Ciao Bella: Unpacking Experience with Gender and Race in Italy

Each spring, Santa Barbara City College students participate in a custom, faculty-directed semester program in Italy. The faculty directors and courses change each year, as do locations, with recent programs based Rome, Rome and Florence, or Rome and Paris.

This spring, professor Laurel Johnston is teaching Social Psychology. The topic is an ideal match for study abroad, as students consider fundamental concepts behind the influence of others and of social dynamics on behaviors, thoughts, and feelings, and then consider the applications of these theories in different social contexts. Last month, the group marked the halfway point of their program in a meeting with Philip Georgiou, a psychotherapist trained in the U.K. who moved his counseling practice to Rome nearly ten years ago.

Georgiou led a conversation on the role of gender and race in the Italian social context. The presentation used examples from Italian media and politics to illustrate recent debates and controversies around these topics in Italian society.

Students watched short video clips that had recently gone viral in Italy and caused significant controversy due to the way they approached topics of gender, gender-based violence, and race. One video showed Joe Bastianich, Italian-American restaurateur and television personality, receiving a pedicure in Milan’s Chinatown from two Chinese aestheticians. The video was originally aired as part of Italy’s MasterChef program and drew criticism from those who said it perpetuated stereotypes and promoted intolerance. Another clip was a video diary from a Nigerian-Italian woman reflecting on her experience with race and racial identity during a period of time living in New York.

Students were asked to comment on the videos and the debates that surrounded them, considering how similar situations might have evolved in the United States. The conversation then shifted to the students’ personal experiences with race and gender during their time in Italy. Shaped by commentary by Georgiou, Johnston, and Italian staff from Accent, the students reflected on their experiences with cat-calling, dress, and interactions with Italians in their day-to-day life, as well as observations on group behavior from their experience in Rome.

The conversation quickly migrated to the topic of political correctness, as the students cited instances in English when language can be used to show respect or sensitivity to a certain group or topic and asked what, if any, similar examples existed in Italian.