Yes, I parlayed the persistent rejections of society, which today might be called micro-aggressions, into reservoirs of energy to achieve. I learned that from my father, himself active in the Civil Rights Movement during the 1950s and 1960s.
In a way, I am who I am precisely because countless people, by their actions or inactions, said I could never be what I am. But what if you don’t have this deep supply of fuel? What becomes of you? Who from historically disenfranchised communities, including women, LGBTQ+, and anybody of color, are missing—falling shy of their full potential because they ran out of energy and gave up trying.
This post of Neil DeGrasse Tyson made me think of my grandfather from Abruzzo who lived in a world seemingly different compared to the one we live in today.
He arrived in Germany as a guest worker in February 1960. Luckily there were many people willing to help him, but undeniably racism was still very much present in post-war Germany as well. Some of it was covert, some in the open. From what I remember from his stories, the covert racism often was worse because someone would wear a friendly mask in front of him, while plotting against him behind his back, but there was no lack of open display of racism either.
Luckily he was a tough cookie and the more he was challenged, the more his “deep supply of fuel” would motivate him to double his efforts. He mastered the German language in a record time. He always worked harder than anyone else. He always set a positive example. And he passed on his tenacity to everyone in his family.
Whenever I was called “Spaghettifresser” or “Pizzafresser” by some idiots at school in Germany or if a job interview started with a challenging: “So… you are Italian!?” I never thought much of it. But that’s probably because most of the time, if nobody knew my Italian name and if I wouldn’t dress up too “Italian” (Yes, that’s possible. Believe it or not, there was a time during my teens when I went all Jersey Shore, clothing-wise), nobody could tell or suspect or even be tempted to create an “us” vs. “them” dynamic, because nobody knew they could apply the “them” tag to me.
Of course that was only possible because I am white. So if incidents of racism and discrimination could happen to my grandfather and, in some circumstances, to my younger self while I lived abroad, what happens if you do not have the luxury to just transition into “stealth mode” and go on with your life? What if just by being a black person someone can attribute a “them” tag to you at any time, in any circumstance – and that alone can put your life at risk? Just because you’re walking down a street? Driving in your car? Going for a run? Or because you’re simply travelling home?
But don’t be fooled. While the amount of incidents in Italy don’t seem to be comparable to those in the U.S., they do exist, slavery still exists very much in plain sight and there is a history of violence, bigotry and discrimination here as well, both within the country (North vs. South) as well against other ethnicities. Some data suggest that Italy is possibly one of the most racist countries in Europe. Something you wouldn’t expect of a country known for its beaches, Mediterranean lifestyle and hospitality. Does this mean that everyone here is racist? Of course not.
Many of these problems are very complex and the solutions will be different within every country or even state, region and county. Not every act of discrimination is racism. When you choose your friends you are discriminating against other people who will not be your friends. Discrimination can also be a choice of preference in the kind of partner that you like vs. one you do not like (without any malevolence versus the other person you did not choose). When it is dark and you see a group of young males hanging around in a dark part of the street and you switch to the other side of the street, you may not be racist but applying a risk analysis.
Not every failing of the state is caused by imperialistic tendencies (in fact, if anything, the Italian system of bureaucracy has been equally inefficient and frustrating for most citizens, independent of race, age or gender). Not every person yelling at somebody of another race is racist. We all know that we Italians can be very passionate and loud, independent of who we have in front of us.
Whether it is possible to change people’s minds, either by open conversation or by shutting down fascist and racist institutions, whether more equal and more powerful laws will eliminate the problem, I don’t know.
I guess it’s a good start to just not be racist. To judge everyone individually for their actions. A good person is a good person no matter where they are from. An asshole remains an asshole, independent of the color of their skin. Simple as that.