A Conversation on Race with Ngone Seck, an Italian Citizen with African Roots Living in St Louis. Interview Conducted by Michael Cross
Ngone, you were born and raised in Italy. You are an Italian citizen and a person of color. What was your experience growing up in Italy as someone born of an immigrant family of African descent?
I had quite a difficult time fitting in with my peers during my younger years in Italy. My parents are from Senegal, but I was born and raised in Italy for 13 years. I was the only black girl in my class from kindergarten to 6th grade, and it definitely wasn’t easy because my peers didn’t have much awareness regarding diversity. My classmates simply didn’t think it’d be possible for a black person or any other person of foreign ethnicity to be considered an Italian citizen.
You learned Italian just like any other girl or boy growing up in Italy. You attended school just like your peers. Were you looked upon differently even though you spoke fluent Italian and embraced the Italian way of life, or do you feel that you were treated the same as your peers who were not persons of color?
I’ve always loved my country. I grew up with a deep admiration for it and love for the culture. Growing up, I spoke Italian much more often than my parents' native tongue Wolof. Eventually, I grew a thick northern Italian accent that still leaves its traces in my voice. Although I sounded exactly like any other Italian girl or boy, I faced racism on multiple occasions because of the color of my skin. My peers had the misconception that Africans were savages who live like uncivilized animals. I lived in Collio di Vobarno in the city of Brescia, one hour north of Milan. I attended Scuola Primaria Giorgio Enrico Falck and Scuola Media Statale A. Migliavacca. I was pushed intellectually daily, and to this day, I rave about the education system in Italy. During my years in Italy, I never realized the advantage of the education I was receiving, but I can certainly say that it put me at great advantage once I entered the American schooling system. However, while I was given an amazing education at a young age, I also received much discrimination and racism growing up.
Tell us about your journey to the United States and specifically why you and your family came to St Louis? What has been your experience in this city as a person of color?
During the decades my family lived in Italy, my dad worked for an industrial factory called Fondital SPA which manufactures heaters. My mother worked for a similar factory which is now out of business because of worker’s rights lawsuits. My parents both worked at their industrial jobs for over 15 years, but my mother lost a long legal fight against her employer after she and many others found out that they were being underpaid according to their contract and were not receiving their full benefits. For that reason we migrated to the United States because of better job opportunities for my mother.
I honestly love St Louis. After 8 years here, I have grown to love my home away from home very much, although I have experienced many eventful days here. Upon arriving in St Louis, we first lived in the Versailles apartments in the heart of Ferguson. There I learned first hand how truly dangerous the world is - a fact that I was shielded from and unaware of during my years in the peaceful small city of Vobarno. After 2 years of living in the United States, I witnessed the events surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown on Canfield Drive which was just a 3 minute walk from my apartment. I watched from my bedroom window, in the fall of 2014, as a man approached the QT gas station just feet away from me and set it on fire with a match and a container of gasoline. This was the event that started the snowball effect and began the historic Ferguson protests, looting, and arson. This also happened just a couple of days before my first day of my freshman year of high school, and to this day, I remember how terrified I was. I was shaking and panting as I stood in the middle of the protest area to catch the school bus on my first day of high school.
Of course, I’ve also had amazing memorable experiences in St Louis: studying and performing in the HEAL Center for the Arts, attending many concerts at the Sheldon and Powell Halls, spending weekends in the Delmar Loop with college friends, and becoming a member of the student board of directors at the Federal Reserve Bank of Saint Louis, along with many more. However, even during triumphant moments such as those, I was reminded of the unfair treatment my skin color receives in this world. On one of my days at the Federal Reserve Bank, I shared an elevator ride with a lady working in the building. That morning I spent two hours creating an updo with my natural hair that I was very proud of, but all that pride was shattered in the one minute I spent in that elevator. The lady said to me something along the lines of “sweetie your hair is cute, but I would recommend you straighten your hair instead next time. It would look more professional.” It pains me so much to think that my natural hair texture isn’t seen as “professional” even when combed back in an organized updo.
Attacks and beatings on persons of color in Italy have unfortunately become more and more common each year. Small towns are not immune to these vicious attacks. In the past two years, in the small town of Partinico, Sicily, four Gambians and an Ivorian citizen were beaten and assaulted by several attackers for racist motives. In the exact same town, a 19 year old girl from Senegal who was working at a local cafe, was harshly beaten by four men while one of them screamed insults at her: "vattene via sporco negro" which means "go away dirty negro". Her beating came after the men taunted her for three days at the cafe in Partinico where she worked. This anger and hatred against a girl of color who was simply doing her job is nothing new in certain parts of Italy. What are your thoughts on why these situations continue to occur?
In my personal experience racism in Italy can be pretty heavy. It seems to me that the lack of diversity and education regarding race creates a grey area. To the youngsters, this gray area sparks questions such as “Why am I white and why are they dark brown?”, “Why are there more of us in this room than those people?”, “If there are more of us, does it mean we’re better?” Those unanswered questions along with a commonly publicized notion of the uncivilized and savage Africa seem to develop a sense of superiority which eventually causes individuals to look down on us, at times with hatred. Of course, that is my personal speculation, but these thoughts are the products of a severely bullied little Ngone eating her lunch in a school closet while the rest enjoy outdoor playtime.
Some Italian cities and towns experience a higher rate of hate crimes than others. Are there certain areas which persons of color are not advised to go?
I’m certain there are. As a child I often overheard the grown ups discussing such towns and warning each other. However I was too young to understand or remember the details.
Racism in the U.S. can appear more subtle while racism in Italy can be more blatant. From your experience, can you reflect on the differences between racism in Italy and racism in the United States?
I believe I can better answer using examples from my experiences:
In 6th grade, palestra, or gym, was my favorite class. I was very athletic and enjoyed outrunning the boys. One day, as I collected my items from the classroom to head to the gym, I was approached by three boys also heading to the gym. I was alone in the long narrow hallway and the boys were running towards me. Before I had the time to process what was happening I was soaked from head to toe with soapy water. My eyes were burning and it was freezing cold, but I managed to squint my eyes and see the boys giggling at me saying “we wanted to see if all that brown on your skin would wash off. It looks dirty.” I was speechless, truly. I felt a gut wrenching sensation shoot through me while I watched them walk away as if they hadn’t just shattered my world. In confrontations such as that one, I was lucky to walk away without serious physical injuries. However I’ve often been kicked, punched, and rocks were thrown at me at times. The worst of those physical confrontations also happened in 6th grade. Yassin, an Arabic boy craving the acceptance of his caucasian Italian friends, pulled my chair from under me right as I was sitting down. I hit my bottom on the floor with force and was taken to a hospital the next day after being punished by the principal for blaming my “innocent” classmate. I couldn’t walk or sit for weeks and this incident resulted in a bruised tailbone that still pains me to this day almost eight years later.
In my years in America, I have never experienced anything close to what I’ve been through in my childhood. Maybe it’s because this country has seen one of the worst cases of racism during its colonial period and is still in the process of healing from it. Perhaps during this healing process, the leadership of black rights activists has created a lot of awareness and compassion for the African-American community. In my opinion, that lack of mainstream activism is what allows for such blatant racism in Italy.
Italy is located at the heart of the Mediterranean and has always had strong links to Africa over the past three millennia. African-Italian author, Igiaba Scego, once said: "Italy could be the perfect pivot between continents, between Europe and Africa, yet it persists in denying its mixed-race identity as a country made of diversity. Everyone has passed through here: Arabs, Austrians, Africans, the French, the Spanish. This is Italy, a mixture of different blood and skins. When it finally accepts this identity, it will once again be the Bel Paese we all love." In reflecting on these words, I get a sense of hope, the virture which is always at the forefront of her writing. In your experience, what are some positive exchanges you've had on race? What are some improvements that you've seen taken place? What are you hopeful for that will change in your lifetime?
My heart explodes with joy when I witness a person step out of their privilege to humbly help someone who is needy in the black community: not with a meal, not with money necessarily, but with knowledge and guidance that will equip them with the power to rise above racial stereotypes. I attended an unaccredited high-school comprised of almost entirely low-income, first generation African students. I witnessed first hand students taking public transportation for over two hours everyday to make it to school from their homeless shelters. I've seen teen pregnancies that cost girls their futures, the use of drugs as an escape from difficult situations at home, I’ve had bright friends and classmates become victims of gang related shootings, and many other terrible things. Every one of these kids’ lives could have been forever altered, and maybe even saved, if someone stepped up to guide them and teach them what their parents and grandparents weren’t taught: building a credit score, tax filing, networking, following a passion, starting a profitable business, healthy coping mechanisms, building and maintaining functional and healthy relationships, investing and saving money, as well as many other life skills that are almost nonexistent in many underprivileged communities. I have a lot to learn myself, but I have taken the initiative to start a sisterhood of young black women coming together to bond and support each other. I aim to provide guidance in areas I’m knowledgeable in, and connect my small community with resources in areas which are in desperate need of hope. I want to influence my community while creating a safe space where these individuals are able to grow, support each other, confide in one other, feel seen, cared for and loved as they aim to achieve goals they have for themselves. No matter what I achieve for myself, I am not winning if my people don’t win.
Ngone, you've undergone many obstacles throughout your life and yet you seem to not only persevere, but thrive. What can you teach us about your experiences?
We have to be here for one other, we have to realize what shaped us and how we could contribute to the growth of underdeveloped communities by sharing the knowledge, resources, and skills we possess and have received. Racism and racial inequality could go extinct if we take real action and reach out to those who really need it, especially if each of us helps one other person. The effects of our actions will ripple exponentially.
I also would like to note that I LOVE la mia bella Italia and I miss her so much. I have forgiven anyone that has hurt me in my past, and still do believe that Italy is the most beautiful country there is.
The fact that you can forgive those who have hurt you in the past is something beautiful and is a reminder to all of what a strong woman you are. Bullies are everywhere in life and it's important to rise above them and, moreover, rise above their hatred. Much of this hatred is due to ignorance but also fear. Deep down inside those same people who lash out in anger or demean others based on race, or any other motive for that matter, are only masking their own deep insecurity.
It's been a pleasure once again, Ngone. Thank you for being a part of our inclusive Italian community, for taking part in our activities, for bringing to light your story, and for your positive impact on all of us. We love you, Ngone.