Our cultural centre is situated in a neighbourhood, where we also live, rich and vibrant with cultural diversity. Many of the residences in our area were built by Italian immigrants for the needs of their community, neglected by local and provincial governments, after the Second World War. Over the years, this neighbourhood has come to be known as a safe and welcoming point of entry for immigrants of all kinds, from all places; no two adjacent houses are owned by members of the same ethnicity.
We are blessed with wonderful neighbours. When we first moved to the area, still unaccustomed to municipal by-laws, they would remind us, from their balcony or ringing our doorbell, to move our car on street-cleaning days, or to put out the trash for the next morning’s collection. More than once, they returned our dog when she strayed into their backyard through a hole in our shared fence. During the regular school year, we greeted each other heading out to work in the morning, and socially confined today, we stop to chat a little whenever I take my son out for a walk while they tend to their front lawn and garden. We take turns shovelling each other’s walkways in the winter and watering our gardens, on opposite sides of the same fence, in the summer. They are singularly patient and kind.
Our neighbours are black.
They have lived in our neighbourhood in relative peace for much longer than I have — a state of grace, their commitment to their community proves, they have never taken for granted.
I spent a number of my adult years studying in Baltimore, a heavily black city that afforded me a rare glimpse, as a Canadian, at racial inequity in America — a racial inequity we erroneously tend to think of as separate from us, exaggerated, confined to a country beyond our border. Volunteering for a number of black-owned and black-operated organizations created to elevate a black community crucially under-served in lingering effects of its city’s confederate history, I had the occasion both to be the only white person in a room, and to reflect, in that very circumstance, on how much the colour of my skin, and nothing else, protected me from an inherently presumed danger. I have never been one to subscribe to a culture of fear. I was told, during those years, not to go running past dusk, lest I be victim to a drive-by gang shooting. I was told to avoid certain “blocks” populated by supposedly poor, violent blacks, to limit my social activity to on-campus or university-approved events. I rejected this advice, even when it came from my those who loved me most in the world or those better acquainted with the city than I. The most traumatizing moments I experienced in Baltimore were at the hands of wealthy, white, heterosexual men, not gangs or undereducated black people.
I have spent the last month, since the murder of George Floyd, recalling those years and the later ones spent in Italy, where questions of racism and discrimination are differently expostulated to reflect their specific reality there. I have spent them listening to leaders in my black community, reflecting on my white privilege, on my shortcomings in this fight, on my duty as a mother to raise a socially responsible and deeply empathetic son, on my commitment to integration and anti-racism in my life, both professional and personal. These are personal reflections that take place continuously and constantly shape my thoughts and actions. They have been the subject of daily conversations with my husband, colleagues, students, and friends. They are private, and I intend for them to remain so, as my process at dismantling my racial bias is neither relevant to anyone else’s, nor useful in the fight against systemic racism. But I did want to address the ways in which my small cultural centre, a community organization, is dedicated to integration and anti-racism at every level of its operation.
Integration and Representation
Our cultural centre’s pedagogical materials intentionally represent a number of different ethnicities and family models. When designing these materials two years ago, I took my old text books and picture books as points of reference; I was astonished, perhaps naïvely, at how little diversity they displayed. They were filled with row upon row of white, Southern-European-looking faces, young boys and girls with a mother, father, sister or brother, and a dog, all belonging to the upper middle class. It seemed like a terribly finite world to me. Our materials reflect the world around our students. More importantly, they also reflect contemporary Italian society, where, increasingly, classrooms are made up of students of various races and ethnicities, with different lived realities.
Immigration and “Tolerance”
“Tolerance” was a key word for historical, social, and literary academic study from 2005 to 2015, when it began to gave way to more “fashionable” topics. It analyzed the limited acceptance of ethnically diverse citizens integrated into new host countries. Tolerance is not a positive term. The theory of “tolerance,” far from equalizing, deprives these new communities and their children of would-be universal rights and grants them only the basic necessities to survive in their host setting. In Italy, for example, that means that children of naturalized non-Italians, though born in Italy, are denied the citizenship afforded my son, for example, the product of a mixed Italian-non-Italian marriage. The Bossi-Fini laws concerning Immigration, Citizenship, and Permanent Resident selection represent a dark chapter in Italian history that is far from being over. These are issues we have been committed to addressing, in published articles, courses for adult learners, and at cultural events, since before our official inauguration in 2018. Our commitment to them and to teaching and studying Identity Politics in Italy is ongoing.
One of the questions we are most frequently asked by new and potential members is “Do I need to be Italian of or Italian origin to take your classes or participate in your events?” The answer is and always has been a resounding NO. We are committed to serving the members of our community — any member of our community with an interest in or passion for Italy. Our programming is not limited to the service and protection of Italians, Italian immigrants, or Italian-Canadians. It is intended for people of all ethnicities, who share our core values: education, experience, and exchange.
In solidarity with our black neighbours, both literal and figurative, we have waived the fees of all events on our social calendar from the beginning of July, when they will resume, to October. Instead, we will be asking for donations destined for a Minority Community Organization in Ahuntsic-Cartierville. We take seriously both this opportunity to invest in our black community now, and our commitment to anti-racism in the long term. Our events calendar, oriented toward the sustained discussion of racial discrimination in Italy, is now available.
It is my sincere hope that you, reading this, will join with me in connecting the dots between worlds too often thought of as both disparate and incompatible. I would not be where I am without the diversity my life has privileged me with — a diversity I am committed to protecting by dedicating my efforts to the communities of it that most need our collective attention.