Today’s interviewee is an Italian Peruvian former university student, who will talk about her experiences of racialization and struggling for identity. Even though she will not speak from a doctoral perspective, we felt like her testimony will add to the specific contributions of BIPOC PhDs that have already been published or will be published in the next few weeks. The scope of this is to raise awareness: academia should not be a closed environment, and on this occasion all voices can contribute to make it better.
***DISCLAIMER*** Throughout the interview and the whole month of June we will often use the term BIPOC. This is an acronym for Black, Indigenous and People of colour and generally indicates all non-white people. We are aware that unfortunately this term risks to diminish and oversimplify personal experiences and identities, and that the word is not universally accepted as adequate. We hope we will be able to do better in the future and make more appropriate word choices.
Q. Hi! Thank you so much for participating in our set of interviews. Can you give us a short background on you?
A. Hello, Pubs & Pubs! I was born in Peru, at Cusco, in 1992. I happily lived in Cusco during my early childhood, when economic crisis hit. Both my parents, who used to work in a bank, found themselves jobless. With some relatives’ help, they managed to move to Italy in 1998. We lived in Genoa for a few years and then we moved to a small village near Verona, in Veneto. That environment was detrimental to me. I hated it, I have never felt it like home or like a safe place where I wanted to be, to come back or to be nostalgic for. These are feelings that I experienced when I was in Naples instead. I moved there after my school diploma, to pursue the university studies. I lived the best years, yet the worst, in that city. I met wonderful people who accepted me for who I am, but I also had to experience some dark moments: my mental health, that was deteriorating since school, hit the limit. Eventually, after seven years, I reluctantly came back to Verona. That old feeling of alienation, I must say, stayed the same.
Q. Is this the first time you are talking about your experience of racism under more ‘formal’ terms? If yes, what held you back before?
A. Yes, it is. I could not do it before just because I did not have the chance, but I have to admit that, even if I had, it would have been difficult for me, as I did not feel adequate or prepared enough to speak about it.
Q. Does your awareness come from dialogue with BIPOC within or outside your family, from both or none?
A. I do not talk about it often with my parents – only when we directly experience racism. I discuss about it much more often with my cousins, who are my age. They grew up in Italy like me, so we lived very similar experiences.
Q. Do you feel comfortable with talking about racism with white people? If not, what makes you the most uncomfortable?
A. Absolutely not. Alongside feeling unease, I do not feel safe – just to begin with. There is a high probability that my interlocutor is prejudiced about me and, consequently, will find a way to attack or hurt me, even indirectly. Additionally, there is the so called white fragility, alias the discomfort that white people experience when they are told to have said something racist, or simply when the topic is raised. Whenever they have to face the truth, some people get defensive, or try to justify their words or actions instead of admitting they have been racist. This behaviour creates distance and obstacles any confrontation, as I end up to decide to not raise the issue, when I know that my interlocutor will react in a certain way.
Q. As an Italian BIPOC citizen, have you ever been considered “less Italian” because of your country of origin? What are the terms of this discrimination? Are there specific words used, or questions asked, by white people that show the underlying prejudice of a ‘white citizenship’?
A. I have got a dual citizenship, Italian and Peruvian. Even though my ID says “Italian”, I have never really felt Italian. I think this is pretty much due to the place where I grew up, Veneto, which is unfortunately and sadly known to be one of the most racist regions in the country. I have never felt welcomed or accepted there. Since I was a kid, I have been receiving a “special treatment” as a “foreigner” – in a negative way, clearly. In primary school, for example, a teacher brought me as an example to another class, in order to show how good I was at reading Italian in spite of being a foreigner. To be honest, I was almost proud of it at that time. Now, after years of reflections and self-awareness, I can see the racism behind those words. I – like the other children – had started reading and writing in Italian since kindergarten, so I do not see why I had to be shown like something “extraordinary”.
Another thing that happens fairly often is that people give for granted that I am not Italian and that I do not know my own language because of the way I look. The fact that I have physical features different than the Caucasian ones does not mean that I cannot be Italian like anyone else.
Q. Have you ever felt the need to hide in any way your family’s origin and yours in order to “fit in”?
A. I must admit that, yes, it happened. When you are a kid and grow up in an exclusively white environment, where you are not represented at all, where media keep depicting immigrants like invaders or delinquents, you can easily get to the point to be almost ashamed of your origins. I remember that in middle school I started to have body issues. I did not like my somatic traits at all, nor the colour of my skin. I hated getting tanned because I got dark very quickly, whereas I wanted to have fair skin, like my schoolmates. I am embarrassed to say it, but I was victim of internalized racism*.
* ed: internalized racism is a term used by Karen D. Pyke (‘What is Internalized Racial Oppression and Why Don’t We Study It? Acknowledging Racism’s Hidden Injuries’, Sociological Perspectives 53, 2010, 551–572). Robin Nicole Johnson in her study The Psychology of Racism: How Internalized Racism, Academic Self-concept, and Campus Racial Climate Impact the Academic Experiences and Achievement of African American Undergraduates (2008) defines it as a “conscious or unconscious acceptance of a racial hierarchy in which whites are consistently ranked above people of color”.
Q. Are you emotionally connected with your country of origin (Peru)? Has it always been the same or did you embrace this connection later in your life?
A. I think that only now, at 28 years old, I am learning to know and love my culture. I know, it is sad, but it is very difficult for the children of immigrants to find their own identity. And, personally, I had to immerse myself in different realities to truly understand who I am.
Q. Do you think is possible to outline any specificity of your experience as a BIPOC woman?
A. I think so, and in specific with all those forms of racial fetishization*. I believe that every non white woman has experienced some form of fetishization. And this is certainly strengthened by a good dose of misogyny. Fetishization implies a racial stereotype that objectifies a person’s body and a person’s culture. If you tell me “Oh I have never been with a Latina!”, you make me understand that you see me as a sexual fantasy, a new thing to try. An object.
* ed: racial fetishization happens when white people define BIPOC by sexual categories. This phenomenon hypersexualizes people of colour and defines them as sexual objects, dehumanizing them.
Q. Have you ever experienced forms of racism in the educational system (school, university etc.) in specific?
A. Yes, unfortunately both my parents and I have experienced systemic racism*. My mother graduated in Economy and Trade in Peru, she had worked in a bank for years, she could display an outstanding CV, but her degree has no validity in Italy. Furthermore, when she applied for a job as a health social worker a few years ago, she was rejected because a middle school diploma was a requirement, but her (higher level in education) Peruvian graduate degree could not be accepted according to Italian law!
*ed:systemic racism, also known as institutional racism, is a form of racism implanted in society through laws and regulations.
Q. The world looks to be starting a change. Do you think this is true? Where does the change start and how can we all contribute?
A. It can be true that some sort of change is starting, but it is nothing compared with all the work that still needs to be done. I believe that what would really make a difference is to stop talking about racism on public occasions without including people of colour. And, most importantly, to stop deciding for us what is right and what is not, or when it is acceptable to be hurt or not, or when a denigrating word is offensive or not. The BIPOC community is tired of having to explain everything. Change must start from white people too. Read, get informed, educate yourselves, do your part.
Q. Can you suggest us some BIPOC authors, artists, personalities you find influential and whose works and activities can be instructive for white people?
A. Renata Flores is a Peruvian indigenous singer. She sings in Quechua, which was the official language of the Inca Empire and is still spoken today. My family speaks it too! I think it is important to preserve and, why not, to share this native indigenous language through music.
Additionally, but unfortunately this will only help Italian readers, I suggest “Corpi estranei” by Oiza Queens Day Obasuyi, an Italian BIPOC author who speaks up for human rights. In her book, she deconstructs systemic racism in Italy.
Q. Do you want to add anything? Use this space to send a message to our white readers.
A. I want to invite white people to not think about racism like something they are not involved with, and to not diminish it with comments like “Racism is only a matter of ignorance”, or “I do not see colours, we are all the same”. No, in reality we are not all the same, unfortunately. Racism is an integral part of system based on social inequalities, overlapping with the racialization of individuals. White people need to learn how to acknowledge their privilege. Being able to stay silent looking at racial inequalities is a privilege. So, please learn how to correctly and powerfully use this instrument you have. Listen to stories from BIPOC communities. Do not try to justify or to put in discussion what we say, self-centring the conversation.
Q. Now feel free to use this space to address our BIPOC readers.
A. To the people who , like me, have felt insecure for years and preferred to stay silent for the fear of being judged: I am sure that one day you will find that peace and place to call home, that will give you the strength to finally speak up and make your voice listened.
On behalf of the Pubs & Publications Committee and of our readers, thank you.
Featured image by shaza.wajjokh on Instagram