What being a person of colour in Salvini’s Italy feels like

For the first time in 20 years, I feel like a foreigner in my own country.

Nadeesha Uyangoda
I still feel Italian, and I consider Italy my home, writes Uyangoda [Nadeesha D Uyangoda/Al Jazeera]

Since the day the new Italian government was sworn in, I’ve felt as though the country I have lived in since I was six years old has turned on me. The Italian state it seems will now legislate and govern in line with the slogan “white Italians first”.

I, a young woman of colour without Italian citizenship, who nevertheless feels Italian, am a nuisance for the newly appointed populist, anti-immigrant government. I am regarded as someone who is a threat and is determined “to occupy this land”.

I could have applied for Italian citizenship nine years ago and been naturalised but decided not to. Why should I ask to be made Italian when, in fact, I am already Italian? I have lived in the same house in Lombardy for the last 20 years; here I attended school and university, here I pay taxes.

In order to give me Italian citizenship, the country I consider my home is asking me to provide a police clearance certificate from a country in which I happened to be born in – Sri Lanka. I guess it is conceivable that I might have committed some grave crime as a toddler.

And there are many people like me in Italy. The number of children born on Italian soil to foreign parents has reached almost 70,000 per year. Add to that the young men and women raised and/or educated in Italy. There is a big chunk of Italian society that is not white and feels Italian but is not recognised as such.

What the new government wants to do is not only entrench this denial of Italianness but also increase societal hostility against Italians of colour.


Two years ago, there were plans to regulate the status of so-called second-generation Italians. A reform of the Italian citizenship laws – dubbed “ius soli” – was adopted by Italy’s lower house of parliament in 2015, but last December it did not pass in the Senate.

Matteo Salvini, the head of far-right League party, and Giorgia Meloni, leader of the nationalist Brothers of Italy, fiercely campaigned against the reform, fearmongering about supposed “ethnic substitution” taking place in Italy.

In the end, the public debate over the citizenship bill conflated the plight of second-generation Italians with the migrant crisis and the reform was struck down.

That was a turning point for me. I still feel Italian, and I consider Italy my home. But to me, it’s clear that I’m not equal to other Italians and perhaps will never be. 

The politics of racist violence

Eighty years after the promulgation of the Mussolini-era racial laws, to me, it seems like Italy is back to defending the “Italian ethnic group”.

In the months before the March elections, various politicians on the left and right campaigned on social media, exploiting the migrants crisis and stoking people’s anger with vitriolic posts and tweets about immigrants, “non-refugees”, and the establishment. They were all successful.

Racism won local elections, too. In January, the League’s candidate for the governorship of Lombardy region, Attilio Fontana, claimed that immigration would “wipe out” the white race, and then he won the vote in March.

Members of the League aren’t strangers to racist outbursts: In 2013 Senator Roberto Calderoli described Italy’s first black minister, Cecile Kyenge, as an orangutan.

We eventually got used to their offensive slurs, and that was the biggest mistake. Had we held politicians accountable for what they said, we wouldn’t have a political class neglecting minorities and people of colour.

Weeks after Salvini defended Fontana and said that Italy was under threat from an “invasion”, six African-born immigrants were shot in the city of Macerata in central Italy. The gunman Luca Traini was a failed candidate for the League in the local elections last year.

Between October and December 2017, three Bangladeshi immigrants were assaulted in Rome by the same group of Italian youth, as no one did anything to stop them.

The day after national elections Idy Diene, a 54-year-old African street vendor, was killed by a white Italian man, Roberto Pirrone, in Florence. The 65-year-old killer was planning to take his own life, and instead, he turned the gun on a black immigrant. Diene’s cousin, Samb Modou was killed in 2011 by Gianluca Casseri, a neofascist activist.

On June 2, Soumaila Sacko, a 29-year-old Malian immigrant, was shot dead in San Calogero, in the province of Reggio Calabria in southern Italy. Sacko was a legal immigrant and an agricultural worker who was well-known in the local community for his activism for migrants’ rights and his work as a trade unionist.

For days, the new government did not comment on his death. In the end, the new interior minister Salvini mocked a protest that took place after the killing, tweeting: “Salvini’s fault.”

Blame it on the people of colour

Politicians and far-right activists are on the lookout for a scapegoat, and they have found one – people of colour. Exposed to constant anti-immigrant rhetoric, the electorate too has been blaming immigrants for everything: unemployment, economic insecurity, social inequalities.

Even though crime rates have dropped, right-wing parties continue to spread misinformation and encourage feelings of insecurity and fear towards foreigners.

Recently, Salvini commented on Facebook on the alleged gang rape of an Italian woman by immigrant men in Rome, but never mentioned the arrests of five white Italian hotel workers a few days earlier over the alleged rape of a British woman.

In the past twelve months, he and his buddy Giorgia Meloni have highlighted on social media every single case of harassment, murder, and rape committed by black immigrants, paying no attention to any crimes perpetrated by white Italians.

The League’s racism has already infiltrated the new government’s announced agenda. It removed text from the new government’s programme proposing to extend the benefit of free nursery schooling and VAT-free childhood products to foreign parents. It also proposed to remove Roma children who don’t attend school from their families and to limit the religious liberties of Muslims in Italy.

The government’s agenda is dangerously reminiscent of the racial laws of 1938. Its “Italians first” ideology is portraying immigrants, refugees, and undocumented migrants as lesser human beings.

This should alarm people in Italy. Continuing indifference will only normalise racism.

In his first speech to the Italian Senate, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said, “We aren’t racists, never will be.” But I find that hard to believe.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.