In March, while schools were closed in the southern Campania region as part of another coronavirus lockdown, Xiaomo Ma was working from home when she heard her nine-year-old son’s class online in the next room.
The teacher on the screen was reading a story about a Chinese girl in an Italian elementary school, from a textbook edited by the Italian publishing house Del Borgo.
“As the teacher continued to read, I felt uncomfortable for myself and my child,” Ma told Al-Jazeera.
“The story was full of simplistic stereotypes about Asians that can limit children and adults’ understanding or acceptance of an entire culture.”
In the text, the Chinese child was ridiculed for her appearance and accent, and was praised for her “lack of interest or responding to insults.”
Ma, who studies Chinese at the Oriental University of Naples and has lived in Italy for 15 years, has used social media to share her experience.
There, I found solidarity.
Members of other expatriate communities also had concerns about messages in many elementary school textbooks.
Recently, another publisher was criticized for an illustration in one of his books depicting a group of children carefully expressing their goals for the New Year, while the lone black child spoke in broken Italian with phrases like: good.
For years, academics and rights groups have lobbied to update Italian textbooks to reflect the country’s demographic changes and diversity.
Julia Selmi, vice president of Educare Alle Difenze, who advocates for inclusivity in school materials, told Al Jazeera: “Italians have a few unresolved cultural and gender stereotypes, and often the classroom is the first place these images are built. “.
“Primary education is a critical stage in human development. Portraying a non-white child in a textbook as illiterate or unable to speak Italian properly sends a certain message that, if learned at such a young age, can translate into prejudice and discrimination in puberty “.
In Italy, primary school textbooks are not monitored by a government agency.
Publishing houses were self-regulating through a law designed to ensure a level playing field.
“But judging by the many racial and sexual errors that appear from time to time among textbooks, self-regulation appears to be insufficient,” said Gianluca Gabrielli, a primary school teacher and expert on the history of racism in Italian textbooks.
“If Italian textbooks still present many outdated scenarios, then that is mainly due to a lack of historical reflection,” he added, noting that Italian colonialism and its mistakes were not taught in school.
While the state curriculum addresses Italian fascism and anti-Semitism, the school system transcends other racist episodes throughout history against people of color.
Meanwhile, according to 2019 data from the Italian Ministry of Education, there are about 320,000 children without Italian citizenship enrolled in primary schools.
The current Italian nationality law makes it difficult for children of immigrants to obtain Italian citizenship, despite their birth and education in the country.
This contributed to a lack of diversity in various fields, including publishing.
“We must point out, however, that this type of racism is often largely unaware, and is born with the intent to stimulate a holistic mindset rather than discourage it,” Salami said, referring to the colorful characters in the books portrayed as slow or different .
A 2015 text from Ardea Publishing a white Italian boy asks a black girl with “funny afro pigtails”: “Are you black or are you filthy?”
It was later announced that she is, in fact, black.
In the homework section, children are asked to write a classmate’s name that looks like a black girl, and describe her looks.
After a backlash, the book was removed from the market.
“Our original goal was to stimulate the integration skills of children through this text, and to teach them to accept physical differences,” Ardea editor Antonio Riccio told Al Jazeera.
But we realized, thanks to our readers, that it was a clumsy endeavor, and since then, we’ve been carefully reviewing our texts. It was an opportunity to improve our vision on issues of diversity and inclusion. “
“We paid close attention to texts that could raise concerns about gender issues and racial stereotypes, and this was not the case,” Stefano Cassanelli, the editor of the publishing house del Borgo Idizione behind the book depicting the Chinese girl, told the Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano. Our intention is to disrespect anyone. “
Looking to the future, however, many see reason for hope.
Parliament is currently reviewing a bill that aims to support equitable representation of women and minorities in school textbooks.
“We still have a long way to go, but I am starting to see the shy will of Italian publishers to open up to writers from diverse backgrounds,” said Ijiappa Sigo, a prominent Italian author of Somali origins. “Perhaps, in a few years, we will be able to detect these positive mentions in youth literature.”