Up until about five years ago, I didn’t have much experience being black outside the United States.
What I mean is, with the exception of a few family vacations in the Caribbean and Mexico, I didn’t know what it might feel like to travel while black abroad.
Then I decided to spend the fall semester of my junior year in Florence, Italy.
My roommates during my sophomore year had both studied in Italy and raved about their time. They gushed about the panini from a little shop around the corner from the picturesque villas that housed their study program, and regaled me with stories of fun parties and their Italian romances.
I was ready for that to be my life: fun, food and a European love story.
But I was so caught up in my excitement that I neglected a crucial difference between me, my roommates and the majority of the other students I was studying with abroad.
They were white. I, on the other hand, am an African-American woman with skin the color of dark chocolate and full lips.
In the United States, I was aware of racism in a broad sense, but perhaps because of my age, my eyes weren’t fully open to it. My mother seemed to know better, saying things to me like “take off that hoodie” when we walked into stores. When she muttered, “You don’t see how they’re looking at you,” I assumed she was bothered by my fashion choices.
After my semester in Italy, I realized what she meant.
When I arrived at the New York University campus, a 57-acre estate in Florence with lush greenery, tan stone walls and rows of olive trees, I was captivated.
During orientation, the Italian instructors talked about customs and other important practices to take note of. What I remember most is one woman from the program telling us to be mindful that Italians can be “bold” or “politically incorrect.”
That was one way to put it. No one mentioned the possibility of racial encounters and tensions, largely aimed at the rising number of African immigrants.
Before I landed in Italy, I was unaware of the growing anti-immigrant sentiment in the country, a main entry point for migrants into Europe. I had not known about the hostility toward the first black government minister in Italy or the racial problems that followed talented Italian soccer players and, even years later, Daisy Osakue, a black Italian-born star athlete whose eye was injured in an egg attack.
For me, it began with passers-by on the street calling me Michelle Obama, Rihanna or Beyoncé — as though I can resemble all three — and the Italian men selling Pinocchio marionettes in the piazza near the famed cathedral, il Duomo, shouting “cioccolatta” (chocolate).
These incidents were minor compared to what happened a few weeks later. I took a trip to Cinque Terre, the five scenic villages on the rugged Ligurian coast in northwestern Italy, with about six friends.
I was in my own world on a crowded beach, sitting underneath an umbrella while the other women in my group were by the water, when I noticed an olive-skinned man in swim trunks with a beer in his hand flirting, unsuccessfully, with them. When we were getting up to leave, he approached our group — and he did not seem drunk.
I assumed he was just going to continue bantering, but before I knew it, the rejected suitor started aggressively telling my white friends in Italian-accented English to pick up their trash.
He ignored me and the only other black woman in the group as if we were invisible, but I wasn’t struck by this at the time.
After a few heated words were exchanged between them, we all started walking away. As we trudged through the deep sand, I suddenly felt a cold liquid hit the side of my body. When I turned, another splash of beer went directly to my face. The man in the swim trunks was hurling the contents of his bottle on me and the other black female — only droplets landed on the women he had argued with.
Before I could figure out a response, the other black female began yelling at him.
The rest of us stood watch for a minute until he grabbed her like a rag doll — she had such a tiny frame, his hand seemed to fully wrap around her arm. The other women did nothing, so I quickly stepped in. When I gave his arm a solid punch, he finally let her go.
I looked around and saw the sea of white faces staring on the packed beach — not a single one had made a move to help. I then locked eyes with a black man. He appeared to be an African migrant because he was selling beach gear draped from his body, much like other migrants I had seen who usually sold knickknacks or knockoff purses on the street.
We stared at each other for what felt like a full minute and his eyes seemed full of sympathy.
As my group walked away, one of the women made an observation I’ll never forget. “Did you hear that? He just called you ‘disgusting black women.'”
When I returned to the apartment where I was staying with a fair-skinned Italian woman and her biracial teenage daughter named Ami, I told her, with great emotion, what had happened. She shrugged and said in a mixture of Italian and English, “It happens to Ami,” whose father is black.
But I couldn’t shrug it off so easily.
Several weeks later, as the weather cooled enough for me to wear one of my favorite oversized sweaters and a beanie hat, I was walking along a street lined with cafes and shops in Florence, making my way down one of those impossibly narrow sidewalks, head bent over my phone.
As I passed shopkeepers setting out signs and sweeping storefronts that morning, I noticed a short middle-aged white woman with a pixie cut walking a couple feet in front of me with her purse on her shoulder. She quickly stopped and turned around. She looked at me and screamed then pressed her back against the wall. I looked around in alarm, thinking something had happened, but couldn’t figure out what.
She screamed again, and this time, she fled the sidewalk. At this point, I could see the shop owners staring. The woman continued to look at me and shrieked once more. When I asked “what?” she gasped as if she were both frightened and disgusted that I had the nerve to speak to her. She then shielded herself behind a parked car. I was dumbfounded. So I kept walking, trying to leave my embarrassment on the street behind me. I wish I could say that was the first time someone had avoided me on the sidewalk in this world-famous city full of international tourists and students. It was not. But it was, by far, the most blatant.
After that, I was hyper aware of the stares and comments as I traveled around the country, from the chocolate festival in Perugia to sightseeing in Milan and Venice, and visiting the Colosseum and the Vatican in Rome, even tossing coins for good luck in the Trevi Fountain there.
On my last night in Florence, I was supposed to meet a few of my friends at a bar for farewell drinks. Earlier in the evening, I had a lovely dinner with a group of Italians to whom I had been introduced by a mutual American friend. This was the first time I had truly felt accepted in Italy, and I regretted having to leave them to go to the bar.
I figured that I’d ask for directions when I got to the neighborhood because I had purposely let the money run out on my pay-as-you-go phone, just as I tried to spend the last of my euros.
In my passable Italian, I walked around trying to ask for directions in the same favorite outfit I had worn on the day the pixie-haired woman screamed on the sidewalk.
I was taken aback when a group of white men brushed past me as if I were asking for money, not the location of a popular bar.
Then a youthful, nicely dressed white couple, walking arm-in-arm, stopped abruptly as the man moved in front of the woman defensively, protectively, only to tell me he didn’t know where the bar was.
After even more attempts to get directions were ignored by passers-by, I gave up looking and went back to the apartment where I was staying that semester. The next day, I had an early flight back to the United States and I now just wanted to go to bed.
When I told NYU program officials about my first racial encounter on the beach with the beer-wielding man just after it happened, they apologized profusely and vowed to mention racial issues at future orientations. Tyra Liebmann, the university’s associate vice president of global programs, told me that after my experience, and hearing from others with similar issues, NYU held conversations with faculty and students so the university could implement ways to better prepare students from a variety of demographics for life abroad.
To my surprise, two of my black friends who had studied in Rome in another college program had a great time that same semester. One actually met her Italian fiancé there. I don’t know what made the difference in our Italian experiences. Was it a more cosmopolitan Rome? I can’t say.
My engaged friend is getting married in Lamezia Terme, a city in southern Italy. So five years later, I’m returning to the country that left a deep scar on my heart.
Whenever I go back to my childhood home in Orange County, Florida, I am not surprised when I see the Confederate flag flying on high poles, plastered on car bumpers and worn proudly on T-shirts. But it surprises me that even the Dixie flag — and all it represents — doesn’t get to me as much as the outright and physical disrespect I experienced very far from home.
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