Today marks the start of the third week of my six weeks journey in Florence. In the two weeks that I have been here, I have learned how to introduce myself in Italian, rely on my natural GPS called my brain to navigated the maze-like streets of Florence, and toured a few of the historic art pieces of Michelangelo and Donatello. I’ve gotten to do more things such as go to Florence’s annual flower festival and tour the Medici family’s palace and I have done all of these things while being Black. The statement is simple and it may seem obvious since I am and do identify as a Black person but, living so is more difficult than one might think.
When I had originally decided to study abroad, the first thing I did was research “Black friendly” countries, countries that were socially acclimated to understanding or at least appreciative of Black people and their culture, to be more frank, countries that would not constantly remind one that they were Black through subtle and/or overt gestures and interactions. Being that my options were limited due to Covid and also that many of my study abroad options were predominantly white countries, I knew that I would have to police myself meticulously- and even more, since I was studying abroad by myself- to make sure that I avoid being seen or treated as any negative Black stereotypes.
From the moment that I stepped foot off the plane and my feet met with the Italian floor, I knew I was “the elephant in the room”. The stares of officers in the airport were ones of fixed concentration as I looked for which way to get to the train station. It was nothing that I didn’t already prepare myself with from the various videos of the personal testimonies of Black Youtube vloggers assessing their experiences while in Italy, it was only shocking that my awareness of being Black grew so instantly in a matter of about an hour. I knew once I started my classes, I was going to have to learn how to be Black in a foreign country. Since I mainly do everything by myself, the attention I get is greater than what it would be if I were to be in a group. As I walk by each cafe, each high-end designer store, and each century-old museum, I see the sharp turns of heads that make it a mission to catch a glimpse of my long twists swaying to the rhythm of my hips moving and I feel each stare even when I am five minutes past a prior location. Some would say ” enjoy it, you’re like Beyonce” and yeah I can for no more than two minutes until I realize what kind of stares I am receiving and how many of those stares I receive, and then when I add in my anxiety, I know certainly that I can not appreciate the attention. Being that Florence is a city of antiquity and high quality, it is easy to tell from some of the looks that I receive that there is confusion as to my reasoning for being in the city. The looks let me know that there is suspicion of presence and it may bring fears. I noticed this on my first museum excursion where I had each of the security personnel’s body positions stay towards me as I looked around the exhibit and the museum workers’ casual reminders of their help if need of assistance. Again it was nothing that Black Youtube vloggers did not prepare me for, it was only more hurting because I finally understood what they meant.
Coming to Italy understandably meant that I would have to leave the American comfort that I was used to, it also meant that I would have to leave some of my Black girl comforts as well. For example, no more satin bonnets as part of the late-night venture outfit. Each action was one of considerable thought, it was actions that made sure I was perceived as innocent and harmless. As an overthinker, I am constantly in proactive mode to guarantee certainty and each time I am out walking in Florence, I am always thinking of ways to guarantee that my presence will be nothing less of an interested tourist. And it’s funny because I’ve read and heard American tourists talk about not wanting to be seen as a tourist when abroad, those who express that wish are usually white. Their American identity is what introduces them to the country that they are traveling to, but for me and maybe even other people of color, the stereotypes that have been living for decades and centuries throughout history are our (unfair) introduction to the country (s) that we travel to. It makes sense as to why race is a reason as to not many Black students planning nor wanting to study abroad. However, it also reminds me how this opportunity of studying abroad ( and writing this blog) is bigger than mine. YES ! of course, I want Instagram-worthy pictures and for sure, I want to be able to gloat about being able to travel outside the country… but I know that traveling abroad as a Black girl to a country where Black people are a minority is being a walking example of how awesome and diverse Black people are in the world, even if some people have yet to see it. The stares are annoying and I do not know if I will ever appreciate them or at least get used to them while I am here, but I do know that if there are going to be stares then those eyes are going to see ( probably for the first time in person) a well dressed, smart, adorable, sassy and sun-kissed Black girl who is trying to conquer the world.