September 24, 2023

Existinglaw

Law for politics

They are Black. They are Italians. And they are changing their country.

Even as a new, far-right government comes into office in Italy after Sunday’s elections, Black and multicultural Italians are asserting their place in their country’s society.

By pushing for legal changes to systemically racist citizenship laws, providing support for Black Italians who feel isolated, or using media like Italian fashion to bridge divides, they are staking their claim in a country that sometimes tells them they’re not wanted.

Why We Wrote This

It’s not easy for Black Italians to grow up feeling Italian when significant portions of Italy treat them as outsiders. But legally, artistically, and socially, Black Italians are staking their claim to Italy.

Black Italians include people who were born and raised in Italy, but not only. The mix encompasses people who feel Italian but also hold a pride in their Blackness and a broader sense of connection to a Black diaspora, says Camilla Hawthorne, who studies migration and citizenship.

Italy does not collect racial data in its population census, so it is hard to estimate the number of Black Italians. But citizenship rights activists put children born and raised in Italy but lacking citizenship at about 1 million.

“For this generation of young people who were born and raised in Italy … they see themselves as totally Italian,” says Dr. Hawthorne. “But there is always this moment that happens … where they realize that even though they feel totally Italian, they are not viewed by the rest of the world as Italian.”

Michelle Ngonmo fights for inclusion. Her weapon is fashion; her battleground is the catwalks and showrooms of multicultural Milan.

“We are in a society where everything is imagined and imaged as all white,” says Ms. Ngonmo, sitting in a white suit in an office where the corners are reserved for clothes racks loaded with the outfits for Afro Fashion Week. “And there is a real struggle between the people-of-color Italians and [white] Italian society. Asian Italians, Black Italians are really struggling to be accepted as Italians.”

That’s one of the reasons why in 2015 she created the Afro Fashion Association, with a base in Italy and Cameroon. The organization represents 1,400 designers in Africa or the African diaspora. In Italy, it works with about 500 multicultural Italian designers. “People tend to think that Afro culture is just about wax fabric,” she says. “They think that it is the boubou or the foulard or the turban that you put on your head. And they look at it in a folkloristic way, not as something that can be really part of fashion.”

Why We Wrote This

It’s not easy for Black Italians to grow up feeling Italian when significant portions of Italy treat them as outsiders. But legally, artistically, and socially, Black Italians are staking their claim to Italy.

But that is slowly changing. In 2020, in collaboration with the Camera della Moda (Italy’s national fashion chamber), her association launched “We Are Made in Italy,” a fashion project highlighting the work of Italy’s five top multicultural talents. The Afro Fashion Show 2022 marked the first time that the collections of the “fab five” hit the catwalk, due to COVID-19. “Their creativity is super rich,” she says with pride. “These designers have two or three cultures inside. And the creativity is the mix of those cultures.”

Fashion designer Michelle Ngonmo flips through a fashion magazine in the Milan office of the Afro Fashion Association on Sept. 8, 2022. Ms. Ngonmo uses fashion to fight for inclusion in Italian society.

The battle against racism and for equal rights for Black Italians extends far beyond the catwalks of Milan. Even as some of their fellow citizens have trouble envisioning Italians as anything other than white, Black and multicultural Italians are asserting their place in their country’s society. By pushing for legal changes to systemically racist citizenship laws, providing support for Black Italians who feel isolated, or using media like Italian fashion to bridge divides, they are staking their claim in a country that sometimes tells them they’re not wanted.

“For this generation of young people who were born and raised in Italy … they see themselves as totally Italian,” says Camilla Hawthorne, who studies the racial politics of migration and citizenship at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “But there is always this moment that happens in school, whether it is a classmate or teacher, that pulls them out of this sense of, oh, I am just like another kid, where they realize that even though they feel totally Italian, they are not viewed by the rest of the world as Italian. They are always seen as different, as outside, as other, as immigrants.”