Italy, a country known for its language of love and for its men who publicly shower overtures on women like a centuries-old art form, is often associated with romantic encounters of the kind portrayed in the movies, from “Roman Holiday” to “The Lizzie McGuire Movie.” So some black women ask, why shouldn’t it be the same for them?
Latrese Williams is one such black traveler. When Williams goes out in Chicago or pretty much anywhere else in the United States, she said, she often feels ignored by men who seem to barely register her existence. But when she walks into a room in Italy, all eyes are on her — and to her, that’s a good thing. These polar reactions occur, she said, because she is black.
“Even though I would behave in the same way at home and abroad, in Chicago I felt invisible,” Williams said in her home in the Monti neighborhood of Rome. “But in Italy I kept meeting guys.”
In November, she moved in with her Italian boyfriend, whom she met on Tinder in Rome.
In recent years, Italy has become known for widely publicized episodes of racism against African migrants or dark-skinned people perceived as migrants, and even racial abuse toward Italy’s own black soccer players. It may be surprising that there is a steady stream of black women who travel to Italy in search of amore.
Perhaps less surprising is that, amid the new crop of travel companies catering to black travelers and black women, in particular, there’s a growing group of tour providers, blogs, Instagram accounts and Facebook groups that encourage black women to travel to Italy to find love. Unlike traditional tour operators, companies like Black Girl Travel and Venus Affect provide dating advice and assistance finding a romantic partner, along with sightseeing.
Online, Pinterest, Instagram and Tumblr posts show photos of black women with Italian men or black women with white men in Italy; Facebook groups and YouTube videos contain lengthy discussions about Italian men loving black women. Many of the posts are tagged with the word “swirl,” a popular term describing a black person and a white person in a relationship.
Self Love Before Love
Fleacé Weaver, the founder of Black Girl Travel, said that she felt early on that African American women “do better in Italy,” so, in 2006, after traveling to the country several times, she moved to Rome from Los Angeles and created Black Girl Travel, which offers romantic and nonromantic tours.
At the time, she felt that she was filling an empty spot in the travel market.
“No one was servicing us doing tours that were targeted solely to African American females,” she said. “In fact, when we started, everyone in the industry was telling us it was impossible to do. Now you look ahead 13 years, and we have basically inspired a whole subculture of international travelers.”
Weaver describes Black Girl Travel as a concierge and private club rather than a travel or dating agency, but her clients consider it to be both. In more than a dozen interviews, women who have been on her tours called her “the dream weaver” and the “black woman’s Italian love guru,” thanks to her ability to connect people and help women love themselves and find romantic love. Black Girl Travel has welcomed more than 1,000 black women from across the world to Italy, Weaver said.
She insists that her main goal is to encourage black women to love themselves first. In addition to the sightseeing, “I also always work in girlfriend talk time where we stop as a group and we talk about like: ‘Why do you think your life is not going in the direction you want to go in? Why do you think that you’re having problems with men?’”
Williams, 44, who felt ignored in the United States, had studied abroad in Germany during graduate school and recalls visiting Rome and hating it at the time. She went home to Illinois to establish her career and, she thought, a relationship. Twenty years later, frustrated with her job and her romantic life, she booked a Bella Italia tour with Black Girl Travel. The tour cost about $2,500, excluding airfare, and visited popular cities and landmarks. There were about 50 other black, primarily American, women on the 10-day trip, and at its end Williams was seriously considering the idea of looking for love in Italy.
Three years later, Williams went on a second tour with Weaver, and each time she’d return to Rome she would see Weaver and seek advice about dating. Many women who go on the Bella Italia tour return for Weaver’s Roman Holiday tour, a more personal experience that involves staying with Weaver while she helps with all aspects of dating. (The tour is named for the 1953 Audrey Hepburn-Gregory Peck movie.) She manages her guests’ dating profiles on apps like Tinder and “weeds out” the bad eggs. When a client goes on a coffee or dinner date, Weaver might be at a table nearby, observing, taking notes and planning to give feedback to the client afterward.
Weaver has an innate ability to spot quality, Williams said. “She knows if a guy is running game or if he’s quality, and she can figure out his motives from jump. She’s spectacular at filtering.”
Venus Affect, created by celebrity wedding planner and event designer Diann Valentine in 2014, works exclusively with wealthy women and matches them with men who are well-off. Seventy five percent of Valentine’s clients are black; the rest are Hispanic or Middle Eastern, she said. In 2018, Valentine’s company was the focus of a short-lived Bravo show, “To Rome for Love.”
“As black women, we are told in the U.S. that we are too aggressive and too bossy and too loud and all these negative stereotypes we hear all the time,” she said. “But you put us in Italy and we’re perfect because you know who else is bossy and loud and aggressive? Italian mothers.”
La Dolce Vita? Not for Everyone
But what these companies are selling — amore and la dolce vita — is at odds with the everyday experiences of a number of black people who live or travel frequently in Italy. They point out that this is a country where populist politicians like Matteo Salvini have campaigned on the argument that illegal migration from Africa poses a threat; in 2013, the country’s first black minister had bananas thrown at her. According to data from the International Organization for Migration, between 2014 and the first six months of 2017, Italy had a 600% increase in the number of potential sex-trafficking victims arriving in the country by sea. In 2017, a majority of those victims were black, from Nigeria.
“The whole idea of marketing Italy to black women as a place where they can find love is so problematic for so many reasons,” said Moni Ufomata, who is black and has traveled to Italy and runs the blog Miles and Braids, about her adventures. “I loved Italy because of the food, the monuments, the history. That’s the stuff that should be the goal of your travels.”
Ufomata said the companies also seem to be promoting simplified and perhaps dangerous stereotypes about black women, Italian men and Italian culture.
“I don’t think that we should promote this idea that black women have a hard time finding love in America, so they should go to a place where men love them for their complexion,” she said.
Italy is also not a place where people are willing to have a conversation about race, according to Francesca Moretti, 31, a black Italian contributing writer at AfroItalian Souls, a magazine that focuses on stories about black people in Italy.
“Living here is not like in the movies or the postcards, especially for black people,” Moretti said. “If you have the money, maybe you can live some kind of Italian dream, but it still won’t be the dolce vita.”
A Numbers Game
For decades, the misleading idea that black women in America are the least likely people to find love has been the topic of books, movies, television specials and countless news articles. In 2017, the Pew Research Center found that black men are twice as likely as black women to have a spouse of a different race or ethnicity.
And a widely reported OKCupid study of U.S. users of the dating app found that in 2014, most men on the site rated black women as less attractive than women of other races and ethnicities. The sense of being undervalued or not admired and pursued by men as a black woman in the United States is what Valentine and Weaver are capitalizing on.
“Dating in America as a black woman is like playing musical chairs,” Williams said. “If there’s 10 people and six chairs, somebody’s going to have to sit on the floor. There aren’t enough black men for black women in America.”
In fact, although interracial marriage has increased for all Americans, black men and women still marry each other most often; less than 10% of black men and 5% of black women were married to a spouse of another race in 2010, according to census data.
Another number often cited in the conversation about black women finding love — and also criticized as misinterpreted — is a number that was popularized in a 2009 ABC News/“Nightline” broadcast titled “Single, Black, Female,” which said that 42% of black women in America have never been married, twice the percentage of white women who have never married.
By going through census data and conducting their own research, Ivory Toldson, a professor at Howard University School of Education and a research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, and Bryant Marks, a psychology professor at Morehouse College and faculty associate at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, found that although the “42%” number is accurate, it has been oversimplified and misinterpreted to fit into a negative narrative about black love.
“The often-cited figure of 42% of black women never marrying includes all black women 18 and older,” Toldson said, “but raising the age in an analysis eliminates age groups we don’t really expect to be married and gives a more accurate estimate of true marriage rates.”
Beware of ‘Ciao, Bella’
In many cases, even as black women search for love in Italy, they fear negative interactions with Italian men.
A recent search for “Italy” in a handful of Facebook groups for black female travelers, each with thousands of members, shows that some version of one question is asked every few months: “Is Italy safe for black women?” Most women say it is safe but to be careful of the men. (“Be careful of those ciao bellas, they’re not always as friendly as they seem,” one commenter wrote).
Many share stories of being solicited by men who assumed they were prostitutes because they were black. One woman said this happened while she was on a street corner waiting for friends outside of Rome. Another said it happened in a store in Naples. Another said while studying abroad she was walking to an exam and was approached by a man who simply asked, “How much?”
Black women who move to Italy for love say they have been told that they are being fetishized by Italian men intrigued by black culture and physical features but not interested in understanding more about being black or really connecting with the women as individuals.
Gichele Adams, a black woman who lives in Milan with an Italian partner and runs the short term rental company the Ghost Host Retreats, said that argument is a tool to shame black women from dating outside their race.
“You’re trying to downgrade the value of women of color when you say the only reason Italian men are attracted to them is because they are black,” Adams said. “When you’re attracted to a certain kind of person, you’re attracted to a certain kind of person.”
But Alicia Rozario, a black woman who lives in Seattle and is traveling to Milan for a month in April to decide if she wants to move permanently, said that she thinks some skepticism is valid. “I’m well aware of the fact that Italians are intrigued because we’re black — there’s a little bit of exoticism with that, so you have to filter like when you date anywhere else,” she said.
An Emotional Availability
Among the reasons the women said they found love more easily in Italy is that Italian culture encourages men to be up front about their emotions, something men in the United States and other countries are discouraged from doing, Adams and others said.
Three years ago, after moving to Paris with a partner, Adams found herself unhappy in her relationship, so she decided to go on a solo trip to Italy for a few days. While in Milan, she met Matteo La Cognata, a man who spent two days showing her the city. Before she left Milan for Venice and Rome, he invited her to stay for good. She thought he was “completely crazy” she said, and passed.
When she returned to Paris, she realized that she didn’t want to be there anymore. She ended her relationship and flew to Milan. She met La Cognata’s family and moved in with him. They now have a 2-year-old son and are expecting their second child in the spring. The directness of La Cognata’s approach was at first perplexing but, ultimately, refreshing, Adams said.
“There isn’t a lot of hesitation, whereas in the U.S., people are always trying you out, even if they like you,” she said.
La Cognata said that although he has always been more attracted to non-Italian women, he didn’t “have any particular thought about African American women” until he met Adams.
“I fell in love with her smile and the happiness that I saw in her eyes,” La Cognata said. “She’s a beautiful woman, so I was obviously struck by that as well. Over time I was also attracted to her sense of independence, strength of character.”
He added that they do get comments from Italians who assume Adams is a migrant from Brazil or Africa who somehow does not belong in Italy. The comments, he added, are worse when she is out alone.
“Luckily I tend to not give too much attention to these idiots,” he said.