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On Daisy Osakue and Racism in Italy: Who Will Be Next?

My American friends send me text messages asking if Italians are just as racist as the right-wing conservatives in the United States. 

Daisy Osakue (Twitter)

Italy, like the US, is going through a dark period where racism and anti-migrant sentiments have become a political tool for which those in power use carelessly to further their agendas. My friends in the United States wonder if the new Italian government is taking notes from ours - implementing a rhetoric bathed in division.  I cannot speak for Italians. I cannot speak for Osakue.  I can only speak for myself.

On Sunday night, I was in Moncalieri with friends celebrating my 33rd birthday and enjoying the weather without a care in the world.  Hours later, Italian athlete Daisy Osakue would be attacked by a group of individuals driving a Fiat Doblo and hurling eggs.  Osakue suffered a scratched cornea and a devastating humiliation.

This is just one of the many acts of violence against people of color — most of them migrants or refugees — that is happening in Italy right now.

Osakue was born in Italy and is of Nigerian descent.  A professional discus thrower with the highest Italian record under 23, Osakue’s attack is one I’m very familiar with.  I come from a country where people are attacked and killed on a daily basis because of the color of their skin.

Nia Wilson, an eighteen-year-old girl from the Bay area was killed on the 22 of July while waiting for a train in Oakland, California.  The unprovoked killing has ravaged not just the surrounding community, but also the country as individuals try and find answers.

For many of us — men and women of color — this is the world we live in.  It’s as simple as never knowing whether the moment for which we are breathing will be our last.  When I was working at Open Society Foundations, a former colleague — a black woman — once put it like this:  “there’s nothing more degrading than realizing you don’t matter.  That your life has no value, so much so that a person can walk up to you and attack you.”

This is the kind of realization Osakue was feeling after her attack — I’m sure that as a black woman she had given it thought before, but in the moments after the attack for which she believes to be racially motivated, it was all the more apparent.

Milan (Photo by J. Erakit)

Italy, like the US, is going through a dark period where racism and anti-migrant sentiments have become a political tool for which those in power use carelessly to further their agendas.  There is a sense of fear for the “other” that many worry will soon become a mainstream way of thinking.

And as Americans, we know very well that thinking begets doing.

Representatives of the current government have skirted the recent attack citing other motivators and not racism, further receiving backlash from opposition leaders who worry that such incidents will only escalate.  Just yesterday, President Donald Trump welcomed Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on his first official visit to the White House to bond over their shared perspectives and policies, one of which included closing borders.

My American friends send me text messages asking if Italians are just as racist as the right-wing conservatives in the United States.  They wonder if the new Italian government is taking notes from ours, implementing a rhetoric bathed in division.

I cannot speak for Italians. I cannot speak for Osakue.  I can only speak for myself.

Dealing with race in Italy, one needs friends who support you and rally around you.  (Credit Joan Erakit)

It’s very difficult for me to talk about race in Italy.  To be honest, I am not confident that I will be understood, or heard.  The reality is that Italy is a beautiful country with a rich history, diverse landscapes, incredible food and wine — an incubator for lives well lived.  However,  talking about race is not something that I feel Italians are good at.

I don’t have many friends who can carry on a conversation about race without flinching or shifting in their seats.

Or becoming defensive.

In my experience, discussing race in Italy is not a pleasant aperitif conversation, and so I often stifle my feelings and wait to discuss them openly when I’m back in New York.

Two weeks ago I had an experience that shook me to the core.

A random Italian man in his late 50’s mistook me for a prostitute and tried to proposition me.  He was playful, yet aggressive.

I was terrified because I had read about all the horrific acts of violence many Nigerian and Senegalese prostitutes in Italy endure while working.  I was strong in my response, stating in English that I was not “working” and that I was a tourist — a visitor from the States.

And then I ran.

Later, I told a few Italian friends about the incident.  One, in the most loving way, told me not to care what people thought of me and to respond harshly the next time someone mistook me for a prostitute.

Unfortunately, I did not have the courage to tell my friend that this would not be an option for me.  In fact, many women and men have been brutally attacked for defending themselves in situations like this.  Parents in my country teach their black and brown kids not to respond with aggression for fear of being attacked or killed in retaliation.  “Be polite, say no, and go stand with other people so that you’re not alone.  If you respond aggressively he will hurt you” is what my mother often tells me.

So, I and other women of color in Italy tend to endure.

Endure the assumptions about our characters, our jobs, or our livelihoods.  Endure hate speech.  Endure physical assault.  Endure a lack of understanding.

Endure, in painful silence.

Osakue is a brave woman who has boldly taken to discussing the incident and calling for change.  She’s an Italian woman of African descent who believes that her country can, and should do better.  She’s an athlete and she gets right back up when you knock her down.

Stepping boldly into everyday with other women of color in Italy.  (Credit: Joan Erakit)

But the question still remains.

What’s next for Italy?  Will these attacks escalate as some politicians worry?  And if so, who will be next?

Will it be the mother of Cameroonian descent on her way to work in Bologna?  Will it be the 10-year old biracial girl from Naples running across the street with gelato in hand on a perfect Sunday afternoon?  Will it be the Congolese-Italian actress leaving a theatre after a press junket in Rome?  Or will it be the African-American girl on her way to meet friends for an aperitivo in Turin?

How does one live a normal life when normal life becomes dangerous?

I don’t have answers, but Like Osakue, I know that we step boldly into every day being mindful that not everyone we meet is happy that we exist.  We surround ourselves with our Italian allies and friends who support our growth, protect our space and show up to tell us that we do in fact matter.  We encourage the conversation of race between strangers.  We approach each day believing the best about others, but being aware that things could change in the blink of an eye.

We realize that though Italy is not perfect, it’s where we are for now and it does have the ability to change.

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