Italian State Broadcaster RAI Won't Ban Blackface, but Apologizes for Past Use on Its Shows

Italian state television broadcaster RAI will not ban blackface on its shows, but apologized for its use of the offensive theatrical makeup in the past, the Associated Press reported.

Instead, RAI is simply advising against the use of blackface. It responded to multiple requests last week to stop broadcasting shows in which actors put on blackface to do impressions of singer Beyonce and the Tunisian Italian rapper Ghali in skits.

"We said we were sorry, and we made a formal commitment to inform all of our editors to ask that they don't use blackface anymore," Giovanni Parapini, RAI's director for social causes, told the AP.

Parapini said that their request to editors to stop using blackface was the extent of actions they could take to address the issue because of editorial freedom.

Protests ignited last month under a movement named CambieRAI to speak out against RAI's use of blackface and racist language, urging them to stop.

"Cambie" is an Italian command meaning "you will change," according to the AP.

The CambieRAI movement wants the state broadcaster to establish a diversity and inclusion advisory council.

Parapini refuted the CambieRAI movement's criticisms and said "because that would mean that RAI in all these years did nothing for integration."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

RAI's Tower In Milan
The Italian radio and television public service, RAI's tower is pictured in Eastern Milano on February 3, 2020. RAI will not ban the use of blackface in its shows but has apologized for its past use, the Associated Press reported. Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images

The Netflix series "Zero," which premiered globally last month, is the first Italian TV production to feature a predominantly Black cast, a bright spot in an otherwise bleak Italian television landscape where the persistent use of racist language and imagery is sparking new protests.

With cultural tensions heightened, the protagonists of "Zero" hope the series — which focuses on second-generation Black Italians and is based on a novel by the son of Angolan immigrants — will help accelerate public acceptance that Italy has become a multicultural nation.

"I always say that Italy is a country tied to traditions, more than racist," said Antonio Dikele Distefano, who co-wrote the series and whose six novels, including the one on which "Zero" was based, focus on the lives of the children of immigrants to Italy.

"I am convinced that through these things — writing novels, the possibility of making a series — things can change," he said.

"Zero" is a radical departure because it provides role models for young Black Italians who have not seen themselves reflected in the culture, and because it creates a window to changes in Italian society that swaths of the majority population have not acknowledged.

Activists fighting racism in Italian television underline the fact that it was developed by Netflix, based in the United States and with a commitment to spend $100 million to improve diversity, and not by Italian public or private television.

"As a Black Italian, I never saw myself represented in Italian television. Or rather, I saw examples of how Black women were hyper-sexualized,″ said Sara Lemlem, an activist and journalist who is part of a group of second-generation Italians protesting racist tropes on Italian TV. "There was never a Black woman in a role of an everyday woman: a Black student, a Black nurse, a Black teacher. I never saw myself represented in the country in which I was born and raised."

"Zero," which premiered on April 21, landed immediately among the top 10 shows streaming on Netflix in Italy.

Perhaps even more telling of its impact: The lead actor, Giuseppe Dave Seke, was mobbed not even a week later by Italian schoolchildren clamoring for autographs as he gave an interview in the Milan neighborhood where the series is set. Seke, a 25-year-old who grew up in Padova to parents from Congo, is not a household name in Italy. "Zero" was his first foray into acting.

"If you ask these children who is in front of them, they will never tell you: the first Black Italian actor. They will tell you, 'a superhero,' or they will tell you, 'Dave'," Dikele Distefano said, watching the scene in awe.

In the series, Zero is the nickname of a Black Italian pizza bike delivery man who discovers he has a superpower that allows him to become invisible. He uses it to help his friends in a mixed-race Milan neighborhood.

It's a direct play on the notion of invisibility that was behind the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted in Italian squares last summer following George Floyd's murder in the United States. Black Italians rallied for changes in the country's citizenship law and to be recognized as part of a society where they too often feel marginalized.

"When a young person doesn't feel seen, he feels a bit invisible,″ Seke said. "Hopefully this series can help those people who felt like me or like Antonio. ... There can be many people who have not found someone similar to themselves, and live still with this distress."

The protest movement has shifted from targeting Italian fashion, where racist gaffes have highlighted the lack of Black creative workers, to Italian television.

The CambieRAI movement brings together second-generation Italians from a range of associations.

RAI is funded by mandatory annual fees on anyone owning a TV in Italy.

The associations requesting RAI to stop using blackface said they viewed the commitment as positive, even if it fell short of a sought-for ban, since RAI at least recognized that the use of blackface was a problem.

Parapini noted that the network had never been called out by regulators and listed programming that included minorities, from a Gambia-born sportscaster known as Idris in the 1990s to plans for a televised festival in July featuring second-generation Italians.

Dikele Distefano said for him the goal is not to banish racist language, calling it "a lost battle." He sees his art as an agent for change.

He is working on a film now where he aims to have a 70% second-generation Italian cast and crew. "Zero" has already helped create positions in the industry for a Black hairstylist, a Black screenwriter and a director of Arab and Italian origin, he noted.

"The battle is to live in a place where we all have the same opportunity, where there are more writers who are Black, Asian, South American, where there is the possibility to tell the stories from the point of view of those who live it," he said.

Italian Black TV Series
Author and screenwriter Antonio Dikele Distefano, right, and actor Giuseppe Dave Seke walk in Milan, Italy, Tuesday, April 27, 2021. The Netflix series “Zero,” which premiered globally last month, is the first Italian TV production to feature a predominantly black cast, a bright spot in an otherwise bleak television landscape where the persistent use of racist language and imagery in Italy is sparking new protests. Antonio Calanni/AP Photo