The European Gaze


This post is long over due. I’ve been waiting for the right time and exactly the right words to come before sitting down to write it. I actually began the first draft on September 11, 2013.  It was the day we left Rome, headed for Vienna. I remember our early arrival in Vienna that day. We had just made it to breakfast before the hotel restaurant closed down service. Our first day there was filled with a lot of great sights and experiences that you can read about in an earlier post, but for right now what matters most is what happened after the fun was over and I was alone in my room when I felt compelled to jot down some of the things I was feeling.

During the brief time that I spent in Europe, I had experienced conflicting personal accounts of what it felt like to be 1. a woman and 2. Black. A few weeks ago when I came across Jenée Desmond-Harris’ article “Italian Men: Why Do They Love Black Women,” I thought I was off the hook. I was hoping her article would do a good job of communicating my experience of feeling the love from Italian men. Then I could keep my insight, opinion, and experience tucked away in my notebook far from public view. So, when I saw the name of the article, I breathed a sigh of relief, while also being a little ticked off that she had beat me to the punch. Both feelings quickly went away once I actually took the time to read it. While interesting, the article only scratched the surface of my feelings and experience of being on the receiving end of black girl love – Italian style. Based on the article’s title, it understandably didn’t cover the opposite side of that love. This is what really pushed me to move forward with this post: my conflicting experience of the European gaze.

Here goes…

I’ll admit it. I liked it at first. I liked the stares. I liked the head to toe overviews. I even liked the “that’s awkward” stares. I guess I just liked being noticed. In fact, while in Rome the attention had escalated to such a degree that my mom and I were convinced that at any moment I would receive my long awaited butt grab (it never came).

The looks actually started the moment I stepped off the plane and into the Atlanta airport for our first of three layovers. This was not surprising as Atlanta is a mecca of blackness, and my big ‘fro fit the bill.

It was surprising, however, when on our first day in Rome, I found myself being 1. seen and 2. ogled.

Before I go further, it’s probably important to throw this out there: low self-esteem does not live here. It takes up no space nor does it have residence in my psyche. For some reason, I’ve just always been slightly amazed when someone from outside my race finds me attractive. This is probably why I was highly aware of the attention, both good and bad.

I don’t know about Italian men in general, but I can confirm that yes, I definitely felt the love from Roman men.

While walking the beautiful streets of Rome, I would feign noticing as men’s eyes swept across my body and followed me as I continued down the sidewalk. I basked in delight as a young Roman girl told me about the beauty she found in my unconventionally textured hair. While standing in the city center, I watched as a Roman police officer would glance my way several times over. My eyes were behind dark sunglasses; he was unaware that I was watching him, watch me. “I’m being racially profiled,” was my first thought. But after watching for a few moments more and seeing where the direction his eyes took, my second thought registered: “I’m being admired.” My favorite, though, had to be when a young, Roman man made his interest very clear. He stared at me until I could no longer feign naiveté. I gave in and looked at him, looking at me. He smiled. I smiled. It was then that what the other stares had been saying to me all along was cemented and seared into my memory: When it comes to black women, Roman men are ripe and ready for the taking.

In five days, I could already imagine myself going on a date with a different Roman each night of the week, riding on the back of his scooter with my afro bouncing in the wind.

As a black woman in Rome, I definitely felt the love. I just needed an opportunity to give it back (wink).

But, it wasn’t the love that drew me to pull my notebook out that late evening in the hotel…

It seems that as soon as we arrived in Vienna, it became clear that the Viennese hadn’t received the memo. They were noticeably unaware of what the Romans understood about black women. Things had changed.

The stares were still there. Men, women, children continued to gaze, but what was behind their look was different. It was a different feeling than from the ones received in Rome. To be honest, once we left Rome behind, those stares of want and appreciation left too. Austria and Germany brought with them looks of awe and wonderment, and not the good kind of awe and wonderment. It was the kind that left you feeling out-of-place. Better yet, the kind that made you wonder if you had mustard on your face. But, there was no mustard, at least, not then.

At first, it was kind of humorous, but the more we caught people literally staring us down with their mouths wide open, completely overwhelmed with our presence the less cute it became. There would be times when I would see an “other” pass through the same crowd we were in, and I would watch just to see if they too received those  stares. Nope. Negative. Nada. Asian. African. They passed through without receiving the slightest bit of attention. It was then that I became convinced that if aliens were to invade the planet, we would still get first mention in the day’s news. This angered me. I didn’t understand. I didn’t get why we solicited such attention. I wanted to take pictures of the stares and the faces of total awe and amazement. My mother said that it would be rude, so I have absolutely no evidence to show. The only indication of these occurrences is the out-of-place feeling I experienced. Looking back, I really should not have been surprised. I really shouldn’t have. I blame Rome. It spoiled me.

We still have no idea why we attracted such attention. Yes, we were black. But did our American-ness also stand out? Was it that and not our skin that put a spotlight on us?

We may never know.

The lesson I learned from this experience is that the European gaze comes in different shapes, sizes, and measurements. Just be prepared to experience it all.

Am I alone in my experience? Did you feel the love from the Romans, too? What was your experience as a black woman in Europe?

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