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Travel Advisory

Di Dove Sei Originaria?

As a Black woman navigating a very…homogenized industry, I must be aware that there are many places where my Blackness isn’t appreciated. I’m intentional in my travels, research potential accommodations, and take care of which neighborhoods I visit. I don’t like surprises, and since I often travel alone or am the only Black person in a work group, I have to be aware of my surroundings. 

In October 2019 I was sent on a work trip to the World Cheese Awards in Bergamo, Italy. Thrilled didn’t begin to describe it—My first job out of culinary school was for a James Beard–nominated chef at an Italian restaurant. I moved to Chicago to work at Spiagga, a Michelin-starred Italian restaurant—I was finally going to Italy; It was porcini mushroom season and winter white truffle season, and I was going to the WORLD CHEESE AWARDS! I was going to be surrounded by cheese lovers and get to try cheeses I’d never even heard of. I was going to “Live, Laugh, Love” the heck out of this trip.

My employer put me up in a nice hotel in Milan. I often traveled with a fluent Italian speaker. I booked first class seats on the trains, and I was determined to not fall into the “ugly American” stereotype. None of that mattered, though. Everywhere I went I was asked the same question.

“Where are you from?”

This was an accusation, not curiosity. It took me longer than I want to admit to recognize the hostility. As a person who tries to create safe spaces for herself and for others, I wasn’t prepared for the racism and exclusion faced by African immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. This is not the brand of hate I usually receive. In the US, while I might not be the expected face in the cheese industry, my citizenship is never called into question. In fact, I doubt most people think about it at all when looking at me. I think it is generally assumed that as a Black woman I am a descendent of enslaved people and so I “belong” to the United States. No one asks me, “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” as they do to other People of Color. 

In Italy I was asked this question everywhere I went. Cabbies asked, the person at the cafe asked; I was asked while getting gelato, while buying a train ticket. It was constant. Body language shifted dramatically when I told them I was an American. I could see the tension drop from their shoulders as they let out the breath they were holding. I had more than one person tell me how happy they were that I wasn’t one of “those Africans.” 

But I am one of “those Africans.” I am also one of those Bajans. I’m one of those Queens girls who gets the beef patty and skips the coco bread. I am made of oxtail and butter beans from the Caribbean, southern cornbread, and black-eyed peas. I am part government cheese on no-name white bread, and I’m $50-a-pound Rogue River Blue. I’m perfectly al dente risotto Milanese, and I am a whole bowl of melt-in-your-mouth ricotta gnocchi. I am all these things and more, but I am none of these things without being at my core one of “those Africans”.

I’m going to go back to Italy one day. There’s so much I haven’t seen, so many foods I have yet to try. I’m just going to be better prepared. If someone asks me where I’m from I’ll tell them that I’m African, by way of Barbados, Panama, and Queens.

Agela Abdullah

Agela Abdullah is a “reformed” cook and chef who took her first job behind the cheese counter in 2008. She currently handles marketing for an Illinois cheesemaker and serves as a board member for the Cheese Culture Coalition. She lives in Chicago with two cats, two sourdough starters, and an old laptop named Harbison.

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