Being a Black student attending a predominantly white university, I’m used to being among a small handful of students of color within a student organization or the only Black person enrolled in a class. Within my academic specializations (Creative Writing and Opera Performance), there are even fewer Black students. Of course, I’ve been able to develop interracial friendships with my peers, but I had to work proactively at my home institution to cultivate a group of friends who look like me. During my first few days of orientation in Milan, I found myself peering around the large lecture room looking for other Black folks. I was delighted to see other Black students in the room, and I felt even more at ease when our eyes met and we shared a knowing smile.
The relief that comes with the realization: “Phew, I’m not the only one here.”
I’ve been living in Milan for two weeks. At one end, it seems like two years, and on the other it seems like two days. I feel like I’ve known the friends of color I’ve made abroad for a lifetime, and the memories we create together makes the time fly so fast. I feel safer traveling around Europe with other Black students. Even though we all go to colleges of varying sizes and types across the United States, we all have a shared cultural and experiential understanding. So many times I’ve been the only Black person in a given social circle and forced to educate others about my experience or marginalization. But with la mia squadra di amici (my team of friends), I don’t need to explain. I can dart an eye at my Black IES friends when an old Italian woman touches my braids out of curiosity without asking (yes, that’s happened abroad) or European people stare at us just because they’re not accustomed to seeing Black people who are neither service workers nor famous musicians.
There’s a popular quote from Zora Neale Hurston within the Black community: “All my skinfolk ain’t kinfolk.” Meaning that just because someone is Black doesn’t mean that they’ll always have your back. Zora Neale Hurston’s quote highlights how Black folks can be pitted against one another. But when Black people support one another, we have the incredible capability to lift up one another. Time and time again, the Black students at IES Milan have shown up for me. From making dinner together to cheering like proud parents anytime I sing, these amazing people have become la mia famiglia (my family).
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