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Italy: ignorance, race and racism.

July 19 2013





In a complacent Italy, race and racial abuse do not receive much discussion in the public sphere. Yet recent incidents involving Cécile Kyenge demand an urgent scouring of historical and cultural legacies today.

Cécile Kyenge. Michele Lapini/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Speaking at a political rally on 14 July, Italian MP Roberto Calderoli referred to Cécile Kyenge, the Minister of Integration, by saying: “When I see her, I can’t help thinking of an orangutan”. This sort of racially connoted abuse by political representatives against Ms Kyenge has become a recurrent issue. This can be viewed in relation to the rapidly increasing instances of racial abuse made by Italian football fans against black players such as Mario Balotelli and Kevin-Prince Boateng. While the expression ‘racism’ is widely accepted and used in the case of football fans, it is much less popular among political authorities responding to the slurs against Ms Kyenge. Moreover, expressions such as ‘race’ (razza) or ‘racial abuse’ (abuso razziale) do not receive much discussion in the public sphere. The existence of these abuses and the relative lack of a clear and shared language to name them are issues that deserve close scrutiny. I will discuss two aspects of these issues that, perhaps more than others, should be given careful consideration.

The first aspect is the widespread assumption in contemporary Italy that racism is the mere result of ignorance. Most critical comments by bloggers and journalists about racial abuses these days follow this explanation. It is popular because it stands on an apparently crystal-clear syllogism: ‘Knowledge is historically cumulative and nowadays it achieved its highest level. This is one of the reasons why we have built democracy and peace in Europe and Italy over the last fifty-eight years. Since racism reached its peak in the Second World War,  if you still say or do something racist, you have somehow failed to ‘catch up’ with the last sixty years of progress; therefore, you are backward and ignorant’. Since it cannot be truly demonstrated, this syllogism presents itself as self-evident. This prevents any form of open discussion, let alone criticism, of racially-motivated actions. It speaks to emotions rather than to intelligence; echoing the early 19th century renowned poet Giacomo Leopardi, it ultimately stands on the Enlightenment assumption that historical progress must bring humanity from nature to reason.

The second aspect is the absence of the word ‘race’ (razza in Italian) from public discourse. Although Article 3 of the Italian constitution states “All citizens have equal social dignity and are equal before the law, without distinction of sex, race [razza], language, religion, political opinions, personal and social conditions”, it remains a taboo word. Cesare Lombroso’s racial theories, the colonial racial oppression in Northern and East Africa, Albania, and the Balkans, the Race Manifesto, and the Racial Laws have given ‘race’ an unpalatable taste for Italians. During my 2008 ethnographic study of the social imaginaries surrounding Romani citizens in a Southern Italian town, only one person used the word razza to describe Roma, and he meant to use it “scientifically”; he was a local politician belonging to Alleanza Nazionale, the direct successor of the Fascist party. Kept mummified within a political culture that in the 20th century used it as an instrument of eugenics and extermination, ‘race’ has uncritically been dismissed. Only few scholars, although recently and often writing only in English, have carried out a comprehensive examination of race as a fictional notion on the basis of which social injustice gets perpetuated. In the media too, ‘race’ can be found virtually nowhere. This has arguably let neo-fascist idioms and cultures keep their monopoly over the concept, allowing that Alleanza Nazionale politician to believe ‘race’ could be used as a scientific term.

These two aspects are intrinsically linked. The lack of a comprehensive academic and public work on the memory of Italian colonialism and fascism encourages the idea that what happened after 1945 has redeemed the nation from its ‘backwardness’. For example, the public television (RAI) 2004 ban on the BBC documentary Fascist Legacy (1989), which focuses on Italian war crimes in Ethiopia, Yugoslavia, and Greece, is one of the signs that the memory of colonialism is actively being suppressed; the recent rhetoric speaking of the 1948 democratic constitution as “the most beautiful constitution in the world” reinvigorated that sense of post-Fascist redemption, hence contributing to keep the memory of what happened before at a safe distance.

While we keep ignoring our past, telling ourselves ‘We ended it long ago’, racism will remain as a residual phenomenon, not only present in those termed ‘backward’ or ‘ignorant’. Instead of suppressing discussion, we need to scrutinize our historical and cultural legacies publicly. We need to understand both the fictional character of concepts such as race and their continued real influence in keeping different forms of structural domination unchallenged. Racism is not just for the backward.

Originally published by Open Democracy 

Photo by Cécile Kyenge. Michele Lapini/Demotix.

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