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Rethinking Race In Italia: Psychotic Firenze

Last night, my fabulous evening soaking in the Firenze vibe over fireworks, great music and local cuisine turned horribly ugly in a matter of minutes. Wouldn’t racial slurs, a death threat and a good old fashioned beat down ruin anyone’s night?

The people of Firenze (aka Florence) have been on a high for the past few days. Fashion week just wrapped and Madonna was in town a few days ago filming on-location and delighting the masses with her first-ever concert here. Last night, the festivities culminated with a winning football (soccer) game and the annual celebration of San Giovanni, the patron saint of Firenze. The entire town was out, young and old, native and tourist, people from every nation and tongue. After all, good sports and applaud-worthy fireworks are universal.

Having only been in town a few hours and with jetlag-fueled energy to burn off, I got swept up in all the excitement. By the end of the evening, with my camera in hand and favorite tunes in my ear, I was literally bopping through the streets of Firenze. At midnight, I was nowhere near ready to leave, so I blew off the last public transit options back to the apartment where I’m renting a room.

I took a meandering walk through town, stopping along the way for dinner and live music. Then, around 2:00AM, I arrived at the central train station, Firenze Santa Maria Novella (SMN) and joined 30 other people in the long taxi line.

The two white girls in front of me were speaking in a decidedly American accent. After a few minutes, they turned to me and asked if I was from Florence. I said no and we began trading traveler stats. They’re from Washington DC and vacationing here with a third friend who disappeared after storming off in a huff. Needless to say, they were frustrated with her and equally dissatisfied with the long taxi line preventing them from returning quickly to their hostel.

Antsy feelings getting the best of her, one of the girls left the line to see if she could hail a taxi from the other side of the street or maybe bum a ride from some of the college-aged kids hanging out in front of the McDonalds. The other girl stayed behind making small talk with me. When she lost sight of her friend, she got nervous and asked me to hold their spot. She walked away, called her friend back, and they both returned to the line a few minutes later.

The next thing we know, an Italian man in his 40s or 50s comes up from the back of the line and starts talking to the girls. At first, none of us understood what he was saying, but then it became crystal clear. He thought they cut the line and was very unhappy about it. I vouched for the girls and so did the man standing in front of us, but the “angry one” relentlessly accused them of cutting.

When I said “the girls are with me,” things began to deteriorate quickly. He asked incredulously “Who are you?” Then, defiantly, I countered “Who are YOU?” He seemed to think he was somebody important but he clearly had no authority in this situation. But, before I could ponder the reason for his inflated sense of self-importance, he stepped uncomfortably close to me and threatened to call the police.

Shoving his phone in my face, he shouted “Do you understand me? 1-1-3. The Polizia. I am calling the Polizia on you.” From years of Spanish studies and my limited Italian, I understood much of the phone call during which he rambled on about the Ragazzi (girls) who skipped the line, but I doubt he was actually on the phone with the police. I cannot imagine that they’d come on such a busy night for something so trivial.

At one point, I asked him to go away. His threats only grew bolder and he continued to encroach on my personal space. So I said “Ladies, lets just ignore him” and put my hand up in “talk to the hand” fashion and turned away. He stood their speechless for a few seconds, then lowered the timbre in his voice and said slowly, loudly and clearly “NIGGER!” He put his finger in my face and shouted “YOU … FAT … NIGGER! YOU ARE FAT. YOU ARE NOTHING!”

One of the girls started to cry, thanking me for defending them and apologizing that this was happening. Everyone else stood with baited breath waiting for me to go ballistic. I swallowed hard, closed my eyes and prayed. I knew that if I exploded, it would turn into a physical fight and then he’d have a real reason to call the cops — a prospect I’d quickly lose because I don’t speak enough Italian to defend myself. And, he could lie and spin the tale anyway he’d like. So, I went deep inside to a place where his words could not induce my rage.

The crying girl said “I don’t understand. Why is this happening?” I replied, “It’s just ignorance.” Though our back was to the “psycho one,” he still remained a few feet away from us. When he overheard the conversation, he started his tirade all over again. “I’m ignorant? YOU are FAT. You are STUPID. You are NOTHING. I am an opera singer. What do YOU do for a living?”

The people ahead of us invited us to the front of the line so we could get out of there before the situation got any worse. But, he followed us and threatened further “If I ever see you again, you’re DEAD.”

When the next taxi arrived, I told the girls “goodbye and good luck”. But they said “No! You get in this car with us now.” We were going in opposite directions, but I realized it was best to get out of there ASAP. We’d figure out the fare situation later.

I was the last one getting in the taxi and since the “psycho one” followed us to the taxi door, I was standing the closest to our aggressor. What I didn’t realize is when the crying girl got in the taxi, she flipped him the middle finger. In a feigned attempt to reach her in retaliation, he started grabbing, pushing and hitting me. I turned to him and said “Get off me!” He kept at it, so I went primal. Pushing him back firmly with both hands, I screamed “Stop touching me!”

At that point, a man who had been watching this from the sidelines ran over and grabbed the “psycho one.”  Then, the taxi driver hopped out the car.  While they distracted the man, I jumped in the back seat, slammed the taxi door and locked it. The two men threw “psycho” to the ground and proceeded to beat the crap out of him. But that didn’t stop him. He got up and came to the car continuing to harass us. Twice, the taxi driver had to get out and fight the man off. Finally, someone pulled “psycho” away long enough for the taxi driver to get in and drive off.

When we turned the corner, our driver said, “This is over. Do not worry.” Then, we rode the 15 minutes to my stop, intermittently exchanging travel stories and making stunned references to what just happened.  When we arrived  at my apartment, I wished the American girls the best of luck, lamented that we’d have a story to tell our kids one day. Then, I hopped out, ran into my apartment building and cried in the short elevator ride to my 4th floor flat.

 

What an unbelievable night! From bopping through the streets on a travelista high to fleeing from a psychotic racist freak. Freedom and security to fear and loathing — in a matter of minutes. As a brown girl, I’ve experienced racism many times in my life, but never have I been the object of such baseless and unadulterated hatred.

When I got over myself and the immediate shock of it all, I quickly understood what life in America must have been like for my parents and grandparents — when these incidents happened regularly and were socially accepted. I also understood the depth of my sisters complaints about the racism — albeit more subtle — that she and her friends experienced in Italy a few years ago. I can defend Italy no longer. Racism exists here. I can’t say its significantly more than I’ve seen in Greece or other places in the world. But, I must accept that, for me, this is not the nirvana depicted in “Under the Tuscan Sun” or “Eat, Pray, Love.”

As painful a lesson last night was, I’m thankful for many things

  • for the American girls who insisted we stick together. In the face of a conflict, where I became their scapegoat, I would have expected them to hop in the first taxi that came and leave me holding the bag.
  • for the two Italian men who stood up, said enough is enough, and took charge of the situation, when so many others watched in silence.
  • for God’s control over my tongue. I normally respond to injustice with an argumentative tongue and a significant amount of sass, which would have only inflamed the situation. I take no credit for my approach last night and can only attribute it to divine intervention.

So with mixed emotions and a new influx of cynicism I approach my 2nd day in Italy. I know he was one crazy man in the bunch. But, it makes me wonder was he just bold enough to say what the others are really thinking. So, I’ll strive to remain level-headed about my cultural perspective, relegating last night to a single data point and letting the rest of this 2-week trip, the people I meet and our cultural exchange rebuild my relationship with my beloved Italia.

42 Comments
  1. Marco says

    Dear Chelle,

    I know that this article is old… but as an Italian, I feel ashamed for the behaviour of this man. I am glad that the rest of your trip went well.

    Regards,

    Marco

  2. […] me (Chelle), it was definitely the racist attack I faced in Florence, Italy in 2011. I love Italy and particularly Florence. But, it took me a long time to come to terms with the […]

  3. kendra says

    Although this story was posted almost 2 years ago, I just wanted to say that I admire your strength and your quick thinking. I hope your travels continue to be experienced with great people rather than bad ones.

  4. […] me (Chelle), it was definitely the racist attack I faced in Florence, Italy in 2011. I love Italy and particularly Florence. But, it took me a long time to come to terms with the […]

  5. Overseas Teacher says

    I was in Italia last month. And though I didn’t experience anything as explosive as your experience, I did have 2 women stop, stare laugh and talk about me in Italian and I did hear the word “nigger” as I waited in the underground for the subway. I took them by surprise when I started to laugh too and then say in my American accent which really caught them off guard, “Oh I like to laugh and joke and point at black people because my life has that much meaning.” Their smiles quickly went south and their laughs turned into whispers.

    Wherever we go on this Earth, it is always something or somebody trying to break us down. Got to keep that head up and sojourn on.

  6. Stephanie Jones says

    So very sorry to hear this happened to you in one of my favorite cities in the world. There are racists the world over, that is for sure. But what heartens me in your story are the people who came to your defense. No, Firenze and Italy are not Nirvana or Utopia, but one crazy person doesn’t the whole city or country make. I always try to remember that when I have a bad experience, and to keep myself from doing what many people do the minute they see a Black person do something…extrapolate and attribute the behavior to all African Americans.

  7. Michaela says

    I couldn’t imagine experiencing something like that and feeling defenseless in the face of male aggression and a language barrier. I hope the rest of your trip more than makes up for what you experienced on your first night.

    I’m also taking note of the fact that you didn’t decide to get the heck out of Italy. It takes tons of inner strength to continue your trip after dealing with that situation. Your story is motivating to keep pushing forward even in the face of fear or the unknown. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Aisha says

    Wow, what a sad, scary and crazy story. I can’t believe he physically attacked you. Although the psycho is undoubtedly racist, it seems your dismissal of his arrogant, self-important behind is what really set him off. It’s almost funny that a stranger could have that much control over his emotions. That’s why he had to resort to racist name calling-it was the only way he felt he could bring you down to his low level. He had the physical upper hand, but you had the mental. I also think there is value in not always giving people a predictable response.

  9. Eden says

    Greetings Chelle,

    I am so sorry that you had to experience such an ordeal. I loved that you did not allow the tyrant to ruin your time, because something such as that can easily have done so.

    May you continue to have truly awesome travels everywhere you go!

    Cheers,
    Eden

  10. Mona says

    Chelle,

    So sorry you had to go through that hell. I love Italy and used to live there. Most Italian men love Black women—at least in a superficial way.

    My solution to the odd maniac? I make a gesture toward his crotch and put my forefinger near my thumb and say “two inch monster” or “piccolo” or “molto molto…..piccolo”.

    Stay strong and keep on travelin’. The nice folks outweigh the assholes.

    Mona

  11. Helena says

    I am reading and shaking my head – I am saddened that you had go to through something like this. I hope the rest of your Italy trip was better, sending you a big abrazo.

    1. Chelle says

      Hola Helena! How are you? Thanks for the support.

      The rest of the trip ended up being GREAT. I’ll share some updates soon. Lots of pics already in our BrownGirlsFly instagram feed 😉

  12. Imani says

    Sigh. I am all choked up…that word still stings…and when i hear someone else’s story, i remember all the times i was called that in anger. I am glad you didn’t retaliate and glad you are OK.

    1. Chelle says

      Thanks, Imani. It stings more deeply than I realized. But, I know he had nothing more he could say or do, so he was reaching for straws in an attempt to hurt me. I hope one day he has an epiphany that changes his view.

  13. Dee says

    That is absolutely unbelievable! So glad you made it out ok.

    1. Chelle says

      Thanks, Dee!

  14. Diana says

    I am horribly saddened by your experience. I honestly felt like crying with you in the elevator. Sending you a virtual hug.

    1. Chelle says

      Diana, virtual hugs like your actually made me feel better … seriously!

      Thanks!

  15. Beth says

    I will not attempt to defend behavior that is indefensible, but will try to offer some perspective.The economy here in Italy is tight. “The Africans” are seen as freeloaders on a stressed system. Poverty frequently pushes them into crime. So, what would normally be a silent racism is being pushed to the surface by stress. It saddens me that black Americans do not get the same warm reception here that I do. The realization that my friendly neighbors would respond differently if I were black colors my experience around the edges. The man that attacked you, may have been mentally ill. He may have been affected by the budget cuts to Italian arts programs. His issues are his. You were a convenient target. I am so glad that some of the wonderful, warm, people of Florence were there too, and didn’t care about your color.

    1. Chelle says

      Hi Beth,

      Thanks for your comments. When the incident first happened, I have to admit that I did not accept the economy as a plausible explanation for what happened to me.

      I believe his behavior was intentional. He did not appear to act mentally ill or drunk, but seemed to be power tripping that evening. Like you, I cannot excuse his behavior, but the incident did give me a greater sensitivity to real local issues.

      And, I thought about your comments during the remainder of my 2 weeks in Italy, asked probing questions of many people and did a little research into the strained cultural relationships in Italy — one of which being that between locals and African immigrants.

      Thanks for sharing your perspective.

      I’m curious … are you an Italian … or an American living in Italy? Just wanted to know from what perspective you were viewing things.

      Grazie!

  16. Courtney says

    What an awful experience! I am truly saddened that this unfortunate event happened to you. I’m sure you know this but you are beautiful and regal and proud. That man was crazy, it had nothing to do with you! I’m so grateful that the Lord was with you and that some locals stepped in to defend you. Please continue to take care of yourself and be mindful of your surroundings. Continue to be inspired and be inspiring! Take care!:)

    1. Chelle says

      Thanks so much Courtney. The encouraging words were much appreciated 🙂

  17. RD says

    This brings back some painful memories for me too. I’m so glad you are okay and have properly vented. Release all that and don’t let this crazy racist jerk’s issues determine how you experience the rest of your trip. It makes me sad that we always have to have this nagging concern of “where’s the racist” hanging around. But there are enough people who are not that to compensate for the duds. Keep being beautiful you and please keep writing.

    1. Chelle says

      Hey RD,

      Thanks much. Those questions lingered for only a couple days. But, as the trip progressed, I really had a great time and had wonderful interactions with Italians, especially in the Emilia Romagna region. So friendly!

  18. Kanani says

    Praise God that you are safe. What a horrible, horrible night.

    1. Chelle says

      Thanks, Kanani!

  19. KD says

    There is always one who will try to make life a living hell. I’m glad that you are safe and you handled the situation the best that you could.

    1. Chelle says

      Thanks, KD!

  20. Tanya says

    Sister-friend, what a story and it’s truly sad that you had to experience that. I admire your strength of character not to throw back some (as we’d say in Jamaica) real dutty words in the man’s face. It’s the least he deserved.

    As much as we’d like to think that racism, or behaviour like this, is a thing of the past your story makes us realize that this isn’t so…at least, not for everyone.

    But, what is good about this incident is the many strangers who rallied around to get you and the other girls out there safely.

    No one should ever have to live this. And yes, this may resonate with you for a while. There is no rhyme or reason for the behaviour. Just chalk it up to pure ignorance. (Part of me wishes you did speak enough Italian so that you could have verbally beaten down that small and insignifican excuse for a human being.)

    1. Chelle says

      Thanks Tanya. Pure ignorance indeed! The super sensitive feeling only linger for a couple days, then I was able to relax again and enjoy myself without questioning things.

      Ooooooh I so wish I did speak more Italian. What a shock to him THAT would have been. LOL!

  21. robin says

    Wow, what an awful experience. I’ve traveled to Italy twice but never had such a bad experience – I was thinking of going to Florence this year, but now I’m wondering if I should. Nevertheless, it seems like you really handled yourself honorably – as satisfying as it would have been to bash his face in, you took the high road. May the rest of your days in Florence be much different and above and beyond this experience. Much love and hugs to you!

    1. Chelle says

      Hi Robin,

      Thanks for your note. I did have a bit of a “rude awakening” when I arrived in Florence. But, I realized by the time I left how many nice people I met there and in other cities. It ended up being a much better trip than I’d thought.

      Please don’t let the craziness that happened to me deter you from planning a fabulous trip to Florence. It’s just a lesson about being safe and dealing with crazy people which you can encounter anywhere in the world. LOL!

  22. Bathabile says

    Sister-friend, I am so very sorry that your journey started off this way. What a truly scary and sobering experience. I’m glad you’re writing about it, though, and I hope that helps to ease some of what you’re feeling right now. ((((HHHUUUUGGGSSSS)))).

    1. Chelle says

      Hey Thabi!

      Thanks for the hugs. Your message made me smile. Writing was very cathartic for sure. Once I put it on paper (screen), I was able to start processing and putting it behind me.

  23. Terri says

    Wow!! I’m sorry you had to experience this. However, do NOT assume that all Italians are racist because of one asshole. This guy has issues and he obviously felt entitled. I feel you on keeping your cool, as I tend to throw back as much as it’s given. But, you took the right road. Most people are not going to get involved in another persons argument. I can’t say that I would have, nor can you. However, when it got out of hand, other people stepped up to finally help shows you that not every Italian is an asshole.

    And, next time someone asks you who the hell are you. You tell them, someone who can afford to come to your country and blow money for the fun of it.

    Stereotypically, Italians are hot headed. And, yell about everything.

    BTW: I hated the always smiley hairy Italian men being overly friendly as if they could get with me. Ugh!!

    Happy Travels!! And, don’t let assholes get you down. But, understandably, I can see you being shaken and tentative about future interactions while there.

    1. Chelle says

      Hey Teri,

      Your note made me laugh out loud! And, you’re right …..

      When he started asking what I do for a living, I was about to explain to him my resume, including my 2 engineering degrees, one of which was from an ivy league university. I think I even started saying Ivy League something or other and I realized halfway through my sentence that it was falling on deaf ears.

      I wondered if he’d even know what the term meant. So I decided he wasn’t worth the effort.

      Anyway, thanks for the laugh and a reminder not to completely check my sister-attitude at customs.

  24. Nikki says

    I am so sorry to hear that your wonderful evening turned drastically sour. But I
    Am so impressed about how you stood your ground and let God handle it
    And stand up fr those young ladies. Everything that happens in our life becomes a
    Witness and a testament of how we should treat people. And I am sure that someone
    In that crowd outside those ping people will never forget your class
    From last night. I pray the rest of your travels are safe!!!!

    1. Chelle says

      Hi Nikki. I know 2 weeks have passed since that night. I just wanted to say thank you for the encouragement. I didn’t see it that way that night… but I think you’re right. Thanks for reminding me that sometimes things happen to us for reasons bigger than us. 😉

  25. Brenda says

    Joi 🙁 I’m so sorry you experienced this. I suppose no place in the world is without it’s racist jerks – there’s wacko’s everywhere and it just takes one to throw off our peace – temporarily. The key points is -temporarily. It’s interesting as the insult of last result is always something superficial – as if that’s the best they’ve got. It’s hurtful to hear as the recipient but remember the source.

    You handled yourself beautifully and I’m thankful for your 3 bullets above too! Be safe Joi – keeping you in my prayers for a safe journey home. You’ll be back to your vegan food trucks before you know it . Love you!

    Brenda

    1. Chelle says

      Hey Brenda,

      I know it’s taken forever for me to respond. I was kind of overwhelmed by all the responses that came in. But, I just wanted to say thanks so much for the affirming message.

      For some reason, when I got your note, I was reflecting on how long I’ve known you (elementary school through college and now our Facebook family) … and it made me feel better knowing you were sending an extra dose of love my way.

      The trip ended up being wonderful and that jerk only set me back for a day or two. I’ve reflected a lot on the reasons behind his disdain — partly because a comment below from someone who lives in Italy, partly because of conversations I had with other Italians about the economy, and partly because of the obviously strained relationships I witnessed between the African immigrants and the Italian locals.

      I guess it’s the P’94 in me. I had to dig deeper. LOL! But, I’ll be sharing my observations on BrownGirlsFly soon.

      Grazie!

  26. Nadeen says

    I am so sorry to hear of your experience! It must have been very scary. I have traveled to Florence and had such a different experience. We were 6 brown girls with a larger nonbrown travel group but usually the 6 of us did things together. We still laugh about how we felt the Italian men loved black women compared to men in the US after getting hit on frequently esp in Rome and Florence. I agree to not let one rotten apple ruin the rest of your trip. And although there may be othes thinking what he was willing to say, the majority are probably not racist and are used to people of all colors living and traveling to that area. If anything, I try to play down the American tourist when I am abroad. I think Europeans dislike Americans more than they dislike brown girls :-).

    1. Chelle says

      Hi Nadeen,

      Thanks so much for the supporting words. I was overwhelmed by all the comments on Facebook, Twitter and here on the blog. I was able to respond to all the comments individually, especially since I was still trying to figure out how to make WordPress work with an iPad. So, please forgive the delayed response. I just wanted to make sure you knew how much I appreciated your comments.

      About the incident … I’d been to Florence before and it was my favorite city in Italy. So, it was tough to reconcile the two experiences. After a couple of days, I was still a bit sensitive but decided to find the beauty in the rest of my trip. I met some wonderfully welcoming people who redeemed the situation for me.

      My AirBNB host, a Florence native was awesome. And, we spent most of our time in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy. The people there were so unbelievably open-hearted.

      I realized when all was said and done that there are racist jerks EVERYwhere. And, I had the unfortunate luck of meeting one who lived in Florence.

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