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

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.”

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.”

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.”

“They hardly ever recognize anyone like me”

Today, notions of national belonging in Italy center on whiteness, even in the country’s citizenship law. The country does not grant nationality based on being born within Italian borders, but rather on bloodline.

In practice, this means that the great grandchild of an Italian who migrated to Argentina, even if she or he does not speak Italian and has never set foot in Italy, faces fewer bureaucratic hurdles to get Italian citizenship than the child of African nationals who was born and schooled in Italy, and who speaks only Italian with a local accent to boot. Those in the latter’s situation only have a year to apply for citizenship once they turn 18, but the process is riddled with pedantic bureaucracy that many consider institutional racism.

Dr. Hawthorne, who was brought up in the United States as the child of an African American father and an Italian mother, has been grappling with what it means to be Black and Italian all his life. She ended up writing a book on the experiences of Black people who were born and raised in Italy but struggled for citizenship. While family histories vary widely, there are some common denominators in a generation often labeled “second-generation migrants” rather than first-generation Italians, she says. She prefers to use the term Black Italians in relation to a person’s sense of identity and belonging over citizenship status.

Black Italians include people who were born and raised in Italy, but not only that. 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, she says. They may have roots in Africa, the Caribbean, Asia, or Latin America. Or they may be children of migrant workers who came to Italy well before the 2014-15 refugee crisis; Africans who pursued university degrees and made a home in Italy; descendants of Italians who settled in the former colonies of Eritrea, Somalia, Libya, and Ethiopia; or descendants of African-American soldiers who moved to Italy after World War II or the Cold War.

Italy does not collect racial data in its population census, so it is difficult 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.

Although citizenship reforms finally got a spot on the legislative agenda under former Prime Minister Mario Draghi, the prospects of change collapsed along with his government this summer. Now, with a right-wing coalition led by a party which regularly airs racist views set to take power, political change appears off the table.

“In this country when you start talking about citizenship, it becomes a hot matter,” says Hilary Sedu, a Napoli-based lawyer. “No one really wants to put their hands on it because part of the country is a bit racist.”

Mr. Sedu was born in Nigeria but arrived in Italy at the age of six months. Eventually, he was able to acquire Italian citizenship after proving that he had been a resident for 10 years and paid taxes for three. Today he is one of about two dozen Black lawyers out of 260,000 lawyers working in Italy and part of a broader community pushing to resolve the citizenship question for Black Italian minors whose struggles are not dissimilar to the Dreamers generation in the US

“Most feel that Italian citizens are those with the white skin,” he says. “They hardly ever recognize anyone like me, a Black Italian, [as Italian]so it becomes hard to tell the voters that there is something going on, that Italian citizens are not only those who have the white skin.”

TikTok and cocktails

It is not just a matter of persuading white Italians. Ronke Oluwadare, a psychotherapist in Milan, works with Black Italians to help them work through feelings of alienation from their country and community. “Identity is one of the topics I often navigate with my patients because they don’t feel whole,” says Dr. Oluwadare, noting that African Italians hail from families not only from different countries but also varied socioeconomic classes.

“I usually use this image of a cocktail, right? Like you have different ingredients and then you use different portions to make different cocktails. … When you are a second generation, part of your journey is deciding which cocktail you want to make.”

Today Black Italian children have comedian Khaby Lame and other influencers on TikTok to show them that they are not alone, that success is possible despite structural and everyday racism. Born in Senegal and brought to Italy as a baby, Mr. Lame shot to fame with silent but funny spoofs of “life hacks” and other social media videos. He gained international recognition as the most followed TikToker in the world, described as “from Italy.” (Though like many young Black people in Italy, he did not have Italian nationality – until recently. It was granted in August, shortly after he reached the pinnacle of TikTok.)

Whether on TV or TikTok, representation matters. But what matters more in Dr. Oluwadare’s view is education: proper discussions of Italian colonialism in the classroom, lessons on Africa that recognize the achievements and diversity within it, and better responses to racial bullying. The murder of George Floyd in the US resonated in Italy for a reason.

“Before that tragedy, all these people thought they were the only one in the room, in each room,” she says. “Then they figured out, ‘Wait, we’re not.'”

“The mask shows who you are”

For Paul Roger Tanonkou, identity and migration played directly into his choice of the logo for his fashion brand: an African mask. Masks in African culture once served as passports, a manifestation of a person’s origins necessary to enter the villages of other tribes. “In Europe, the mask hides who you are,” notes Mr. Tanonkou, who grew up among the fabrics of his mother, a seamstress in Cameroon. “In Africa, the mask shows who you are. The issue of passports, identification, already existed in Africa.”

Mr. Tanankou, whose printed silk shirts combine bright designs with soothing color palettes, sees fashion as a force with the power to celebrate difference but also create unity across cultures. “We hope to create a fashion that is inspired by Africa but that is accessible to everyone,” he says. “Sometimes I walk past someone on the street wearing one of my shirts and I just smile.”

Nigerian-born Joy Meribe went to fashion schools in Modena and Bologna after first getting an MBA in international business in Italy. Today she has her own brand. Ms. Meribe says her experience shows that being Italian and Black can go hand in hand.

Although she is fluent in Italian, she says Italians consider her Nigerian. Nigerians sometimes see her as Italian due to her penchant for dramatic hand gestures, although she is not a citizen. Her son cheers for Italy when it plays against Nigeria in soccer, and her Italian-born daughter who recently turned 18 has applied for Italian nationality.

“I’ve come to love Italy like home,” Ms. Meribe says. “My children were born here. They are Black. But in all of their mannerisms, in their tastes, in everything they do, they are Italians.”

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