By: Natasha Aidoo
I’m a black, Italian, young woman and defining myself as such is a priceless, personal achievement. Race, identity, a sense of belonging, nationality, roots and heritage are concepts that I’ve had to deal with, decipher, and adapt to my personal story since I was small.
Growing up in a small countryside town in northeastern Italy wasn’t easy. In primary school, I was the only black girl in my class, and I remember how I much I wished I was white. I disliked my difference. I didn’t understand it. I wasn’t represented anywhere I looked: not in friends, classmates, teachers, dolls, or even TV and cartoon characters. I had no relatives around me except for my family, so I didn’t even have a lot of people close to me who had dark skin like me that I could look to, nor could anyone do my hair (which was also different from everyone around me) in African hairstyles, apart from my mom. This represented some of the key aspects of my childhood inadequacy. I didn’t appreciate my Ghanaian heritage, because I had no image or context for it. All I was aware of was that I had something that the people surrounding me didn’t. It was isolating. I needed to feel included.
Even though I was born in Italy, I felt pressure to prove how Italian I was, just because of the colour of my skin. In school, I would study harder, read more books, try my best on tests, and make sure not to make mistakes or to learn from them if I did. I had to be perfect, because I felt I was, by default, a step behind the “real Italians.” This isn’t an easy burden to bear during the early years of education or of interaction with other kids and of life, in general. The stress, the pressure, and the twisted ambition to never be caught in error have always been key aspects of how I lived my identity.
It’s in the small and irrelevant things that I can see how distorted people’s perception of what it means to be a black Italian is. Try this with me. Imagine speaking fluently in your mother tongue and having people react with surprise and condescendence, asking you: “But you speak [insert mother tongue] so well. How come?” So, for the umpteenth time, you’re forced to answer: “Because I was born here.” Over and over again. And it still happens to this day. You see in their glance their attempt to grasp the possibility of such a feat, of coming to terms with the existence of non-white people actually being Italian. You move on, try to overcome the usual uneasiness you feel in these instances and push this moment into the dark room of your mind. Let’s try another experiment, shall we? Imagine talking about where you come from, saying: “I come from the province of Verona” and logically supposing that’s the end of the interaction. Not at all! The next question is right around the corner: “But/And what are your origins?” As if you didn’t just mention them, these words force you to refer to an African country many people couldn’t even find on a map and aren’t even sure it exists. You specify your parents’ journey to this land, you try to distance yourself from their experience and to underline how yours is mainly European with a sprinkle of this African element in it.
Because I don’t want to be perceived just as a black young woman, I tend to highlight my Italian identity. Nevertheless, why do I have to be put in this position every time this conversation arises? It’s a dissociative experience: I feel as if I have to be more Italian when surrounded by white people, while when I’m with other black people, I have to show how much of a Ghanaian I am, to prove my culture in any and all circumstances.
I’m proud of being Ghanaian, but I notice how uncomfortable meeting native-born Ghanaians makes me. I have to prove how African I am, although my whole personal and cultural experience has been in Italy. I’m familiar with Ghana’s main dishes. I can cook them and enjoy eating them; I understand but don’t speak the official dialect fluently (in case you were wondering, it’s Twi); I know the music, the geo-political history, some of the local and national traditions and so much more. But only as someone who has learned from her parent’s and through personal research. I haven’t lived it day after day, but that doesn’t make my experience of and sense of identity with that wonderful country any less valid. I know whenever I go back, I won’t feel like a local but rather like a tourist in her homeland. It’s a strange acknowledgement, nevertheless I'm lucky to have another place to call “home.” Not all people are.
I belong here and there. I don’t need to choose where. Trying to find my way in this maze of self doubt and acceptance, identity exploration, roots, nationality, and cultural examination hasn’t been easy. It’s an ongoing journey and process which I’m learning to make as positive, exciting, and empowering as possible.