Interview with Sabrina Jacobucci, President of Association of Afro-Italian Children
To be black and Italian at the same time is a new reality the Italian society is still struggling to accept. Adoption and increase in the number of mixed marriages between Italians and Africans are gradually leading to an increase in the number of Black Italian children, the so-called Afro-Italians. But the Italian society seems unprepared to cater for the social and educational needs of these children. In this exclusive interview with Africa News, Ms. Sabrina Jacobucci, aka Flora NW, President of the Association of Afro-Italian Children, reveals the reasons that led to the foundation of the Association, the problems mixed heritage children face in the country, and suggests what should be done to make the education system more responsive to the needs of mixed heritage children.
Sabrina, please share with us the story behind the formation of the Association of Afro-Italian Children.
The Association was initiated by an Italian mother of two mixed-race children born abroad, who, when returning to Italy, started to express the need of meeting other black children since they were the only black children in school, in their block, whenever they went to the park or to after school activities. They started to ask: why aren’t there children like us on TV or on advertisements? The Italian mother started to look for a group where children could meet other black children, but could only find associations of various migrant communities, or churches which catered for the Nigerian, or the Congolese or the Ghanaian and so forth. The children could not, though, identify with any ethnic or migrant community in particular, being black Italians. So to answer the children’s need to see themselves represented, this woman started to look for other parents of black or mixed-race children to set up a group where the kids could, at least once a month, meet and feel stronger, in a society where to be black is often neither appreciated nor valued.
When was it founded?
A couple of years ago.
Who was involved?
I, the white Italian mum of Black Italian daughters (who also share an English, Nigerian and Jamaican mixed parentage), had the idea of setting up a group where my children could meet other Afro-Italian children. I thought gathering other parents of black children willing to meet would be easy.
Unfortunately, the number of black and mixed-race children is very low in Rome, especially in my area. So I started to "advertise" on the web, first of all on www.insenegal.org, a site which has a rich forum where a number of mothers of children having a Senegalese father write. But most of them weren't from Rome. So I wrote to other parents' forum, but they were attended mostly by parents of white children. And then, on one of these forums, I met the adoptive mum of a girl of Nigerian parentage, who shared the same need as mine. We were then joined by other adoptive and biological parents of black and mixed-race children, thanks to the website I manage http://afroitaliani.splinder.com, where I announce our meetings and other activities.
What are the objectives of the Association?
We intend to offer support to Afro-Italian families, black or mixed-race, in an anti-racist and multicultural environment, focusing on evolving personal and collective strategies for combating and coping with racism and to give special emphasis to enabling our children develop a positive sense of their ethnic identity in an environment in which they are a minority.
Afro-Italians is quite a new concept in this country. How do people react to it?
I think the very concept is disturbing to some people. Even the word Afro-Italian. I remember when I started posting on a (all-white) parents’ forum using the word Afro-Italian as a nick name, a lot of people reacted badly to my comments judging the nickname “aggressive”.
I think people in Italy are afraid of someone defining him/herself Afro and Italian at the same time because in the collective consciousness you can be Italian only if you are white. This is demonstrated also by the treatment given to the famous black Italian footballer Mario Balotelli – what racist hooligans sing is that there is no such a thing as a black Italian. Celebrating our children’s dual identities, black and Italian at the same time, has a symbolic aspect which is disruptive to some people.
The fact that our children do not identify with any immigrant community in particular, is also of particular relevance. They cannot be relegated to the “second generations” category, being Italian also by blood. For example my kids are, from my side, at least seventh generation Romans, a record that many of their white Italian classmates (whose parents may come from Sardinia or Puglia) cannot even claim. Their not belonging to a specific immigrant community forces the society to face the “race relations” issue without using the immigration issue as a smoke screen, as it tends to do, often inappropriately. There is no immigration issue here: the society has to face the fact that there are Italians with a black skin!
How many members do you have now?
About 35-40. We must keep in mind that this is probably the first association of its kind in Italy. Our children do not share the same cultural background: some of them have one black parent whose origin can be traced directly to an African nation, but others have a black parent of Caribbean origin, or even do not know the origin of their black parent(s) as it may be in the case of some adopted children born in Italy. Our children do not share the same ethnicity, i.e. this is not a Nigerian or Ethiopian association or community group. Neither is it only an association of mixed couples (most of the adoptive parents are both Italians and white). But our children share the same experience, the experience of being black in a white society. This is what they have in common, this is what unites them - their “race” (using this word for want of a better one and as a sociological construct, of course). And the “race” issue is still a taboo in Italy.
Who can join the Association?
While everyone regardless of ethnic or racial background can join, we cater particularly for Black and mixed-race children and their parents, both biological and adoptive; members of the African Diaspora in Italy and their families; parents of black or mixed-race Afro-Italian children; those in a mixed-race marriage or families where at least one of their members can trace his/her origins no matter how remote to the African Diaspora.
In reality, this is an Association of both parents and children. Do both parents and children meet at the same time, or do you have separate meetings?
We meet on the same day, but tend to keep the meetings separate, so that the parents can have the opportunity to discuss matters too sensitive for children's ears.
What do you do when you meet?
We have been lucky enough to meet black cultural mediators who share our vision. So they carry on activities for the children, aimed at valorising not only the culture of origin of some of them, which all too often is misrepresented in the society, but also the black identity of the children. The children get empowered through seeing a black person in position of authority, functioning as a role-model, especially in the case of those black kids who grow up in totally white families (adoptive children or children from single - parent families, when the only parent they live with is white). In Italy, because of institutional racism, there aren't practically any black teachers. A black child is unlikely to come across a black general practitioner (GP), or a black policeman, or even a black TV presenter.
While the children’s activities take place, we, the parents, in an adjoining room, meet to discuss many different topics ranging from hair care to dealing with racism in the education system and so on. Before or after the meeting we also share a meal together.
From your experience, in Italy, are mixed heritage children facing different problems from those of other children?
Mixed race children often face the same issues black mono-heritage children face. No matter their skin tone, they are seen as black and therefore it is healthier and more empowering for them to identify as such, without denying their dual heritage at the same time. A racist is not going to ask them whether they are mixed-race. And yes, black and mixed race children definitely face different problems from those of white children.
What are the main problems?
Problems such as name-calling: on the first day of primary school, one of our mixed-race girls went home to her mum and asked: What does “negra” mean? A child in class told me today “Don’t sit next to me, negra!”; refusal by classmates to hold the black child’s hand at playtime in nursery (an experience that another of our black girls, aged four or five, had). In both these episodes unfortunately what emerged was the lack of action by the teacher. Teachers all too often do not have any training in multicultural education, and therefore when faced with episodes of racism or pre-racism by children, they do not know how to react and tend to minimise, even telling the victim to look the other way, or calling the victims oversensitive if they report a racist incident and expect justice. This is very serious because with racism, any action is better than no action at all. The victim should be comforted and the perpetrator reprimanded, always.
Do you think the education system in Italy fully caters for the needs of mixed heritage children?
I don't think so. I don't think the education system has even started to consider or understand the needs of mixed heritage children or of black children for that matter. They are invisible to the system because they are not even seen as a group. Also, mixed heritage is a concept that encompasses too broad a category. Our experience is that of parents of mixed-race children, black/white, and as such they face the same problems of institutional racism embedded in the education system black "mono-heritage" children face. I think that to separate mixed-race children from the black children amounts to "fractioning" the black community, and at this moment, when the community needs unity and strength, is not advisable.
What do you think should be done to make the education system more responsive to the needs of mixed heritage children?
Teachers should be properly trained about the multiethnic society and how to deal effectively with racism. It should also be ensured that all educational materials reflect the ethnic background of each and every child.
Every child has the right to see himself or herself represented. In books and posters around the class there should be an equal distribution of pictures of various groups: one image of a black person is not enough. Books for children used in schools should also show pictures of people of every ethnic group in a position of authority, because children learn from actions as well as from omissions: never seeing a black person in position of authority makes the black and white children interiorize the concept of the “lesser importance” of black people in the society. Especially in classes where most of the children are white, at least half of the images used should introduce diversity to contrast the supremacy of images of white people in mainstream culture!
It’s wrong to believe that letting children of different ethnic groups play together is enough in fighting against prejudice: without other inputs, children maintain what they have internalised. Teachers, parents, educators, have to actively talk about diversity without minimizing or ignoring it. They should strive to teach children a positive response to diversity. The more the classroom environment presents the diverse images and materials, the more the children will ask questions about diversity, even in those classrooms where all belong to the same ethnic group. And we need to remember that such questions should be encouraged.
What’s your advice to white parents with black children?
Try to have black friends, adults as well as children and to meet other mixed families. Try to have your child attend schools where he or she is not going to be the only black person in the class. Speak to the head teacher, see what is their policy on dealing with racism. If there is another black child of the same age of your child, insist that he be placed in the same class with your child.
When your child is small, be even prepared to donate educational material your child can feel represented in (black dolls, books) to their classroom. The school most likely will not have any.
Act as classroom representative, if you can. Your family becomes “normal” the more people are used to you. Try to live as much as possible in a mixed community. Ideally one should be prepared to move if it means a better and more supportive environment for the child. Find black baby-sitters and other family helpers. Learn how to take good care of your child’s hair. Valorise the beauty of your children’s natural hair. Do not straighten it, or try to make it more similar to "the European" hair. That lowers self-esteem.
If your child were white you wouldn’t put on her hair harsh damaging chemicals, would you? Try to have children’s books featuring black children, black dolls, toys, games, in your home, even if that means having to import from the USA, the UK or France (make use of online bookshops). You can always buy the book then translate it as you read it, or make up the story for your child as you look at the pictures. It’s important to encourage positive feelings about the brown and black skin colour to contrast the negative attitudes to them that are created by racism in the society.
Learn and share with your children Black history. Do not be afraid of speaking about race, not just cultural identity. Be clear with yourself and your child as to her/his racial identity. Talk about racial issues, even if your child does not ask you because he or she may not ask because of having internalised the society’s taboo about race. Use natural opportunities, such as a TV programme or an article in a newspaper or a book. It is important that your child knows that you feel comfortable discussing race. It is vital to encourage your child from a young age to talk to you if they feel hurt by any exclusion, name calling or other forms of racism, and let them know that you will support them. Remember that they may feel embarrassed about going into details.
Always speak up when wrongs occur. Do not accept racist acts or words, even if they are not directed to your child or their ethnic group. What happens to any minority person happens to your child! Ignorance is no excuse: the harm and injury are just as deep even if the acts or words are based on ignorance or were not done with spite.
Understand white privilege: understand how as whites we benefit from a racist system. Talk about racism with your child. Let him or her know that you are anti-racist. Read, talk to people, and be continuously on the lookout for anything that will help you better empower your child, sustain her/his growth, and become a better anti-racist. Share what you know with others. It is also important for your child to learn and understand that he/she is part of the black community. This is probably the most difficult issue, especially for those white parents who are raising a black child without a black partner because of relationship breakdown or adoption.
Any plans of creating similar associations throughout the country?
I often get asked by people in other parts of Italy if there is something similar there: my answer is: get together, organize yourselves, start one self-help group wherever you are...we can then network!
“I think that forming this Association was a good idea; we have fun and they teach us new things about African countries (songs, traditions…) that white Italians would not understand!”
S. 8 years old
“I think the Afroitaliani/e Association has been an excellent idea, so every child can see him/herself mirrored in another person that looks like him/her. When I was smaller I was delighted to attend meetings more than now that I am 12 and most of the children are younger than me, but that does not stop me from acknowledging that this group is brilliant!”
Y. 12 years old
“I like going to the meetings because the children are like us, and they cannot make fun of us because we all have the same skin colour, or rather we are all dark and nobody asks us whether we had been adopted”.
D. 11 years old
“All the members of the Association are nice!”
N. 7 years
CONTACTS OF ASSOCIATION OF AFRO-ITALIAN CHILDREN
By Stephen Ogongo