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selam tesfai
February 22, 2024

What if we centered love? Rethinking racialized communities around the concept of care

The voice of Selam Tesfai, interviewed by Chiara Pedrocchi

Blackn[è]ss fest is the first festival in Italy which presents a re-elaborated version of the African lineage universe. Events and roundtables are organized both to think about the concept of being black, following a path of decolonization of the language, and to discuss topics such as mental health issues linked to racial profiling, discrimination, racism, and also music, cinema, media and representation of black people. 

Voice Over Foundation chose to accompany the festival in this path and it decided to tell stories about it through the protagonists’ voices during the whole year. 

Interview with Selam Tesfai, activist of the social center 'il Cantiere' in Milan and protagonist of the Blackn[è]ss fest.

Q: What's your name? Can you tell us who you are and what you do in life?

A: My name is Selam Tesfai and I'm 32 years old. I am Italian of Eritrean origin, from both parents. In high school, I approached student collectives, then, during university, I joined the Cantiere, a metropolitan political laboratory where different subjectivities meet and organize. I was fascinated by the connection with the San Siro Residents' Committee that focus on the right to housing and to address other transversal aspects. Here, furthermore, there is a strong protagonism of people who are usually considered by politics as objects and not subjects. Always here there are processes of subjectivation of women but also of men and children, who in turn have made paths of claim ranging from home to school for all. No one is excluded from the claims. Another reason that bound me to the Cantiere is that they have always upheld - and we continue to do so - the memory of Abdul William Guiebre, known as Abba. For some of us, not forgetting is a real warning, and also a bit of a promise to ourselves.

Q: You didn't call yourself an activist: do you consider yourself one?

A: I don't know, I'm still thinking about it. Yes, I am an activist, if we mean someone who doesn't pretend nothing in the face of injustice. What I don't like about this term is that from my point of view it indicates a path of solitude. I am a person who activates and who has decided to organize together with others, I have decided to build Community. This kind of project leads to connecting to find solutions. I am a militant of the Cantiere, I would say. Today being active has been greatly reassessed, and it is considered positive but it goes through alternating phases: sometimes it's trendy, sometimes not. But it's important to continue, right?

Q: You mentioned Abba: can you tell us who he was and what his story is?

A: In 2008, we received news of a very young boy beaten to death. He was a black Italian boy. It was an episode of racist violence: why beat a boy to death in the middle of the street? Because you think he stole a packet of cookies? That packet of cookies gives an idea of how ephemeral the lives of black people are for some. Many think that there will be no reaction to an act of violence like this. They think they can justify it as a fit of rage but norms, even in a racist society, exist. Probably these people are so crushed by racist culture that for them, killing a person to death just for a theft, never attempted, is normal. 

That's how Abba was killed. His family wanted justice, his sisters fought to ensure he wasn't forgotten and that newspapers published his photo. They wanted it to be seen that he was a young and smiling boy and there was no element to justify the idea of his dangerousness. But it's always difficult to convey a narrative where there are Italian people, not white, having full rights. If you're not white, people feel they have more power and can mistreat you, verbally or physically. 

It was heavy. Everyone knew Abba because he occasionally came to hip-hop nights at the Cantiere and because some of us went to school with him. 

Two days after the murder, there was a student demonstration, then on Saturday a city parade where we tried to keep together the militant antifascist component of the city with the young mixed-race anti-racist component, less strategically organized but more aware of racist violence. 

Since then, we remember Abba by bringing his story to schools and through the AbbaCup, a three-day festival we organize every year in September at Sempione Park, where we occupy a central space in the city.

Q: Earlier you said that in high school you were already in contact with collectives and struggles. What was your very first approach to these kinds of organizations? What triggered your activation?

A: In high school, I saw a poster from the Cantiere talking about a special train from the No Dal Molin movement against the enlargement of the NATO military base in Vicenza. A parade was planned. Vicenza resonated in my memory: my sister and her friends often went there for hip-hop nights in years when there were few in Milan. I didn't yet put the issue of the military base together, but it resonated with me. So a friend and I asked the Cantiere for information, even though we were only 14 years old. They suggested we bring those demands back into our school collective, and so we did. Then there were self-management, demonstrations, occupations.

Q: At the 2023 Blackn[è]ss edition, you curated the workshop "What if we centered love?" together with the artist and writer Wissal Houbabi. How did you decide to give it this title? What is love to you?

A: The workshop was born from an ongoing conversation between me and Wissal. The idea comes from a question that the organization posed: "What does our community need right now? What are the themes that we never fully address?". Among these were consent and love: these are themes that we cannot take for granted, nor can we assume that we all experienced them in the same way. We live in a society that denies the centrality of consent in relationships, but there are countercultures that manage to maintain a certain autonomy so they develop love differently. We didn't want a space to give a line, but to draw it together. We don't have a direction, we have words. Wissal and I are lovers of words. During the workshop's ideation, we decided to share a sheet to observe what the other was writing, how she commented, what her thoughts were on the various points. We are people who experience relationships very differently, also love and sex. We had different ideas that had to fit together. So we said to ourselves, "what if we centered love? What if we tried to rethink communities not only united by trauma and pain?". 

Racialized communities often come together because individuals are traumatized by racism, a great and deaf pain constantly present in our lives, for which we have developed defense mechanisms. We wanted to reverse this element, trying to see our communities as spaces that center love and are based on care as a practice of resistance.

Q: At the event, you attached posters to the walls with screenshots of some pornographic websites where the categories were visible, often denominated based on physical characteristics or origin of the people. Can you explain better the issue of fetishization of racialized people?

A: We decided to deal with sex as a relationship not between bodies but between people and communities. We wanted to talk about fetishization, without making it the center: we didn't want to make it a moment of heaviness for the racialized people who would participate in the workshop, so we kept it as a warning, on the walls of the room. We believe there is an instrumental use of parts of our bodies, a negative way of representing ourselves in sexual fantasies, in kinks, i.e., unconventional sexual practices. There is a strong depersonalization that leads to thinking that fetishization is not a bad thing. So we pixelated all the images and decided to leave only the titles of the categories. We wanted to show how people are categorized for an element of their aesthetics, chosen by others and not by them to represent themselves. At the center of these reflections there had to be our bodies, so I brought what for me is a cornerstone reflection, that between gender and race.

Q: What is your relationship with your roots? Do you feel anger?

A: I have always associated my being black with being Eritrean, also because I grew up experiencing the community dimension very strongly. On one hand, there were funerals, death, weddings, baptisms, the celebration of life, and on the other hand, the parties linked to political and religious events. Living this complexity made me feel part of something. I can't say the same thing about other people who experienced the space of identity research differently, something I also had to go through. 

Surely I feel anger, dignified anger, anger as an engine that allows me to react to things, an anger that keeps me together. In cases like these, you realize that you are in a group that feels the same emotions, but does not do a job of deconstruction and decoding of these. Seeing if we really are feeling the same emotion and if it leads us in the same direction is a longer process than building mobilization, so to build true connections, we must go beyond anger. I have a good relationship with the struggle: I find it something that nourishes me.

Q: Why do you think the existence of a space like Blackn[è]ss is important in Italy right now?

A: Because someone thought about it and that means the time is ripe, and it's right that there are events where we self-determine in programs and methods. Some of these are already consolidated, but others can still be improved. The thing I like most is the ferment around the programming because there is room for maneuver and realization. 

During the last edition of Blackn[è]ss, mixed groups were created by gender, age, race, ability. This added a difficulty: it happened that white people asked for clarification, for example, about what colorism was, i.e., discrimination against individuals with darker skin within a group of racialized people. In a space like Blackn[è]ss, such questions can annoy black people because all these interruptions are felt like pebbles that interrupt the gear of awareness of racism dynamics and the assertion of their rights. 

Hence the need to think about the existence of separate spaces, formed only by racialized people, which allow us to go deep into the reasoning and then bring them back outside. Separatist spaces are not impermeable or excluding spaces, for those forced to the margins they are spaces of possibility.

Blackn[è]ss is also a terrain for building alliances. It is in these moments that we see who really is not afraid to stand by us: sometimes their own white fragility, to use an Anglicism, i.e., the attitude of self-defense of white people related to questioning white privilege, makes them perceive this as a fault. But something must be done about this privilege, we must be accountable in relation to those who do not have it. It is precisely at these events where we self-determine that we see who is not afraid to stand by us, even when we decide.

Q: What are your projects and your future struggles?

A: I would like to give space to reflections on sexuality, consent, and love, and I would also like to reflect on the colonial past. I think the relationship between sex and race is very important because sex has been a tool of domination and control. Today there are still many patriarchal and colonial vestiges. These two things go together and we must ensure that liberal feminism, which differs from intersectional feminism because it aims at gender equality for all women, without reflecting on the multiplicity of identities and oppressions that cross us. We must also exclude nationalist feminism, which sees nationalist parties talking about defending women in campaigns against migrants. We must be careful. We are happy that people talk about feminism, but we must realize that there are big limits in thinking that calling oneself feminist means fighting for the same thing. So I feel interest, but also concern.

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