Today’s interviewee is a school student who lives in Italy. Her family is from Ecuador, and she will answer our questions on her experiences of racism. The interview is published anonymously and with the permission of the student and parent. Although it is out of the traditional remit of Pubs & Publications we felt like the testimony will add to the specific contributions of BIPOC PhDs that have already been published or will be published here. The scope of this is to raise awareness: academia should not be a closed environment, and change must start before getting to postgraduate study.
***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! Welcome and thank you for getting in touch with us. We are very grateful for your contribution. What has motivated you to participate in Pubs and Publications’ BIPOC month?
A. Hello, Pubs and Publications! Well, I’ve never had much representation, especially in Italy, so I thought: “Let me be my own representation, let me use my voice for something that I’ve always wished I could do.” And you guys doing this are giving me that opportunity.
Q. We are glad. How often do you interact with white people? Is your social group made of mostly BIPOC or non BIPOC?
A. Very often! Every single day actually. My school has a large majority of white students and so does my general social group but luckily I do have some BIPOC friends.
Q. Do you usually talk about racism with white people?
A. Not as much as I’d like. I think it’s important to talk about it and it’s also important that white people are aware of their privilege so that they can get informed and possibly let other people know too. It really shouldn’t be a “forbidden” topic and I think it became one because of the many “undercover racists”*.
* ed: racist people, or people that have racist bias, without knowing it.
Q. What are the main difficulties you face when talking about racism with white people? Do you feel safe when doing so?
A. The main challenge is the fear of not being understood and consequently getting attacked. After some experience (informal/improvised debates), I realized that many white people tend to gaslight* a lot when talking about these topics. It’s really stressing and it can truly give you a hard time when it’s a large group you’re arguing with. I never feel safe when doing so but it’s not because I worry that all white people are racists, it’s only an automatic mechanism due to how often I found myself struggling when I talk about these problems with white people.
* ed: gaslighting is a form of manipulation that pushes the interlocutor to question their own thoughts, feelings or memories.
Q. There is a phrase to describe this stressful feeling, “racial battle fatigue” – isn’t it? And do these difficulties affect your personal life and the way you interact with peers also when racism is not a topic of discussion?
A. Exactly. Well, yes they affect my personal life, because it becomes a sort of limit. There are people I know with whom I don’t want to argue because I already know the way they think due to past arguments. It’s almost like I already know what they’re going to say, and since it can be really frustrating and it’s not worth my time I prefer not to engage with them. It still depends on the case, there are situations in which I feel the need to speak up even with these people. And yes, also when racism isn’t the topic of discussion. Sometimes you get to know that that person has racist bias because of their sense of humor. For example if they do inappropriate jokes about the BIPOC community and their problems, or if they use the N-word in a casual conversation. I had to stop hanging out with some of my friends multiple times because their racist bias affected my own mental health.
Q. Do these experiences also affect how you see yourself?
A. They did in the past. When you’re little you don’t have enough resources to understand what’s going on. I thought I was different and “discovered I wasn’t white” when I started going to school and I didn’t like it. There was a time in middle school where I would take photos exclusively under the sunlight so that I didn’t look darker than my friends. In my case I had my mum and her Ecuadorian friends, who let me know that it was ok and I wasn’t the “wrong” one.
Q. I see. Did this also affect your sense of belonging to your country?
A. Yes, but I’m once again talking about something that occurred in the past, I was more vulnerable and I had let the people around me influence the way I saw myself and my “Italian-ness”.
Q. Can you tell us some examples of racist behaviours, vocabulary, phrases, questions that are not commonly considered racist by white people?
A. Well we all know that saying the N-word is racist, although many white people don’t understand that it is always racist no matter the intention it is said with or its context.
Talking for my own experience, I would say using the word “immigrant” to refer to someone like me; it doesn’t make any sense because I was born and raised here. Also saying “your Italian is really good!” it’s not a compliment. In fact, it is considered as a micro-aggression since you’re assuming that I’m not Italian and you’re probably doing it only because of the colour of my skin, and the way I look. Same for the phrase “go back to your country”; it’s a very offensive thing to say to someone that may have never even been to their parent’s country. Your homeland cannot be someone else’s decision. I may consider “homeland” both the country where I was raised in and the one where my parents come from.
Furthermore, people stare at me wherever I go. Those looks are judgmental and show prejudices on me.
But also believing in stereotypes is racist! That’s so wrong I wouldn’t even know where to start (not all Latinx are short and not all Latinas are maids/caregivers!). Many stereotypes on people of colour de-humanize us!
Last but not least, the term “exotic”. I get that so often (and so do my BIPOC friends) that it makes me angry; I think it is very much related to the hypersexualised view of people, especially women, with an ethnic background. Many white people don’t realize that having racial fetishes is racist and extremely gross.
Q. What are the words or behaviors of white people that hurt you the most?
A. There are many, the first that comes to mind is the indifference that some show towards our (the BIPOC community’s) daily issues. It also seems that we have to deny our origins in order to be considered Italian to them, either way they will always see us as tourists even though this is our country too.
Q. Do you talk about racism with your family? Do you consider this important for the rise of your awareness?
A. Yes we do, usually it’s because something happened, and yes I find it important for my awareness. This way I get to know about other experiences from people who have a different story from mine and who are older than me.
Q. How would you encourage white people to raise awareness? Is there anything practical that white people can do to help?
A. Listening to our stories and getting informed on the various topics that racism encompasses is fundamental. Nowadays is also very useful to raise awareness not only by talking with your friends but also by sharing contents on social media – it might seem banal, but it makes a difference.
So, listen to us when we make you notice that something you do or say it’s wrong. Read books or articles that talk about our stories. There are also many films you could watch (among the recent ones there are: One Night In Miami, Judas And The Black Messiah, The African Doctor and Just Mercy).
Q. On this note, can you suggest us some BIPOC authors, artists, personalities you find influential and whose works and activities can be instructive for white people?
A. There are so many I could say um… To the non-Italian readers/speakers I can suggest the books Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, Black skin, white masks by Frantz Fanon, and The open veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano. I strongly recommend all white people to “decolonize” their libraries, read books from people with an ethnic background! As for the Italian readers I can suggest the authors Djarah Kan, Esperance Hakuzwimana, Oiza Queens Day Obasuyi. Do also follow some Instagram accounts, such as colory.it, deifuturoantirazzista, spaghettipolitics, leregoledeldirittoperfetto, bbnoga_, proudy.it, yennenga_maat, goldmelanyn and also maddalenaaaf.
Q. Great! We are approaching the end of our interview. Can you give us an honest feedback on this experience with us? Are there words or questions we could have chosen differently?
A. I think you guys did a good job. You used your privilege to let my voice, my story be heard. I would only suggest – to you and anyone who talks about racism – not to give too much space to the so-called “pornography of violence” when asking questions about behaviors or words that hurt us. Sensationalizing extreme forms of racism does not help: it makes racism “distant” and most white people will feel like they have nothing to do with it.
Q. Thank you. Do you want to add anything? Send a message to our white readers, if you want.
A. I want to once again encourage you white readers to be teachable, understand your privilege, get informed, listen and raise awareness instead of talking on behalf of something you haven’t experienced.
Q. Now feel free to address our BIPOC readers.
A. To the BIPOC readers I want to say: use your voice. Some time ago I read this beautiful quote “if they don’t know how to tell our stories, let’s do it ourselves.”
Thank you, on behalf of the Pubs and Publications’ Committee and of our readers.