Where do I stand? An exercise in ego-criticism

(excerpt from the introduction to “Afroeuropean Configurations”, 2011)

I started working on the African diaspora in Europe little less than a decade ago, when I moved from Spain to Germany with a virtual suitcase filled with sparse ideas for a postdoctoral research project on narratives of migration. My interest in displacement and the gradual canalisation of this interest towards the specificities of African migration in Europe emerged from a clash I sensed between my condition of intra-European expatriate and other expatriate stories I became familiar with. My plural locations (Germany was my third country of residence) and that peculiar coupling of uneasiness and potential enrichment at finding myself in a new environment (with scarce knowledge of the local language and the not unusual set of cultural complexes accompanying the southerner travelling North) naturally led me to bump into narratives of uprootedness every time I selected a cultural product either for personal enjoyment or professional development, be it a book, a film, a scholarly reflection or a piece of art.

Among my readings of that time were some autobiographical texts by Africans from various regions, who had recently settled in Europe and with whom I could easily empathise for a number of circumstances we seemed to share. Some of them were young scholars, teachers or simply people with an acute sense of the literary value of experience. Like me, they were struggling to make sense of their present situation and trying to figure out what to do with their future. Nevertheless, unlike me, these travelling companions did not appear to be granted the freedom to make choices according to their inclinations. Some of them had to work far below their capacities and skills, had to deal with exhausting bureaucratic issues (from not having their qualification recognised to having to live in clandestinity), and had to face various forms of prejudice, rejection and racism. In short, what distinguished my experience from theirs was that sort of privilege which does not depend on personal qualities but rather on exogenous factors determined by history and ideology (in the broader sense of power discourses and politics). I had no stable position, no funding for my project (it came much later) and no clear plans for the future. However, my rather pale complexion and a European passport made life so much easier for me than it seemed to be for my black or Maghrebi African counterparts. In fact, apart from a few mostly harmless stereotypes about Italians (and southern Italians in particular), I did not have to experience any prejudice, let alone institutional racism, neither in Spain, in Germany nor in other countries I visited for long stays.

If my passport was undoubtedly a crucial element of security, it was especially the fact of being identified as white and Christian (even if atheist) that granted me a degree of liberty not enjoyed by the less fortunate expatriates whose stories I more or less accidentally came across. It did not take long for me to realise that in a western environment Whiteness produces some sort of acknowledgement of a (however artificial) shared identity. Europe, in fact, is assumed to be (not simply racially but also culturally and religiously) White. Hence, even if talks of diversity have long entered the political and cultural discourse, dynamics of exclusion will continue to be based mainly on racial criteria unless Europe finally recognises the entanglement of its history and self-definition with racism. A thorough exercise in self-scrutiny and criticism is therefore required before Europe can call itself properly diverse.

As denial of structural racism does not only concern political discourse and the public arena but also the private sphere, self-scrutiny should be carried out also at the personal level by any white European, not excluded those who, like me, are involved in a field of study to which they come as outsiders, those, that is, who pretend to speak about (and in some cases for) the Other. I believe it is therefore necessary for white scholars of Afroeuropean Studies to ‘locate’ themselves, in order to make clear from which position they are speaking. This should not be understood as a form of hypocritical indulgence in ‘white guilt’, but as an essential step to approach the field with honesty and acknowledge one’s limitations.

If I look back on my own life, I find it permeated by both racialism (an understanding of identity based on constructed racial difference) and racism (in the form of overt discrimination). And if my adult self has gradually learned how to recognise and respond to racial prejudice (preconceptions coming from the outside as well as my own assimilated prejudice), I certainly cannot claim the same for my childhood counterpart.

As a little girl from a middle class context in the south of Italy during the early seventies, for a long time the only black people I was familiar with were the ones I saw on television. Images of African children suffering the effects of famine populated my daily meals. Pushing mouthfuls of food in my mouth, my relatives took turns at reminding me how fortunate I was compared to those “poor black children” and at persuading me that eating all my food would be a due act of respect for them. This was my family’s way to teach me compassion. However, this was unfortunately not coupled with a positive (or simply realistic) image of black children and black people in general.

I remember my grandmother constantly telling me to keep my fingers out of my nose by threatening that otherwise I would get “negro nostrils”. In the model of beauty my grandmother would insistently try to pass on to me (golden hair and ice blue eyes, which by the way none of us in the family could boast), blackness simply had no place. I also remember that it was assimilated racism that made me drop out of ballet school. After a year or so of training, a public show was organised in which different groups danced dressed in the guise of different peoples of the world. I looked with envy at the older girls’ colourful veils and jingling beads as they staged a belly dance in the best tradition of western orientalist taste, while my group was made to wear tight dark brown garments, straw skirts, curly black wigs, and – our faces, hands and bare feet painted in brown – made to jump around with a fruit basket on our heads. I would like to think that my sharp feeling of humiliation was due to my sensing how demeaning that tribal disguise was for the people we were supposed to represent, but I am afraid it was simply due to the fact that in my little head (I was no older than six) being African and black was nothing to be proud of. And yet people, especially children, are far from being passive receptors of ready-made ideas, and even if stereotypes sometimes unfortunately prove stronger than direct experience, it must not always be the case. In fact, I can recall the exact moment when my childhood prejudice was overturned.

I was seven years old when the televised version of Alex Haley’s novel Roots was screened in Italy for the first time. On those evenings I was allowed to stay up late, as my mother was eager to teach me the horrors of slavery (what she did also through books and other materials). I think, however, that this further training in becoming aware of unjust circumstances would not have taken me much beyond the idea of black people as human beings deserving compassion, had it not been for the presence of a black young man at our table. Zeweldi B. was an Eritrean with whom my father had shared a room during a long hospitalisation and who later occasionally visited us. We ate pizza and watched Roots, and the adults chatted eagerly while my little self dreamed of growing up fast enough to catch up with the charming gentleman I had grown so fond of (he was a seaman, and his tales of the big world brought home to me, even if unconsciously, the parochialism of my own world). I might have absorbed the adults’ responses to the TV series and possibly taken in some critical views but I think it was Zeweldi’s sheer presence in the first place that allowed me to see how much dignity and pride could be associated with being black and African.

More than thirty years later I have gone a long way in the process of dismantling prejudice, and yet I constantly have to remind myself that my angle of vision is unavoidably limited. Last year in Rome, on the occasion of a conference where I was invited to speak about the African presence in Europe, I saw in the street the poster of an exhibition on the painting of the Roman Empire. I decided to visit the exhibition for the only reason that the poster featured a black female face in the foreground. By then I was of course already well aware of the multiethnic dimension of the Roman Empire, but it positively struck me to see this feature finally given the proper emphasis. Was this a new development, the sign that the cultural establishment was finally acknowledging blackness as part of European identity, or had this always been there and I was to blame for my blindness? Most of the exhibition’s paintings representing black people actually came from Pompei, which happens to be very close to my hometown. I had certainly already seen some of the paintings in the past, and yet I don’t remember ever having noticed the blissful conviviality of blacks and whites in that ancestral society. I was now looking with new eyes, and for the first time, arguing at the conference about the importance of dismantling the myth of a white Europe, it seemed to me that I was stating the obvious.

As my angle of vision expands, I grow more aware of how personal experience shapes my intellectual development. In the same way as Zeweldi’s appearance constituted a turning point in received ideas about black people and the reading of African migration narratives made me aware of my privileged position, what I experience every day allows me to see a little further. From where I stand now, Afroeurope is a reality, and yet there is still a long way to go for this reality to become visible to everybody.