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The Afro-Italians shaking up Italy's rigid notions of national identity

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By Rebecca Ann Hughes
Aida Diouf Mbengue.
Aida Diouf Mbengue.   -   Copyright  Provided by Mbengue   -  

After moving to Italy from Senegal at four years old, Aida Diouf Mbengue struggled to be accepted both for her hijab and her skin colour.

She was excluded by classmates and belittled by teachers.

Now Mbengue is a rising internet star with one million followers on TikTok thanks to light-hearted, cheeky videos of herself flaunting an array of veils. Her content, she says, aims to fight against the mindsets that beset her childhood. 

She is far from alone. Mbengue is part of a burgeoning movement of Afro-Italian influencers and creatives helping to spur a rethink of the Italian identity.

Black Italians erased from history

African Italians are frequently cast as outsiders in Italian society even though their history goes back decades -- the country had been experiencing waves of arrivals from Africa long before the refugee crisis. 

Yet, according to sociologist Mauro Valeri, this is “a history that still needs to be written". In a lecture for NYU Florence, Valeri presents notable Black Italians that have fallen into obscurity after 1930s Fascism redefined Italians as Arian and Catholic.

Since then, Valeri argues, Italian identity has been tied to whiteness.

But as geography would have it, Italy has been among the European countries bearing the brunt of refugees and migrants' arrivals over the past few years and the political narrative surrounding the refugee crisis has deepened the struggle for acceptance for Afro-Italians.

Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing League party and former deputy prime minister, is notorious for advocating hard-line anti-immigration policies. 

In 2018, the United Nations accused him and other right-wing politicians of “unashamedly embracing racist and xenophobic anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner rhetoric” to help push through their policies.

This has strengthened a connection in public consciousness between skin colour, illegal immigration and a physical and cultural threat to Italian society.

For young Afro-Italians, this has meant growing up in an environment of hostility and societal rejection.

A study conducted by Milan's Instituto Cattaneo in 2018 found that Italians are also prone to overestimate the number of non-EU immigrants in Italy with those who identified as right-wing likely to inflate the number the most.

The rise of Afro-Italian voices

But a backlash against anti-immigrant sentiment in Italian society has also been growing in parallel and protests erupted across the country after the killing of George Floyd in the US. 

Campaigners then not only expressed solidarity with those suffering racial abuse in the US but also brandished banners reading "I am Italian too" or listing names of victims of racism in the country to draw attention to the rampant home-grown racism. 

Italian media has also come under fire from activists for programmes that make use of blackface and the n-word.

This growing disillusionment with the traditional Italian identity has led to the emergence of several Afro-Italian creatives.

The Afro Influencers agency -- created by Moustapha Thiam, an IT analyst, actor and comedian to "give a voice to these young people, to this community that is rarely listened to" -- is making waves in the world of social media. 

One of its members is TikTok star Mbengue who has been dubbed “the first Italian TikTokker with a veil” for her sassy videos aiming to dispel assumptions that her skin colour, religion or hijab are obstacles or limitations.

“My videos are changing the mindset of people who will become parents in the future and will pass on these values to their children,” Mbengue explains.

“Being Afro-Italian means fighting and giving a voice to all those who don’t have one because of discrimination and prejudice.”

Artist's own.
Singer Samuel AfriyieArtist's own.

Samuel Afriyie, also part of the Afro Influencers collective, arrived in Italy from Ghana at the age of 4. He found fame with his satirical music videos that comment on how he is viewed as an immigrant.

“I’m an immigrant in Italy, I eat rice with chicken, this is the top, Salvini is a flop,” is one line from his song Sono Sono Samuel.

“To combat racism in Italy we need to display strength and the beauty of our ethnicities,” Afriyie says. “We need to display our talent until people believe there is always something to learn from a different culture.”

Embracing dual origins

The continued reluctance of some Italians to accept the non-white Italian identity has also prompted some Afro-Italian creatives to consciously celebrate their dual origins.

Awa Fall Mirone, a reggae singer born in Bergamo to an Italian mother and Senegalese father, travelled to her father's native country to learn more about her roots.

“I went because I didn’t feel I had a foundation on which I could build my own identity,” she says. The journey of self-discovery inspired her song Roots and Culture. The song emphasises the importance of origins and identity and encourages others to value their roots.

Mirone describes being Afro-Italian as “like a bridge between two cities” and sings in multiple languages — Italian, English, Spanish, French, Wolof and Yoruba — to express the co-existing cultures creating her identity.

For her, singing about hybrid identities is also a way of reaching out to others experiencing similar struggles. “The biggest challenge for me was not finding a person who could help me grow up as Afro-Italian,” she says. 

She hopes her music will provide that helping hand for future generations of Afro-Italians.

These creatives are finding an increasingly receptive audience for their work. 

Mbengue has 80,000 Instagram followers on top of her million fans on TikTok. Mirone’s music video for Roots and Culture has over one million views on Youtube.

Importantly, Mbengue says most of her fans are Italian, and many are not black, so she feels she is having a real impact on wider society.

Italians without citizenship

This growing cultural reckoning is putting pressure on the political system to help this demographic cement its place in Italian society.

Mbengue is one of over one million second-generation migrants who do not have citizenship. Those born in Italy or who arrive at a young age and do not have at least one Italian parent must wait to be 18 to apply for citizenship.

Now there are calls for changes in citizenship legislation that would see it granted on the basis of jus soli, birthright, or jus culturae, cultural right.

The latter would see citizenship bestowed on children who were born in Italy or moved there before the age of 12 and have completed at least 5 years of schooling.

Heather Merrill, a professor of Africana Studies notes however that while changing citizenship laws is fundamental, it doesn’t mean a sudden eradication of racism necessarily follows.

“There are all sorts of complexities to being a citizen,” she says, and seeing oneself reflected in the media and culture of one’s country is also essential.

Greater representation in Italian culture is key to the normalisation of the Afro-Italian identity, Merrill says, and creative expression and social media are crucial for igniting conversations and interacting with young audiences.

“The creative areas are the way you reach people and the way you do politics in some ways,” she says. “In Italy, I see the effort and the promise of change.”