Student Reflections

What It’s Like Being an African-American Abroad in Rome

Jolaade Okanlawon
March 14, 2018

Prior to studying abroad in Rome, I did some research on why some African-Americans tend not to study abroad. According to the Institute of International Education, out of all the Americans that study abroad only 5 percent of them are black. This statistic illustrates that when it comes to studying abroad, minority groups such as African-Americans are clearly underrepresented compared to other racial groups where 78% of them were white. In fact, one of the reasons why African-Americans are less likely to go abroad is due to the cost. Studying abroad is expensive, and so I’ll admit that the amount of money I’ve spent halfway through this semester is more than what I would’ve spent if I did my spring semester at Northeastern. Furthermore, the stereotypes and culture of another country may deter members of the African-American community from studying abroad. Therefore, from my perspective, after traveling to more than a couple of cities around Italy, I’ve noticed that racism is still alive and prevalent no matter where you go. Thus, as a black traveler and study abroad student at John Cabot University I would like to utilize this blog post to share what it’s really like being an African-American of Nigerian descent studying abroad in Italy.

First thing I noticed after being abroad for four months in Italy was all of the staring. Initially, I wasn’t exactly sure why Italians stared at me. All I remember thinking was “Is it my clothes, my hair, …my height?” Nonetheless, I realized that their reason for staring was more superficial than I thought. Italians stare at me primarily because of my skin color not because I wear American clothes, have braided hair or appear extremely tall. My skin color appears to just stand out in a predominantly white country. Therefore, as you can see, diversity is lacking within the city of Rome. Unlike, New York City or Boston, there were not as many African-Americans roaming around along the streets. The only people of color I usually saw were black men selling counterfeit goods near the touristy areas of Rome. Therefore, after learning all of this I realized I’m obviously most likely to be the center of attention in this city. I’m what most Italians would call “rare” since I’m an African-American coming to study abroad in Rome, not just an African immigrant or refugee coming to Italy to construct a better life.

In terms of who stares at me, most of my spectators are Italian men, women and children who grew up in this country thinking that those of African descent are beneath them in terms of social class. During the first month of my time here in Rome, I received a couple of mean stares from men passing by as I waited by a bus stop. From the way they looked at me, it seemed like they were trying to convey a message, like a “get out of my country” stare. Therefore, after getting to know several locals who live in this city, many of them have mentioned that Italy has always been anti-immigration. In other words, some Italians are not exactly okay with people of color entering into their country. Therefore, because of the color of my skin I’m essentially grouped in with the rest of the African refugees and immigrants, even though I’m here on a study visa. In addition, in terms of Italian women, I believe I’ve received a lot of judgmental stares on the way I dress for the most part. I’ve noticed that in this country wearing leggings as pants isn’t exactly “the norm”, therefore, a local might deem my sense of style inappropriate or immodest in their eyes. However, as much as I want to conform to Italy’s standards of everyday attire, I just can’t. I’d rather be judged for wearing clothes that I’m comfortable in than for wearing something to fit in with the crowd. Lastly, in terms of why children stare at my skin color is beyond me. In fact, experiencing this breaks my heart since I’m so fond of working with them. I believe this reaction from them could possibly stem from what they’ve been taught from their parents. For instance, since racism still exists in Italy, then it’s quite likely that some children might have been taught to by their parents to look down on others of African descent. In fact, I’ll never forget the night I went to the Teatro dell‘Opera in Rome, on my way to the restroom, a father and his daughter looked down on me with disgust for more than 30 seconds as I passed by them. The girl seemed no older than eight, but she obviously followed in her father’s footsteps. However, no matter how many unpleasant stares I receive I would never let it bring me down. Every time someone stares at me, it gives me the opportunity to be confident in my skin color and just smile.

Furthermore, I also wanted to mention the fact that even though Italian men give unpleasant stares some of them are quite sexual due to the fact that some are either curious or aroused by the fact that any black woman could possibly be a prostitute. Therefore, to clarify, in Italy, those who are of African descent but end up studying abroad or living in Italy are still subjected to the same stereotypes that have been set in effect by Italians. Hence, one popular common stereotype of black women is being a prostitute. In fact, when I first heard about this stereotype, the first thing that came to mind was “why?” And then I realized… with the way the media portrays women of African descent nowadays I’m not surprised. In fact, after digging into some research, some African women who are refugees from their home countries tend to sell themselves to make a living here in Rome as well as in other European countries like Spain or France. In addition, some of these young women could also possibly be victims of human trafficking as well. So, for them, they have no choice but to comply. Therefore, it’s not shocking to see how some Italian men will take one look at my skin color and send me a sexual gesture. In fact, when I was visiting Florence, an Italian man didn’t hesitate to start a conversation with me as I was passed by him. In fact, even though, I’m quite conversational in Italian, I couldn’t exactly make the most out of what he was saying because he spoke in a swift manner. However, I was able to catch a few phrases from what he was saying such as “a me piace” (I like..) or “bellissima” (very beautiful). It wasn’t until I got closer to end of the conversation that I realized he was trying to convey a sexual message to me since he stuck out his tongue in a sexual manner.

Therefore, if you are young woman of African descent that is planning to visit Europe, I would suggest that you do your research! From my perspective, knowing all this information didn’t stop me one bit from visiting Italy. In fact, I’m having the time of my life here especially since the language barrier isn’t as much as an obstacle for me compared to other study abroad students. After traveling to so many regions of Italy this semester I realized that you can’t control the way people think or perceive you. The only thing you can do is stay positive and block out the negativity that stands in your way.

Thank you so much for reading and I’ll see you guys at my next post!