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Being a Black Woman in Italy: a Hyper-Sexualisation Rooted in Colonial Heritage

Photo source: © Clay Banks via UnSplash, June 8th, 2020

The Interlink Between Mental Health and Human Rights


Benedetta De Rosa

Women’s Rights Researcher,

Topic: Women’s Rights

Global Human Rights Defence


It is highly likely that many women will be subjected to an abundance of unsolicited attention and harassment from men throughout their lifetime. However, no two women will have the same experience of discrimination from people although within the same society. Many other determinants of women’s identities affect the extent, degree, and forms of discrimination they face.


When the women in question are Black, discriminatory sexualised attention is at times triggered by not only being a woman, but also due to the colour of the skin.

Unsurprisingly, White Italians, regardless of their political orientation, may be finding themselves thinking or saying phrases such as “You are really beautiful for a Black woman” or “I have never dated a Black woman before” or even “I have a thing for Black women”. To them, this may represent a simple compliment toward a person with a specific physical characteristic which is different from the norm they are used to, being rather an automatism that is very rarely perceived as a problem or potentially problematic.


To be a Black woman in Italy thus means, among many other things, to be the object of a perverse admiration: a constant exoticization and hyper-sexualisation based on the colour of their skin. This practice finds its roots in a colonial legacy that Italian culture has not yet come to terms with, known as racial fetishism.


Throughout the article, the topic of racial fetishism will be explored, starting with the representation of the Italian colonial past, and continuing with the experiences of Black women in Italy from recent years.


Racial Fetishisation in Italy: Hyper-sexualisation and its colonial roots

Slavery was abolished long ago, but Black identity is still subject to the white gaze and is still dictated by old colonial power dynamics. Racial fetishism is a clear example of this. The sexualisation and exoticization of people with physical characteristics and cultures different from those of the White is a prevalent issue in the modern Eurocentric community. Ethnic characteristics can include physical features such as skin colour, hair, and eye shape, which invoke stereotypes about a specific population. These stereotypes are harmful to certain ethnic communities, often contributing to sexual and malicious expectations based solely on the other person’s nationality, which is in turn dictated by their physical characteristics. It is conveyed through comments and statements behind which the racist heritage is well entrenched.


Racism is a structural problem with deep cultural roots in many European societies. When being Black is combined with being a woman, discrimination is even more complex and interconnected. The patriarchal system reduces all women to sexual commodities, but “black women are subjected to the collective historical consequences based on the intersectionality of race, class, and gender that all tie into her continued sexual debasement” (Holmes, 2016). This discrimination manifests in the hyper-sexualisation of women, which is a result of a long history of sexual exploitation. In the US, during periods of colonialism, the physical and sexual exploitation of the Black body was prevalent in society. White slave-owners suppressed and exploited Black women in labour camps, repeatedly raping them, reducing them to sex slaves. The blame for the violence never fell on the machismo and racist power of the white slave-owners, but rather on the Black women, who were accused of seducing them. Therefore, alongside the idea of racial inferiority that was imposed on all Black people, the role imposed on Black women in particular is that of a mere sexual object, useful only to vent the violence and sexual frustrations of their owners (Holmes, 2016).


While Black male slaves were also sexualised, some differences can be noted. The Black man’s body underwent brutalisation and was transformed into a kind of mighty beast of immense sexual performance. Due to this hyper-sexualisation, it is commonly believed that they are potential rapists of white women. This arguably becomes a real paradox, where the real aggressor, the White owner, seemingly bears no fault in the backlash of violence that White women may suffer as a result of the violence that he himself had inflicted on Black male slaves. Adding insult to injury, while White wives cannot and should not be touched (by Black male slaves), Black women do not enjoy the same protection, with rape almost being a ‘prerogative and a right’ reserved to White men.


In Italy, the situation was not so different. Italy also has a colonial past that begins in North Africa in the early 1880s and formally ends in 1947 (Trento, 2011). However, many Italians refuse to come to terms with this past. For instance, this colonial past is rarely mentioned in school and university curriculums, nor in everyday life, leading to the potential exclusion of Italy’s colonial background from its national history.


As early as the nineteenth century, travel literature describes Africa by using fantastical and vicious imagery. It is portrayed as a continent of uncontrolled passion, or a sex paradise inhabited by sexually available women. This imagery became increasingly vivid in the minds of Italians and persists into the fascist period, due in part to the secret circulation of pornographic postcards depicting naked Black women. The ideal of the ‘Black beauty’ has been considered to serve as a real motivation for Italian soldiers to fight wars in distant lands. The colonies, therefore, become a place of freedom and sexual experimentation for Italian colonisers at the expense of the raped women.


This depiction of Black women fuels the fascination and perverse attraction to a corporeality that colonisers perceive as that of the ‘Other’, and thus as a land of experimentation and pleasure. The Black woman’s body becomes a space on which to frame fantasies, dispositions, inner desires but, most importantly, the power relation of the West over the colonised land (Sugamele, 2019). Essentially, dark skin is traced back to moral debauchery and sexual promiscuity, which constitutes a certain interest for the colonisers in the possibility of transgressing from the behavioural strictures imposed by Western society (Sugamele, 2019). However, it represents more than that. Women’s bodies also become the porous borders through which they can be penetrated (Sugamele, 2019). In other words, the woman’s body is a symbol of the land, to be dehumanised and possessed. The Black woman becomes an integral part of the very territory to be conquered.


The practice of madamato during the Fascist period, a temporary relationship of an essentially sexual nature between a colonist and an indigenous woman (referred to as madame in this context), is a critical example of this dehumanisation. The madame lives momentarily with an Italian man, a colonist, and who, in exchange for domestic and sexual services, obtains food, clothing or money. In fact, the madamato does not constitute a real relationship, but instead is an expression of the coloniser’s superiority. It is the result of an imbalance of power, based on control, domination, objectification, and rape as a practice of war conquest and the black body as ‘spoils of war’ (Forni, 2024). These mechanisms of violence contribute to biases that regardwant the Black woman to be attractive and seductive: the ‘perfect’ profile of the woman who ‘steals’ the man away from the stability of family life. This phenomenon was particularly important in the Italian colonies and never really disappeared, even after the enactment of the Racial Laws (Trento, 2011). In fact, in the 1930s, the regime attempted to abolish this practice due to its incompatibility with the racial principles of the time. The regime intended to preserve the purity of the “Italian race”, going so far as to send white prostitutes to the colonised lands to allow Italian soldiers and colonists to vent their sexual urges (Trento, 2011). However, this did not prove enough to erase the madamato.


Nowadays,  Black women continue to be victims of the stereotype associated with the exotic view of their body. Westerners are still deemed to continue having a perverse attraction to foreign female bodies because they associate certain physical or somatic characteristics with some form of sexual degeneracy (Sugamele, 2019). In the collective imagination, therefore, the Black woman is fierier and warmer than the White woman. She is almost always perceived as a mischievous and aggressively lustful woman who certainly knows how to satisfy a man.


These stereotypes, rooted in Italy’s colonial heritage, still exist today. The fetishism that has persisted since even before slavery and colonialism remains a critical issue in today’s society, manifesting in new ways.


 Racial fetishisation not compliment, but racism

Several female activists bring to light the phenomenon of racial fetishism by voicing their experiences as Black women in Italy. Today, this phenomenon occurs especially when men approach women flirtatiously.


Freelance writer Oiza Q. Obasuyi recounts this in her article titled “My Skin is a Fetish”, published in Medium. She denounces that in the eyes of men, Black women are alien creatures. When they try to approach a Black woman, they jump through hoops, trying to write or say embarrassing pseudo-poetic phrases about their ebony-coloured skin. The most daring men will even address them with nicknames like “cougar” or “chocolate” (Obasuyi, 2019). Other Black women activists share similar experiences. For example, the Italian activist Stefania N’Kombo reports feeling like a “piece of cake to be coveted” (Lambazzi, 2021).


Being a Black woman in Italy often entails being perceived  as an exotic animal or as part of a separate category altogether, rather than merely a person. In a predominantly White society, its members are likely to categorise the ethnic minority and see women of an ethnic minority as one and the same. The skin that covers their body becomes the major defining feature of that individual, instead of who that person is, what their interests are, or what they do in life. Everything is obscured by the person’s skin colour, generating a whole series of different kinds of reactions, prejudices and stereotypes, such as the aforementioned stereotype that a Black woman is more fiery, more approachable and mischievous. There is an unconscious and internalised assumption that conquering her is easy, because apparently her body demands it.


In this context, it is also important to mention the reappropriation of bodies, a process defined by women reclaiming their sexuality as an instrument of pleasure for themselves, and not for others. In this light, the distinction between being sexual and being sexualised should be noted. The sexualisation of one’s body by others is harmful because it occurs outside that person’s control and will. Being sexual, on the other hand, is a choice and can therefore be empowering.

One example of Black women claiming their sexuality is represented by twerking. Today, it is part of pop culture and is perceived as a hyper-sexualised practice that objectifies women, but this depiction fails to recognise its historical significance. Twerking was born out of a desire to reclaim one’s body and sexuality, being a dance with a strong sexual charge, performed to occupy space (Zink, 2017). “The act of twerking challenges the shame imposed upon black women’s bodies, by providing a forum for black women to experience control over and take pride in their bodies and its ability” (Baskerville, 2014). In this way, it symbolises how an outcast body of society has been reclaimed by its owner through artistic expression. Basically, “a dance move is […] more than it seems” (Zink, 2017).


While conscious appropriation of one’s body and sexuality restores control and power to Black people, colonial-based, sexist, and racist stereotypes continue to degrade them. Such stereotypes are reproduced through narratives that often rely on skin colour as the defining factor of the individual. Those who use such approaches often do not realise the consequences of their actions on members of society who have been subjected to racist stereotypes. They might also be unaware of how their actions imply a form of prevarication and a fetishisation of the Black female body, due to how normal they are in their society. It is unlikely that they will understand the dehumanising character of a remark such as “I’ve never tried a Black woman”, as if they were machines to be tested or a food to be tasted. Similarly, they might minimise the phenomenon of racism by claiming that women in general,  regardless of their skin colour, endure more or less the same objectifying treatments.


It is true that almost all women experience harassment, but the treatments endured by Black women should not be compared to those endured by White women. This is due to the differing power dynamics at play, making the experiences fundamentally different. The racist nicknames such as “chocolate” or “cougar”, as well as other attempted catcalls toward Black women, evoke racist undertones stemming from colonialism, as was discussed earlier. Such racist comments assume that those who use them see the people in front of them first and foremost as Black. Undoubtedly, they conceal a racist mentality, albeit an unconscious one. Some even claim that they are complementary.


However, some may focus on the seemingly compliment-like side of the aforementioned comments,  as they seem to positively value something different which is far from the imagery of the dominant culture and society. Comments of racial fetishism (such as “I love black women”) seem compliments only because they include a “positive” comment (the person who is leaving these comments is expressing their love for black women and not hate). However, they remain rooted in exoticism, the process by which the dominant culture makes the ‘other’ culture exciting and palatable for its otherness. The fact that the dominant society is able to take on a judgemental and sexualising attitude is in itself an expression of that society’s supremacy and the power relations that exist between races (Garcia, 2018). These words are violent and discriminatory because they enable stereotypes which are considered necessary for the functioning of the power relationship based on differing genders and skin colours. One assumes that words are not limited to their mere communicative purpose, but also conceal a transformative act of reality. It is thus critical to recognise the power and implications of language, often our language choices are affected by one’s personal position and the social model that is being reproduced. Finally, those words reproduce and confirm social relations of power, which increasingly become normalised within our societies. The performative role of language takes language itself out of the reality of private communication between two single individuals. There is a political dimension to the role of language within reality and society. In particular, it reinforces discriminatory power relations. At the same time, power relations do not exist in nature. They are artificial social constructs that need to be reproduced and performed continuously to remain in society. Given this, we have the power to modify social reality, starting with rejecting all language that conveys discrimination.



Patriarchal culture enables the repeated sexualisation and discrimination of women from all walks of life. However, it will not be possible to eradicate this discrimination by unifying the experiences of all women under one lens, which is usually the White, Western one. Only by embracing the links between the ideologies of domination and the reason for their emergence can a true, meaningful and effective change within society unfold. For this reason, this article investigated the sexualisation of women in Italy, with a sole focus on the experiences of Black women.


The sexualisation of Black female bodies is rooted in a colonial legacy often ignored in Italy. During the period dominated by fascist ideals, there was the phenomenon of madamato, which saw black women in the colonies as sex slaves of white Italian colonists. This phenomenon led to the perception of black women as a people without dignity, whose body was used to satisfy men, and was comparable to a land to be conquered. The madamato in Italian colonies, as well as slavery in the US, generated stereotypes that in turn led to a hyper-sexualisation of black female bodies and a normalisation of racial fetishism. The latter finds expression today in comments such as “I have a thing for Black women”, “You’re beautiful for a Black woman”, or “I’ve never tried a Black woman”.


These ways of addressing a Black woman are racist and dehumanising because they accentuate the tension between the white population which historically segregated and exploited those who are different. While, at first glance, one might argue that these comments positively enhance the characteristics of the Black women, in reality they only express white supremacy. The White gaze makes the Black female body exciting and parabolic because of the obvious differences in perspective and maintains its superiority on the level of both gender and race, which is precisely of colonial origin.


Therefore, being a Black woman in Italy means being below any hierarchical system and being constantly treated as pieces of meat without one’s consent. It means that black skin inevitably becomes the fetish of a White person, who feels entitled to approach a Black woman by leveraging her skin colour.


Ultimately,  as Oiza Q. Obasuyi emphasises, one cannot change their skin colour but the look with which they are watched, can be (Obasuyi, 2019). White society can inform, dialogue, and question itself. Above all, it can question the racist language it uses, grasp its violence, and correct it.



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