What to expect traveling as a woman of color in Italy
There’s one question I get asked as a frequent traveler — and part-time resident in Italy. What’s it like traveling as a woman of color in Italy? It’s a topic I want to discuss having spent 4 years traveling —and staying there — for long periods of time.
Disclaimer: The following experiences are my own, and naturally will differ from other people’s experiences. I ask you take this into consideration while reading.
In the world of travel, Italy consistently ranks high on many travelers’ bucket lists. And quite rightly too. The landscapes are exactly how the guidebooks, travel guides and documentaries show them to be. In short, Italy is beautiful. However, every country has its downsides, and so does Italy. In recent years, it’s gained somewhat of a name for not being the most welcoming of nations to foreigners.
Traveling as a woman of color in Italy
People are more curious
Whether you want to call it glancing or staring, it’s something that happens a lot as a woman of color in Italy. And from personal experience, there are several reasons behind this.
- Admiring beauty. It’s widely known that Italians — especially men — like beautiful things, which also extends to women. The more unique, or exotic looking (I’ll come to that later) you are, the more likely you’ll turn some heads.
- Locals haven’t traveled as much. Depending on where in Italy you travel, those stares can stem from curiosity. It’s something that as a frequent traveler I don’t immediately think about and take for granted.
Storytime – Traveling as a woman of color in Italy
I remember the first time I visited Vicenza, a small city in the region of Veneto. Visitors here in general are more noticeable as it’s not a bigger city like Venice or Verona. One day, I noticed there were some women staring at me when I was out with my partner. I brushed it off, and carried on regardless. The staring began to grate on me the more noticed it, but I said nothing. I’ve never liked people staring at me, even in my home city of London. Eventually, we stopped at a bar for a coffee, and I was relieved for some respite. It didn’t last long.
After a waitress took our order, I saw that the lady serving behind the bar began staring too. Feeling my agitation returning, I decided to take a bathroom break.
Traveling as a woman of color in Italy – Piazza dei Signori in Vicenza
A whole lot of curiosity – a woman of color traveling in Italy
Upon returning, I confided in my partner. He simply explained, ‘they’re probably just curious’. He also added that in a place like Vicenza, many people had probably not traveled much, or left the city. Saying that, a new face is more likely to draw attention, more so a person of color.
My partner also told me that the lady behind the bar spoke to him while I was in the bathroom. She told him I was wonderful — for what reason I don’t know! And as we left, she gave us the biggest, most sincere, smile. I felt slightly embarrassed after by my earlier feelings, because as it turns out, it was nothing like I’d imagined.
That day really changed my perspective, and for the better. Nowadays when we’re back in Vicenza, or anywhere else in Italy, I don’t even notice if anyone’s staring.
Woman of color in Italy – Vicenza rooftops
“I can’t personally guarantee that your experience traveling as a woman of color in Italy will be a positive one. But, I’d encourage you to visit and make your own judgement.”
A woman of color in Italy – the exotic factor
Despite the fact that I’ve long brown hair and brown eyes like many Italian women, I’m seen as ‘exotic’. As a woman of color traveling in Italy, it’s something many women will, or have, probably experience/d.
While no-one wants to be labelled, being seen as exotic isn’t the worst thing for me. In fact, I’ve been hearing this since I was around 15/16 years old, so it’s nothing new.
Women of color in Italy – as exotic as this Bird of Paradise flower…
Very few people look like you – what’s it like traveling as a woman of color in Italy?
I remember traveling to Mexico a few years ago, and feeling immediately at ease. As well as recognizing similar cultural traditions, I was surrounded by other morenos that looked like me.
In Italy, this is of course more of a rarity. This isn’t to say it bothers me, but you naturally stand out more. There have been times where I’ve felt conscious, ie traveling to remote areas like the Dolomites. However, such feelings quickly disappeared, and I focused my attention on enjoying the scenery with friends and loved ones.
You’ll stand out from the crowd – traveling in Italy as a woman of color
The migrant situation – traveling as a woman of color in Italy
Unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock for the past 6 years, you’ll be familiar with the European migrant crisis. Italy has been one of the main countries receiving the majority of migrants arriving from Libya by boat. Over the years, the growing number of migrants have added increasing pressure on services in Italy. Add to this the existing socio-economic problems, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis, and you’ve got a pressure cooker about to explode.
The migrant situation has added to growing foreigner hostility Credit: ©Irish Defence Forces from Ireland
What does this mean for travelers of color visiting Italy?
In light of the current situation, there has been some growing hostility towards migrants. There have been many stories about African migrants experiencing racism in Italy, or being exploited by employers for cheap labor.
Saying that, black travelers may experience some hostility — depending on which part of the country you visit. Again, not every black traveler will experience this; there’s no one size fits all. Also, once the people realize you’re a visitor and not a migrant, you shouldn’t encounter any problems. This isn’t to condone any maltreatment towards migrants, but in the context of travel, you should be fine.
The current political party in Italy
Without boring you about Italian politics, let’s just say that the current party isn’t exactly very foreigner friendly. And by foreigner, this can also include those from other European countries, and not just migrants. The rhetoric of the present coalition party has added fuel to the fire about attitudes towards migrants.
The current ruling party isn’t positive about foreigners in general
A woman of color traveling in Italy – language opens doors
When I first traveled to Sicily, I was completely blindsided by the language barrier. Back then, I only had Spanish as a Latin language and was assured I’d be fine. Wrong. I struggled with just about everything and felt sad, despondent and altogether useless!
As soon as I arrived back home, I made it my mission to learn Italian. Though Sicily has its own dialect, I started learning Italian to not just converse there, but also in the north. And within 3 months, I was able to learn the basics and have a conversation.
As cliched as it sounds, language really does open doors. I’ve seen people’s expressions change from emotionless to smiles in seconds, upon realizing I can converse in their language. More importantly, as a woman of color, I feel proud to see that change in people.
I’m not suggesting you’ve to learn Italian if you’re a woman of color. What I’m saying is that having some knowledge of the language can play a role as to how some people treat you.
Language can open more doors, especially as a woman of color in Italy
Traveling as a woman of color in Italy – is Italy racist?
Speaking from personal experience, I’d say no. I’ve never had (touch wood) any kind of hostility as a woman of color traveling in Italy. On the contrary, I’ve met my partner, made some sweet new friends, and even see Italy as my second home (country). This isn’t to say that there are areas and regions that may not be as open to foreigners of color.
The only way to experience Italy as a woman of color is to see it for yourself
Visit Italy for yourself
I can’t personally guarantee that your experience traveling as a woman of color in Italy will be a positive one. But, I’d encourage you to visit and make your own judgement. For travel is about opening your eyes to the good, and the not so good aspects of any given destination.
What are your views on this subject? Have you traveled to Italy as a woman of color? What was your experience? Let me know in the comments below. Please keep comments civil.
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