Italy

‘Afro Influencers’ Tackle Bias Against Black Community in Italy

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Aida Diouf Mbengue made headlines in Italy when she took to TikTok in 2019 to defend her Moroccan classmate who was being mocked for her dance clips on the social media app.

Since then, The Sengalese-born, hijab-wearing Italian resident, has made it her mission to challenge prejudices against the Black community in her country.

“I read you the RACIST insults I receive on social media!!”

To continue her work, Mbengue, who has lived in Bergamo, northern Italy, since the age of three, joined Afro Influencers, an agency created to promote social media influencers of African origin and the broader African community in Italy.

Afro Influencers was founded last year by 22-year-old Moustapha Thiam, an IT analyst who recruited nine of the most-followed Tiktokkers, Instagrammers and YouTubers in Italy.

“I created this to make our voice heard,” said Thiam “Italy was a difficult place to grow up, as there was always this ignorant perception. Things have got better, but still today it is difficult to find work, as prejudices still exist. But we don’t want to play the victims of racism – we are self-deprecating, and the idea is to try to bring about change.”

“Being an actress and making videos has always been my dream,” told the publication. “But whenever I told people this they would laugh and say: ‘Nobody would be interested in watching a girl with a hijab.’ It was as if a black girl with a hijab could never succeed in doing certain things.”

Italy’s embracing of its Black community has been spotty, but Afro-Italians have been a part of Italy’s history for hundreds of years.

According to Italian historian Mauro Valeria, from 1850 through 1880, over 1500 African babies were brought to Italy by a religious group called ‘The Slave Masters of God.’

The group believed it was their responsibility to buy slaves and bring them to Italy to educate them. Black women were sent to the nunneries, and Black men went to the army. It was not until Italy invaded Ethiopia in the 1930s with Benito Mussolini at the helm that Italy’s relationship with its Black community took a nosedive.

In 2018, Cécile Kyenge, Italy’s first Black Minister, penned an op-ed for The Guardian, where she wrote about her first-hand experiences of racism at the hands of her fellow politicians.

“A former vice-president of the Italian Senate, Roberto Calderoli, said in a public meeting: ‘When I see pictures of Kyenge I can’t help but think of the features of an orangutan’,” she wrote. She also shared that she’d been called “Zulu” and “Congolese monkey” by far-right legislators.

In their home country, Black Italians continue to fight for respect as the country refuses to acknowledge the consequence of its colonial past.

Thiam, Mbengue, and their crew of revolutionary rebels are up for the task.

Mbengue not only hopes to change public perception of Black Italians but of the Muslim community in her country. Her reach across her social media is close to 400,000 followers.

The above video is titled “Things not to ask ABSOLUTELY to a girl who puts on the veil.”

“My first TikTok video attracted comments like ‘I’ve never seen such a nice girl with a hijab’ or ‘girls with hijabs actually have style’,” she said. “From this, I understood that something had to change. I wanted to show that the hijab is not a symbol of oppression. Just because I’m wearing one it doesn’t mean I’m not free.”

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