By the end of 2016, we have witnessed a resurgence of both verbal and deadly physical aggressions against Black people, both in Italy and in the United States—from the murder of Nigerian asylum-seeker Emmanuel Chidi Namdi in Fermo, Italy to the shootings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castle, and Korryn Gaines by police in the United States. Against this deadly global backdrop, we believe that it crucially important to develop a complex analysis of anti-Blackness in Italy, both to understand its scope and to develop adequate means for combating it.
On July 5, 2016, 36-year old Nigerian asylum seeker Emmanuel Chidi Nnamdi was beaten to death by Amedeo Mancini, a white Italian well known soccer ultra who was also associated with the local chapter of the neofascist CasaPound political movement. Emmanuel and his wife Chimiary had fled the violence of Boko Haram (they lost their parents and a daughter in a bombing); they undertook a harrowing journey through Libya and across the Mediterranean, finally arriving in Palermo. They had been hosted by the bishop’s seminary of Fermo since last September. On the afternoon of July 5, Emmanuel and Chimiary were walking down a street when two men began to shout insults at them, at one point calling his wife a scimmia africana (“African monkey”). When Emmanuel reacted in an attempt to defend his wife from this abuse, Mancini proceeded to attack him with a street sign ripped out of the ground. He fell into a coma, and died the following day. Chimiary generously offered to donate her husband’s organs for transplant, in a gesture showing a great sense of humanity and ability to go beyond a more than justified resentment for what had befallen her husband
In this article, we would like to signal some dangerous tendencies and confusions that plague mainstream antiracism in Italy while tying them to the their specific historical development in Italy. In the wake of Emmanuel Chidi Nnamdi’s murder, many commentators have been focused on uncovering the underlying feelings and sentiments that motivated the murderer. This approach is compatible with a broader trend in post-World War II European antiracist movements: because “race” does not exist at the biological level, and is, thus, unscientific, it is best to avoid its harmful effects by looking for the cause of violence elsewhere, namely in the realm of sentiments such as fear (e.g., the fear of diversity). Alternative terms like “diversophobia,” the argument goes, allow us to avoid the dangerous category of race (implied by the use of the very word racism), and they are more accurate because scientifically speaking, “race” does not exist. In the quest to do away with the term “race” many in the antiracism movement in Italy have preferred to use terms such as “xenophobia” focusing on fear of “foreigners”, or have sought solace in the concepts of “difference” and “alterity”, disregarding that both posit a normative state of being against which the “other” or the “different” stand out. This has then led to casting “antiracism as a “solidarity movement” a term that provides comfort both to the Catholic currents and the Marxist currents that make up progressive organizations in Italy. However, what are the consequences of this “comfort” on the likelihood of the rise of an antiracist movement that has the targets of racism as protagonists, or the development of discourses that that are sufficiently complex to differentiate between “hate crimes” based on race or nationality?
In “ ‘Razza’ e ‘umano’ non sono termini banali “, the paper we wrote as a response to a piece issuing the call “Do not kill the sense of the human (Non uccidete l’umano)”, which appeared in the online magazine Frontiere News we sought to counter this plea for the use of the word “diversofobia” by focusing on relations of power; the non-static nature of the concept of race; systemic and institutional racisms; the historical narratives that have shaped the category of the “human”; and the way that avoiding the term “race” at all costs only delegitimizes the experiences of people who endure racism. We believe that clarity on these issues is of the utmost importance in a country that still refuses to reckon with (or perhaps, as Italian historian Alessandro Triulzi writes, selectively and nostalgically reconfigures) its own colonial past. As Anna Curcio and Miguel Mellino write in Darkmatter,
This foreclusion of race in the current Italian public sphere – intricately tied up with the historical Italian post-fascist inability to mourn…is nothing but the necessary supplement to the increasing racialization of the Italian formation […] The more evident the racial material constitution of Italian society becomes the more violent will be its discursive foreclosure, both within and outside the institutional domain.
In a country that (unlike many other places) lacks a fully developed movement against racism led by people of color, anti-racist mobilizations remain primarily in the hands of white Italian “allies” and, at least in the past, were subject to the powerful influence of political parties and labor unions. In addition, the last decades have seen a conflation of questions of racism with migration. While a growing number of scholars working in Italy are now engaging with the concept of razza via race-critical and whiteness studies (see, for instance, the InteRGRace research collective and the edited collection Il colore della nazione), this crucial work is only just beginning to be put in conversation with both mainstream antiracism and emerging forms of autonomous Black organizing in Italy.
The fundamental problem is that in attempting to achieve colorblindness, mainstream antiracist activists in Italy neglect the basic existence of white privilege. An example of this can be seen in the case of former Minister of Integration Cecile Kyenge, the Italy’s first Black government minister. In 2013, right-wing Lega Nord minister Roberto Caderoli infamously called Minister Kyenge an “orangutan.” However, Calderoli was semi-absolved in 2015 when a Senate vote (which included left, right, and centrist parties) decided that he could be charged with defamation, but not with racial discrimination.
Returning to Emmanuel Chidi Nnamdi’s story, how can we ignore the fact that the epithet directed against his wife (“African monkey”) stemmed not from a “fear of difference,” but rather from a colonial past that long predates both the mass media and the fears set loose by the economic crisis? The roots of this insult and the horrific physical violence that followed in Italy’s colonial history is clear, and we ignore these connections only at our own peril.
On race and “mental laziness”
In the article issuing the call “to save the sense of the human” the author argues that it is lazy to describe the motivation behind the murder of Emmanuel Chidi Namdi as merely “racism,” suggesting that “xenophobia” or perhaps even “diversophobia” are more appropriate terms. Yet, the problem lies not with the term “racism”; rather, we need to broaden our working definition of racism based on the history of racism’s own nefarious mechanics. The concept of “race” emerged in relation to the consolidation of “Europe” or “the West” at the end of the fifteenth century, a violent world-making project forged through colonialism, imperialism, and enslavement.
While biological understandings of “race” arguably reached their peak during the 20th century fascist regimes (though, as scholars such as Troy Duster have warned, modern genetic technologies are now attempting to re-inscribe biological race via DNA and the genome), race has always been a polyvalent category that could never be reduced to just blood or skin color. “Race” is a tool, one that has been used to essentialize and calcify difference, and thus arrange groups in a hierarchical classification. It is as a power-laden, “floating” signifier that is made meaningful through religion, culture, geography, mobility, bodily practice, and social associations for the purpose of producing what geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore calls “premature death.”
This does not mean that we are using race “lazily” as shorthand for other forms of oppression and violence. One has only to look back to the Enlightenment philosophers that consolidated theories of racial difference in the eighteenth century, from Kant to Voltaire: these thinkers frequently intertwined the cultural and the biological (what Stuart Hall called “racism’s two registers), along with the environmental and the national. Thus, the modern nation-state itself can be understood as a fundamentally racial project, built on the idea of the nation as a “racial family” whose borders protect the national body from pollution.
Even the project of Italian national unification involved serious contestations over the racial character of the nascent Italian nation, and birthed its own homegrown school of Italian racial theorists, including Cesare Lombroso (commonly referred to as the father of modern criminology) and statistician, sociologist, and criminologist Alfredo Niceforo. Indeed, at the end of the nineteenth century, Italy was beginning to define itself in racial terms in relation to both its internal North/South divide (deconstructed so eloquently by Antonio Gramsci) and its growing overseas empire in the horn of Africa.
Yet the scope of Italian colonialism has been denied, both in terms of the colonial past and in terms of its continued influence on the postcolonial present. While other countries take down statues of Rhodes or remove busts of enslavers, in Affile, Italy, the authorities have allowed the construction of a mausoleum dedicated to General Rodolfo Graziani, known as “the butcher of Fezzan”, who in a thirty year span of colonial wars in Libya and the Horn of Africa engaged in the heinous crimes of using mustard gas on the Ethiopian population and bombing Red Cross hospitals and was, thus, listed by the United Nations as a criminal of war. In recent years, it has been dispiriting to note that during presentations of novels written by the grandchildren of the diasporas due to the Italian colonial wars, such as “Timira” (by Antar Marincola and Wuming2) or “Il comandante del fiume (by Ubah Cristina Ali Farah) or “Adua (by Igiaba Scego) even Italian university students, know nothing or very little about the chapter on “Italian colonialism” is either completely ignored or very poorly taught. This does not bode well, even if these same people have well-intentioned, even antiracist aspirations.
“Racial evaporations” and the post-World War II antiracist lexicon
After World War II, “race” was disavowed in mainstream European anti-racism. Thanks in large part to the influence of liberal American anthropologists such as Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, and Ashley Montagu, race—with its unsavory ties to fascist eugenics and racial laws—was seen as inextricably, historically associated with hierarchies of superiority and inferiority. Manifestos such as the postwar UNESCO Statement on Race (or its Italian counterpart, the 2008 Manifesto degli scienziati antirazzisti) thus suggested that “race” had too many negative connotations, and that the term should be avoided in favor of more neutral categories such as “ethnicity” or “culture.” This “racial evaporation,” as David Theo Goldberg describes it (and as elaborated further in the Italian case by Gaia Giuliani and Cristina Lombardi-Diop), however, functions by conveniently relegating the idea of “race” to the past in an attempt to metaphorically seal the books on fascism and colonialism.
But of course, the past is never dead. “Antiracism without race,” scholars such as Dace Dzenovska and Alana Lentin have argued, makes the goal of antiracism projects the elimination of the term “race,” rather than the destruction the historically-sedimented structure of power underlying the creation of racial categories through which groups are differentially subjected. The article we quoted in the beginning of this paper , which appeared in Italian web magazine Frontiere News is an example of the former approach: “Using the term ‘racism,’ even to condemn it,” the author argues, “means continuing to propagate an erroneous concept founded on the existence of different human ‘races.’”
As feminist anthropologist Kamala Viswewaran writes, this sort of liberal antiracism is sorely limited because it neglects the crucial fact that racism is what produces the social reality of race. “Race” does not exist without racism; our goal as antiracists should therefore be to oppose the structures that uphold racism and in turn legitimate “race” as a measure of expendability. Emmanuel Chidi Namdi was murdered by a racist system that legitimates the vile actions of individual fascists. He was a casualty not of an individual pathology, of one person’s aberrant diversophobia, or of the word “race,” but rather of a racist global system that relies on the social construction of race to render Black lives killable.
Banishing the word “race” does not make racism go away. It only weakens antiracist activism by denying the legitimacy of Black people’s lived experiences of racism. And turning to alternative categories such as “ethnicity” or “culture” only causes those terms to harden as they come to effectively fill the echoing void leftover by “race.” This specific problem can be found in the terms used within self-proclaimed antiracist spaces in Italy, as they seek to simultaneously avoid the concept of “race” and also build solidarity among people of different racial backgrounds. A common refrain among Italian progressive working on “intercultural” projects is that because of the failures of the “multicultural model” of the US, the “integrationist model” of France, and the “communities” model” of the UK Italy must strike on its own to elaborate an effective answer that takes into account the shortcomings of those experiences. It is indeed quite common to hear activists talk about “interculturality” (intercultura) or “hybridity” (meticciato) and sing the praises of their effectiveness (sometimes Brazil is pointed to as a successful example of “meticciato” and only in recent years has there been a more in depth discussion of the real conditions of blacks and indigenous people in that country). However, because methodological contestations of these categories would require detailed discussions of the historical processes that have led to the realities of those countries rather than to “models”, we think they merit their own, separate critique, that we reserve to address in a separate paper.
Are we really all in the same boat?
The Jamaican philosopher Sylvia Wynter has challenged the claim of universalism rooted in Western Enlightenment philosophy, arguing that the category of the “human” has never actually been universal. This is the fundamental problem with the appeals to “humanity” that have accompanied the current refugee rights movement in Europe. The “human” has been used as a dividing line or hierarchy to determine who is a rights-bearing, free, and agentic subject and who is not. It is a product of what the great postcolonial intellectual and poet of Negritude Aimé Césaire decried as Europe’s “pseudo-humanism,” whose “concept of those rights has been – and still is – narrow and fragmentary, incomplete and biased and, all things considered, sordidly racist.”
For that reason, one simply cannot start from the perspective that “we are all human” if some groups have never been recognized as fully human in the first place. This is why Amedeo Mancini felt justified in calling Emmanuel Chidi Namdi’s wife Chimiary an “African monkey” before he beat Emmanuel to death on the street in Fermo. At a recent anti-racism assembly in Rome convened after the murder, I witnessed a man carrying a handwritten placard that read, “We are all evolved monkeys” (essentially, the Italian equivalent of saying #AllLivesMatter). But this sort of thinking denies the deeply entrenched existence of race-based privilege. Tragically, we are not all in the same boat—some of our boats are leaking, while others of us are cruising leisurely on mega yachts.
An earlier version of this essay titled” ‘Razza’ e ‘umano’ non sono termini banali” was published in Italian for the web magazine Frontiere News on July 26, 2016. The authors would like to thank Gabriele Proglio, Tatiana Petrovich Njegosh, and many others for their insightful comments on that earlier piece. A shorter version of this paper title “Anti-racism without race” appeared on September 15, 2016 in the online journal Africa is a country
See author website here.
See author’s blog, here.
Cover image: Collage by Basseck Mankabu.