(The Root) —
"I went to Italy, where Italian men love black women. My male friends here in the U.S. seem to think I'm exaggerating this when I bring it up, or act offended when I rave about the great time I had there and how much I enjoyed the unusual amount of attention and praise (yeah, I'll admit it!). How do I explain to them that it's not an attack on U.S. men — it's just true? Also, what is going on over there, and how can we get American men in the same frame of mind?" —Into Italy
Well, when it comes to Italian men, black women and "What is going on over there?" you're not the first one to notice something. Not even close. It took about four seconds for me to confirm that, as I did some preliminary poking around in response to your question.
In addition to the (possibly legitimate? I don't know, it looks a little sketchy) "Black Women Love Italian Men" blog, an initial search revealed a good-size handful of inquiring minds asking the non-experts at Yahoo questions similar to yours. There, at Ask.com and on plenty of other forums, the Internet provided some very anecdotal and unofficial validations and explanations for what you experienced. Here's a taste:
Satisfied? Me, neither. And I thought your question was an interesting one that required a more authoritative take, especially because given recent headlines, the answer to "Why do Italian men love black women so much" very clearly isn't "Because all black people are warmly embraced by all Italians."
Quite the opposite. The country has had more than its fair share of bigotry and hate-fueled incidents over the past few months. Think bananas thrown at Cécile Kyenge, Italy's first black government minister (prompting the Guardian to ask "Why Is Italy Still So Racist?"); hateful taunts against black soccer players that are practically as common as goals at games in the country; and, most recently, an Italian gymnast's racist remarks after she lost to black U.S. gymnast Simone Biles.
That you're asking the question back in the states is also relevant in light of the old racism- and colorism-fueled narrative about black women getting shunned in the dating department. This was most recently brought to our attention by this guy who announced that he would never date a black woman. It was a reminder of some of the depressing data about how race plays out in online dating and the real-life attitudes that likely reflects.
So I did some real research. Why, in Italy, of all places in the world, do we keep hearing that black women are not only welcomed romantically but also seemingly put on some sort of a pedestal?
Bad news: I still have no idea.
Admittedly, I started writing this response assuming that I'd end up speaking to someone who had authored a book on this phenomenon or studied interracial relationships across the world, or at least had some well thought-out theory about Italy's specific culture and history (maybe something to do with Ethiopia?). I was expecting something that could explain why what appears to be widespread bigotry didn't touch black women in this area (or, maybe it did, but just manifested in some type of hypersexualization way).
So I put my feelers out to my normal Race Manners experts and to the Internet more broadly and got … nothing.
I posted an inquiry on Facebook: "So, what kind of an expert would one talk to about whether/why Italian men love black women?" My friends proceeded to take over my thread with jokes about Robert De Niro.
(Seriously, if there is some agreed-upon explanation or official analysis that I'm missing, let me know on Twitter. I'm still curious.)
So I don't know how to explain that "It's true" to your friends except that, well, it's true to you. And shouldn't that be enough? What's with the skepticism? Why would people who know, trust and like you require verification from a cultural anthropologist to appreciate your experience? Is it that unbelievable?
And do we ever make people explain the "what's going on?" of attraction and connection unless we think it's somehow wrong or weird?
In fact, it always seems to get messy to try to explain these things with broad cultural theories. Whether it's a black man who marries a white woman, a white guy with a thing for Asian girls, the participants in a May-December romance or simply members of an "opposites attract" couple, it rarely goes well when you try to tell people their relationships are somehow influenced by cultural forces beyond their individual connections.
No one wants to be just part of a pattern.
So maybe that’s where the tension is coming up in your conversations with your male friends. Here's a theory: Implicit in your comments "Oh my God, Italian men loved me so much. I'd never seen anything like it. It was the best thing ever! So much better than here!" is the idea that "American men like you can't compare. What's wrong with you?"
Cue the "I don't want to feel like a stereotype" defensiveness on their part. (And on that note, you are going to be forever frustrated if you make it your mission to convince large swaths of people to change their preferences or the way they express them, so probably just give up that bit now.)
My best guess is that this defensiveness is what you and your buddies are really bumping heads over. (Another thought that's just a gut feeling: Maybe one of them likes you and hasn't been able to express it and is frustrated that you only picked up on attention abroad?) So I don't think there's any reason that you have to get your male friends on board as huge cheerleaders for the experience you had in Italy. But if you really want to talk about it, I would try to do it in a way that doesn't have undertones of accusation and doesn't emphasize that people in their demographic have fallen down on the flirting job by comparison.
If they still can't believe what you're saying, just move on (in the conversation, but also maybe to Italy — don't rule that out!). A true friend isn't going to react with stubborn disbelief to the idea that you made romantic connections, even if they were connections with people from another culture or on another continent.
The Root's staff writer, Jenée Desmond-Harris, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life — and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. Follow her on Twitter.
Need race-related advice? Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously in Race Manners: "What Makes White People Feel Invisible?"