Traveling as a woman of color in Italy
There’s one question I get asked as a frequent traveler — and resident in Italy.
What is it like traveling as a woman of color in Italy? It’s a topic I want to discuss, having spent over 4 years traveling —and living here.
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.
An incredible country to visit — woman of color in Italy
In the world of travel, Italy consistently ranks high on many travelers’ bucket lists. And quite rightly too.
However, every country has its downsides, and so too does Italy. In recent years, it’s gained somewhat of a name for not being the most welcoming of nations to foreigners.
1. 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 — woman of color in Italy
I remember the first time I visited Vicenza, a small city in the region of Veneto.
At first I ignored it, but soon I noticed more women beginning to stare. It began to grate on me, but I said nothing.
I’ve never liked people staring at me in general. 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
Not what it seems — woman of color in Italy
Upon returning to our table, I confided in my partner, who explained, ‘they’re probably just curious’.
He also added that in a city 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 while I was in the bathroom, he spoke with the lady behind the bar and she told him that 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.
This isn’t to say that all the stares I’ve received since living here stem from curiosity. However, this day changed my perspective, and now, I don’t even notice it.
Woman of color in Italy — Vicenza rooftops
“…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.”
2. 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 truth, it’s something I’ve dealt with since I was 15/16 years old, so it’s nothing new.
As exotic as a Bird of Paradise flower…
3. Very few people look like you
When I traveled to Mexico a few years ago, I felt immediately at home. Ironically, during that trip, I was asked by airport security whether I was Italian (!).
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.
Traveling to different regions — woman of color in Italy
There have been times where I’ve felt more conscious when visiting other parts of the country.
I stood out like an exotic thumb on my first trip to the Dolomites. However, I can honestly say, that the only one who was aware of this was me. Nobody treated me any differently from the group I was traveling with.
It was yet another reminder that overthinking can sometimes create something that wasn’t there to begin with.
You’ll stand out from the crowd – traveling in Italy as a woman of color
4. The migrant situation
Unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock for the past few 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 — woman of color in Italy
In light of this, 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. 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.
5. The political situation in Italy
Without boring you about Italian politics, let’s just say that the current* government isn’t exactly foreigner friendly.
And by foreigner, this can also include those from other European countries, and not just migrants. The rhetoric of the coalition party has added fuel to the fire about attitudes towards migrants.
The current ruling party isn’t positive about foreigners in general
6. Not speaking the language
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 frustrated, despondent and altogether useless.
As soon as I arrived back home, I made it my mission to learn Italian.
Opening doors — woman of color in Italy
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 that 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
7. Is Italy racist?
Speaking from personal experience, I’d say no.
I’ve never experienced (touch wood) any kind of hostility as a woman of color traveling in Italy. On the contrary, I’ve met my partner, made some new friends, and even see Italy as my second home.
This isn’t to say, however, that there are areas and regions in Italy that may not be as open. I’ve not come across any — so far, so cannot comment on this.
The only way to experience Italy as a woman of color is to see it for yourself
8. 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.
*Correct at the time of publishing.
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Welcome to my site! I'm Lisa, founder of Following the Rivera. I write primarily for a ‘flashpacker’ audience, a demographic (late 20s onward) that enjoys glamping over camping and staying at boutique/luxury boutique hotels. Flashpackers also like to indulge in the local food and wine, cultural activities, as well as a spot of wellness on their travels. Want to know more? Read on....