Black Lives Matter protest in Milan, Italy, 2020.|
Mairo Cinquetti/NurPhoto/PA Images. All rights reserved
“After seeing the video of the murder of George Floyd, we started calling each other and we decided not to remain silent,” says law student Anass Hanafi. In May, he helped set up the Instagram account @imstillalive – it quickly gained traction from Italian social media users and now has more than 6K followers.
Instagram has made anti-racist organising more globalised and connected than ever, and this activism has flourished under COVID-19. New and second-generation immigrants in Italy are taking to Instagram to post race-related content expressing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and protesting against their own domestic cases of racism.
“The uncertain situation we were in during the coronavirus lockdown was not helping,” adds law student and human rights activist Victoria Oluboyo, 25, who co-founded @imstillalive. Social distancing, masks and strict rules about public behaviour made large protests difficult, and that’s why they decided to launch this online campaign.
What stands out is the diversity of their content – they were successful in drawing people from different racial and ethnic minority groups into their social media campaign. They asked people from diverse ethnic backgrounds to submit pictures of themselves holding signs with the names of the victims of racism – in Italy and abroad – accompanied by the hashtag #imstillalive.
“We believe that it is important to take into consideration the territory we live in and the problems we face on a daily basis,” says Abril Muvumbi, 23, also involved in the @imstillalive account while coordinating another Instagram account called Millennials, which aims to introduce young people to politics.
Migration into Italy happened much more recently than in other European countries, Muvumbi tells me, “therefore, we’re still working on diversity and inclusion”.
“It is for sure not easy to avoid a kind of ‘performativity of fights’, a lot of which goes through social media, which is actually not bringing any change”, says Razzismo Brutta Storia.
There’s been heated online debate in Italy for instance, over the number of high-profile Instagram accounts posting black squares as a symbol for anti-racism. Milan-based writer Louis Pisano, who has been speaking out against the lack of diversity in the fashion industry for a long time, criticised the hypocrisy of brands and companies engaging in a performative kind of allyship.
Razzismo Brutta Storia says this became “a way diverting attention from other collective actions – on or offline”. They prefer, they say, to “shut up and keep working on longer-term developments instead of surfing the social media attention”.
In contrast with the diversity promoted by @imatillalive, Razzismo Brutta Storia seems to focus largely on Afro-Italians. Italian DJ and writer Sonia Garcia explains that “the Afro-Italian community has a longer history in the territory – i.e. Italian colonialism in Africa – and is consequently more cohesive, self-aware and politically active than any other racialised community in this country.”
Razzismo Brutta Storia says that after George Floyd’s death: “It is true that racism received unprecedented media coverage in Italy, and Afro-Italians in many cases became poster people for anti-racism in the mainstream and on social media.”
Well-known Italian activist and writer Esperance Ripanti, 28, in an interview with Rivista Studio, said she remembers exactly when she started to use Instagram as an activism tool. “It was 2018, February 3,” the day of the drive-by shooting in Macerata, when Italian extremist and failed Northern League candidate Luca Traini shot and injured six black migrants.
That summer, Ripanti launched the hashtags #facciamoluce #facciamofolla (#shedlight and #makeacrowd) to ‘sign’ her posts on race and racism. “It is a digital form of activism that I made real,” Ripanti said to me over the phone. “The COVID-19 lockdown in Italy has taught people to communicate with each other without being in the same room,” she added.
The pandemic itself has laid bare systemic inequalities and racial discrimination as several Italian black influencers, as Tia Taylor and Bellamy Okot, founder of the blog AfroItalian Souls, have pointed out. Taylor, for instance, reported the experiences of medical students who aren’t trained on how skin diseases look on darker skins. (It’s a worldwide phenomenon, with one black student in London having recently published a book to help healthcare staff identify symptoms on darker skin.)
Razzismo Brutta Storia (meaning: Racism ugly story) is an older anti-racist organisation than these Instagram accounts, having been founded in 2008. It is made up of researchers, activists and artists from racialised backgrounds who publish academic articles and opinion pieces and organise lectures and sit-ins.
Last June, for instance, the group put together “Decolonise the city”, a public lecture on Italian colonialism in the Milanese gardens that host Indro Montanelli’s statue. But a spokesperson told me that in the past year “our content, especially on Instagram, found a bigger reach than ever” – including among white Italians willing to talk about racism for the first time.
Not all people of colour were pleased with this new, unexpected attention. “I was shocked by the number of followers that swarmed into my profile,” said Ripanti, mentioning the sudden interest of white Italians in the much-needed conversation about racism. “I felt like I was part of a trend.”