Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Sure, my name is Camilla Hawthorne, I’m a PhD candidate in Geography at UC Berkeley. I’m also a self identified black Italian, so my mother is from northern Italy, my father is African American and since 2012 I’ve been doing in depth research with emergent black youth political activism in Italy. I’ve been studying emergent movements and cultural projects that are oriented to the expression of afro Italian identity as well as the movement that’s spearheaded by the children of immigrants born and raised in Italy to reform Italian citizenship law.
And you’ve lived both in Italy and the U.S.?
In California – I was born and raised in California but my mom was the only one from her family to emigrate to the US and so since I was a kid I’ve been spending summers and winters in Italy. And when I began doing academic research in Italy I’ve been also going to Italy, like I said, to work with activists both for research purposes but also collaborating with activist organizations. I lived in Italy for all of 2016 so that was the longest chunk of time so, like I said, from one to three months every year for the entirety of my life.
I wanted to establish that because I think it’s going to be important in establishing your familiarity with Italy and your relationship with Italy and also you bring a special perspective to the project.
Yeah, we can talk about this more but it’s really interesting having grown up in the US but having spent significant portions of my life in Italy, sort of comparatively thinking about not just the manifestations of racism in the US versus Italy but also what popular responses are to the existence of racism in both places. It has been particularly interesting to reflect on since the shootings in Macerata.
What was the situation like especially for women and children of immigrants caught in the violence. Tell us some of the more specific cases of how people were affected?
I can’t speak specifically for the case of Macerata except to say that both men and women were targeted by the shooter. Speaking of other instances there is a tendency to focus on the figure of the black African migrant which is a figure that is used in a lot of xenophobic rhetoric in Italy in a way that invisiblizes the particular manifestation of racism that’s targeted towards African women and men. So to go back to the 2016 story of a Emmanuel Chidi Namdi, he was beaten to death by an avowed fascist, but what didn’t get reported as much was that at the time he was actually walking with his wife, and his wife was called an African monkey and she was beaten during the attack as well. And so a lot of this vitriol is also directed to these women as well, for a lot of reasons. One is the history of sexualization of black migrants, even when black women may not be subject to direct physical violence, they’re subjected to sexual harassment, assumptions that they are sex workers or prostitutes. And I think that the fear of black women ties with an over arching fear in Italy, as well, of this sense of Italy being overrun by migrants. Shortly before the shootings in Macerata a politician on January 17th from the Lega Nord party, which was actually the same party that the shooter had run for office to represent, made a comment about Italy being overrun by migrants and that being a risk to the white race, the white race being the Italian race. So I think the figure of black women having “too many children” also relates to the specific vitriol that’s directed against African women and also their children in Italy today.
Has the anti fascist anti racism demonstration left its mark?
I think so. It’s hard to tell at this point, but what I have noticed particularly among the black youth organizations that I’ve been working with since 2012, is that it was a galvanizing moment. It reminds me of again, after the murder of Jerry Maslo in 1990 when there were massive nation-wide anti racism demonstrations across the country after Jerry Maslo was murdered, so I think that for all of the challenges of organizing this demonstration the international attention that it received was very important. The conversations that it has sparked about racism in Italy, particularly because there are elections coming up in early March, and the way that its really started to direct attention to the centrality of racism and racial rhetoric in the campaigning in these March 4th elections. The reality is that the Lega Nord, while it is certainly a far right party, is actually a very mainstream party, so its been very important for people to realize that the kind of xenophobic separatist rhetoric of parties like the Lega nord actually has violent consequences, so it’s lifted the veil in that regard. And it has also galvanized a generation of young black activists in Italy who are realizing that it is possible to get out in the streets and have their voices heard, who are realizing the urgency of the situation because the shooter targeted people based on the color of their skin. He didn’t know if they were asylum seekers, or if they were undocumented migrants or refugees or if they were born and raised in Italy. So it really raises questions not just about xenophobia but also about the precarity of blackness across Italy regardless of immigration status, so in that sense I think it will have long term consequences. I currently work with a small collective of activists and writers in Italy and it has really forced us to think about how we can begin to articulate a black manifesto against racism in Italy that can deal specifically with the particularities of racism in Italy. In that regard it’s really important and I think the consequences will be far reaching.
The Macerata events seem to constitute an intersection of issues of racism, misogyny and nationalism. How did this toxic mix of sectarian style politics develop so quickly against immigrant communities?
I think it’s important to realize again that this did not develop quickly, but rather the seeds for this kind of violent eruption were really planted – we can really argue at the end of the 19th century. Luca Traini, it’s been argued, was perhaps acting to avenge the death of a young woman in Macerata who was supposedly murdered by an African immigrant. And this is a trope that we see, again not just throughout Italian history, but also across the white supremacist world and the black diaspora. We have to think no further, for those in the United States, than the case of Emmett Till where the threat of violent and sexually promiscuous black man is used to legitimate acts of racial violence against people of African descent. During World War Two when US soldiers occupied Italy there were fascist propaganda posters that showed hyper-sexualized, caricatured black American soldiers attacking, trying to steal white Italian women. So again there’s another manifestation of this tendency to link xenophobia and racism to the supposed threat that’s being posed to the bodily integrity and sexuality of white European women. We saw this happen in Koln in Germany, we saw this I think there was Polish magazine in 2015 that showed a woman draped in the European Union flag being attacked, or this idea that she was being threatened by “dark skinned migrants”. There is a link between the protection of white Italian sexuality, the pathologizing of black migrants and those deeper entanglements that have much deeper histories than get articulated with more contemporary concerns like fears of declining Italian birth rates and rising immigrant birth rates or the impact of an influx of migrants and refugees on the Italian economy. Another aspect of this story is that there’s been a great deal of misinformation that’s been spread by politicians and mainstream media alike about the supposed 35 euros per day that’s given to asylum seekers in Italy. In fact there was a funny story last year where a picture of Samuel L Jackson and Magic Johnson shopping in Bologna somehow began circulating on the Italian speaking internet as black migrants who were using their government issued using handouts to go on an extensive shopping spree. The reality is that asylum seekers are given about 2 euros per day of pocket money and in most cities that’s not even enough to get you a round trip metro ticket. But all of that is to say that there are these fears of Italian decline, whether its demographic decline or economic decline that have been articulated with deeper racism that’s embedded within Italian nationalism and when all those forces come together you end up with someone like Luca Traini who, I want to say, is not an isolated mentally unstable person, but is really the product of this coming together of different forces. He is a product of this deep seated racism, these narratives of crisis, the work that these parties like the Lega Nord have been doing for the last several decades to stir up nationalist fears and direct them against migrants and against southern Italians.
For the whole interview or if interested in the project, please contact Wuyi Jacobs at addresses provided below.
Wuyi Jacobs is a seasoned Media professional, audio and video producer and radio host with more than decade experience covering national, state and local politics, public policy, the environment, social movements, activism, Africa and the global African Diaspora as a unit of analysis. Empowering and engaging communities through art, media and creativity. He produces the weekly AfroBeat radio program for NYC station WBAI, as well as topic oriented documentaries running for 8 years.
AfrobeatRadio publishes @ www.AfrobeatRadio.Com.
www.wbai.org (AfrobeatRadio Page – www.wbai.org/program.php?program=9)
AfrobeatRadio airs live every Saturday on WBAI 99.5 FM NYC, Pacifica Radio from 6:00 to 7:00 PM EST.
For information concerning Camilla Hawthorne se article in this issue http://www.thedreamingmachine.com/meticciato-on-the-problematic-nature-of-a-word-camilla-hawthorne-and-pina-piccolo/
Featured image: painting by Giacomo Cuttone.