In March, while schools in the southern Campania region were closed as part of another coronavirus lockdown, Xiaomo Ma was working from home when she overheard her nine-year-old son’s online class in the next room.
The teacher on screen was reading a story about a Chinese girl in an Italian primary school, from a textbook edited by the Italian publishing house, Del Borgo.
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“As the teacher kept reading, I felt uncomfortable, for myself and my child,” Ma told Al Jazeera.
“The story was full of simplistic stereotypes on Asian people that can limit children’s, and adults’, understanding or acceptance of an entire culture.”
The Chinese child in the text was mocked for her appearance and accent, and praised for “not minding or responding to the insults”.
Ma, who teaches Chinese at the Oriental University of Naples and has lived in Italy for 15 years, went on social media to share her experience.
There, she found solidarity.
Members of other expatriate communities also had concerns about the messages in many primary school textbooks.
Recently, another publisher was criticised for an illustration in one of its books that depicted a group of children thoughtfully expressing their goals for the new year, while the only Black child spoke in broken Italian, with phrases such as: “Me wanting to learn Italian good.”
For years, academics and rights groups have pushed for Italian school textbooks to be updated to reflect the country’s changing demographics, and diversity.
“Italians have a handful of unresolved cultural and gender stereotypes, and the classroom is often the first place where those are built,” Giulia Selmi, vice-president of Educare Alle Differenze, which advocates for inclusivity in school materials, told Al Jazeera.
“Primary education is a critical phase of human development. Portraying a non-white child in a textbook as illiterate or unable to speak Italian properly sends a certain message that, if learnt at such a young age, can translate into prejudice and discrimination in adulthood.”
In Italy, primary school textbooks are not monitored by a government body.
Publishing houses have been self-regulating through a code designed to ensure equal opportunities.
“But judging the many racist and sexist blunders popping up from time to time among textbooks, self-regulation seems to not be enough,” said Gianluca Gabrielli, a primary school teacher and expert on the history of racism in Italian school books.
“If Italian textbooks still present several anachronistic scenarios, that is mainly due to a lack of historical introspection,” he added, highlighting how Italian colonialism and its faults are not taught at school.
While the country’s curriculum tackles Italian fascism and anti-Semitism, the school system skips other racist episodes throughout history against people of colour.
Meanwhile, according to 2019 data from the Italian Ministry of Education, there are about 320,000 children without Italian citizenship enrolled in primary schools.
The current Italian citizenship law makes it hard for children of immigrants to acquire Italian nationality, despite being born and raised in the country.
This has contributed to a lack of diversity in various fields, including publishing.
“We must point out, however, that this kind of racism is often largely unaware, born with the intent of motivating, rather than discouraging, an inclusive mindset,” Selmi said, referring to characters of colour in books who are depicted as slow or different.
A 2015 text by Ardea Publishing portrayed an Italian, white boy asking a Black girl with “funny Afro-pigtails”: “Are you Black or are you dirty?”
He later declares that she is, indeed, Black.
In the homework section, children are asked to write down the name of a classmate who looks like the Black girl, and describe her appearance.
After a significant backlash, the book was removed from the market.
“Our original intention was to stimulate children’s integration skills through this text, and teach them to accept physical differences,” Antonio Riccio, editor of Ardea, told Al Jazeera.
“But we realised, thanks to our readers, that it was a clumsy attempt, and from then on, we’ve been meticulously reviewing our texts. It was an opportunity to improve our vision on matters of diversity and inclusion.”
Stefano Cassanelli, editor of the Del Borgo Edizioni publishing house behind the book depicting the Chinese girl, told the Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano: “We paid close attention to texts that could generate concerns on matters of gender and race stereotypes, and it wasn’t our intention to disrespect anyone.”
Looking ahead, however, many see reason for hope.
Currently, parliament is reviewing a draft bill which aims to support the fair representation of women and minorities in school textbooks.
“There’s still a long path ahead but I’m beginning to witness a timid will from Italian publishers to open up to writers from diverse backgrounds,” said Igiaba Scego, a prominent Italian author of Somali background. “Perhaps, in a few years, we’ll be able to spot these positive signals in youth literature.”