Racial concerns for minorities in Italy

A traveler's guide to race matters in Italy and a frank rundown of what to expect if you're black, Asian, Arab, Indian, or otherwise not visibly of European descent

Though admittedly far from common yet, it's not unusual today to see people of all races and colors riding the trains in Europe.
Though admittedly far from common yet, it's not unusual today to see people of all races and colors riding the trains in Italy.

The world is not yet color-blind, and Italy is no exception. Anyone not visibly of European descent is often treated at least as a cultural oddity in Italy. Rarely does it move beyond stares (though some African-American women do report a rather high incidence of impromptu marriage proposals in Italy).

When racism does rear its ugly head in Italy, thankfully it’s usually not in the form of physical violence. Unfounded mistrust, however, can run rampant, and dark-skinned travelers often run into biased, infuriating treatment.

You may be questioned longer at border crossings and on trains and your baggage may be rifled through by officials much more often than that of the white folks. At worst, a hotel may claim it’s full for the night and then give a room to the next white guy who walks through the door.

There’s little you can do about all this, although—in one of travel’s more unpleasant truisms—it helps to flash that American passport frequently and dress like a well-to-do tourist. If you are wronged because of your skin tone, strike a blow for social consciousness by lodging a complaint with the local police or special “tourist police” branch.

You may also find yourself a more frequent victim of attempted rip-offs and scams.

Specific concerns for any group that doesn't look European

In general, African Americans and others with black skin won’t run into much more racism, and usually less, than they would at home (I know, that’s not saying much). Cities such as Rome and Milan have sizeable local black populations, so you won’t stand out quite as much.

You probably will, however, be looked down upon, mainly because most of the people in Italy with dark skin are immigrants from the horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia) which was, briefly, part of Italy's Fascist neo-colonial empire in the early 20th century. In other words, they are to Italy what Mexican and other Latin American immigrants are to the U.S.: hard-working, often illegal immigrants with few rights and fewer opportunities.

Italians are pretty quick to suss out a tourist from a penniless immigrant, but you should still be prepared to be treated sometimes with the double standards described previously and to be stared at—especially in smaller towns. Italy has its share of skinheads, but, frankly, neo-Nazis are more of a problem in the United States than they are in Europe.

People of North African, Middle Eastern, Arabic, or Baltic descent may run into more prejudice and hard feelings. Again, the situation between many of these groups and the European majority parallels that between hispanic immigrants and the white majority in the United States.

Italians are suspicious of people from the other side of the Mediterranean because many of them, fleeing poverty or political unrest, head to Europe (especially Italy, Germany, and France) for a “better life” of washing windows, selling trinkets, and similar work.

Unfortunately, high unemployment, local public resentment, latent racism, and the rise of mafia-like immigrant employment syndicates conspire to keep these people in their marginalized and denigrated role. Do a bit of advance research to find out whether large immigrant groups have strained social tensions in certain areas. For example: Albanians are treated abysmally in Italy, and there have been incidents of racially-motivated killings. This is, however, far from the norm; a few years ago I bought a leather jacket in the Florence market from an Albanian immigrant who seemed to be fitting in just fine—and who knocked a few Euro of the price when I impressed him by knowing that John Belushi was of Albanian descent.

Most of Europe doesn't seem to know what to make of folks from the Indian Subcontinent —except, of course, in London and other parts of England where there are huge Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Sikh populations. You'll probably run into a bit of the "cultural oddity" reaction, a bit of the "scared of dark skin" reaction, and a bit of a "Huh, must be from London" reaction.

So many tour buses blow through Italy full of Japanese and other East Asian tourists on sightseeing tours/shopping sprees that folks whose heritage hails from the Far East should find a pretty friendly reception here. You won’t be the subject of nearly as many suspicions as other non-Europeans—though Italians will often crack many lighthearted jokes involving your presumed penchant for taking photographs, or the traditional Japanese preference for baths over showers.

(And it doesn't really matter if you're Korean, Chinese, Thai, Malaysian, Filipino...the largest influx to Europe is from Japan, and since there are few East Asian communities in Italy, the locals are not yet very adept at telling the difference.)

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