even proud of this sort of elasticity. Sometimes it happens that I think about how my life would have been if my family had stayed in Rwanda, but then I realize that I wouldn’t have met the people I met in my life, I wouldn’t have had the experiences I had, and most importantly I wouldn’t be the person I am today. I’m fine with what I have accomplished and the person I am. At the same time, I’m sick of having to compromise with situations I don’t want to compromise with. I would just like to be loud and clear, but I can’t do that because some people might not understand, I always have to avoid certain topics. Sometimes I know that it’s completely useless to have certain conversations. There are situations in which I would like to address someone’s racist comment, but I usually prefer not to. I even got accustomed to people that I know making racist comments about the migrant situation as if I wasn’t in the room. I know when any attempt to establish a dialogue and explain my reasons it’s going to be fruitless.
This social adaptability is exhausting in many ways, but it is an important part of me, it helps me to communicate with many different kinds of people. It helped me to be more empathetic and open to what other people want to say.”