Italy has its own George and its own Breonna

Italy has its own George and its own Breonna: Racism and antiracist protests in Italy[1]

Elena Dalla Torre

June 8, 2020

 

On June 2, Italy celebrated the foundation of the Republic, which marked with women’s vote, 74 years ago, Italy’s birth to a new era of democracy and reconstruction.  With the birth of the Republic, Italy left behind the destruction of war, and the burdensome legacy of Fascism with its racist and colonialist ideology.  Yet, leaving behind that past should not mean forgetting or ignoring the effects of Fascist ideology on contemporary Italian culture to these days.

The generation of Italians born, like me, in the 1970s, were educated badly, if at all on Italian colonialism, which started well before the two decades dominated by Fascism.  In the province of Northern Italy, Blacks were Sammy Barbot, the co-host of Disco Ring, a TV program broadcasting national and international music, or the sweet Arnold of the American TV series “Different Strokes” or the street vendor selling watches, bracelets and the walkmen in the streets of my Piedmontese hometown.  At first there was curiosity towards cultural and ethnic diversity, writers Igiaba Scego and Leila El Houssi state in a recent interview released on “L’Espresso”.[2] Then, following September 11, everything changed. Curiosity, continue Scego and El Houssi, was soon replaced by suspicion and hostility.  Scego feels that hostility on her skin as a mark: “Mi sento papabile al pestaggio” [I feel suitable for beating], affirms the narrator in Scego’s short story “Salsicce” [Sausages].  She continues: “Ci accusano di avere la coda di paglia, di invocare il razzismo alla minima sciocchezza, ma vuoi sapere una cosa? Il razzismo ahimé non è una burla. Cazzo, vorrei che fosse una megaburla globale, una farsa di internet, ma la realtà è che se sei nero devi convivere con il sospetto”.[3] [They accuse us of having a guilty conscience, of invoking racism for nothing, but you know what? Racism, alas, is not a joke. Damn it! I wish it was a megajoke of global dimensions, an Internet farse, but the reality is that if you are Black you must endure everybody else’s suspicion].

It sufficed the Interned to make us understand that the beating of George Floyd was not a farse, but the umptieth lynching perpetrated by a white police officer on an African American man.  The video of the lynching, gone viral, has unleashed a global protest. These days, thousands of people are gathering in the Italian piazze crying out loud, in an antiracist protest, the last suffocated words uttered by George Floyd, “I can’t breathe”.  This scream of protest condenses the pain and the rage against systemic racism, which, like a virus, destroys the lives of those who, for the system that exploits them, do not matter, or have little matter.  In Italy protests sound like a peaceful revolution, organized by university groups or activist groups engaged on various fronts against racism, sexism, transphobia, job precarity, migrant exploitations such as the Sardine, the Arcigay, Non una di meno, Amnesty, Razzismo Brutta Storia and Abba Vive.

The truth is that protests being organized in Italy are not merely the result of what happens in the US, in Ferguson or Minneapolis.  Italian protests indicate that there exists a growing consciousness that systemic racism is around us, within us.  This racism has its own cultural and historical specificity in the US (genocide of indigenous populations, slavery, Jim Crow, incarceration politics, border politics) and in Italy (colonial politics, border politics and politics of migration and citizenship).   However, as white citizens and white immigrants we benefit from privileges that we do not always question, and so we become complicit with mechanisms of oppression.

Italy too has its own George, its own Breonna and its own Eric.  Think of the Mediterranean and how it has turned into a cemetery full of lifeless bodies with no names. Governments and media who foster fear and hatred of others, have been performing their necro-politics for years.  Think of the aggression to Mohamed Ba, Senegalese actor and educator, stabbed in May 2009 in downtown Milan.  Think of Mor and Cheik, migrated from Senegal, residing in Florence, assassinated on December 2011 while working in the San Lorenzo Market.[4] Think of the homicide of another Senegalese man, Idy Diene on March 2018 in Florence.  Think of the African laborers working in the tomatoes’ fields in Puglia, under the power of illegal recruiters.  Think of prostitution and to the exploitation of Nigerian women who are trafficked in the “tratta delle Nigeriane”.  Think of the times in which in Italy we say that we are not racist, but then we assume that the Black or Asian person sipping coffee next to us, come from a foreign country, while instead they were born in our village.  Ghali sings it in his song “Cara Italia” that has become a hymn to multicultural and multiethnic Italy: “Quando mi dicono, vai a casa, io rispondo, sono già qua”. [When they tell me ‘Go home’, I reply ‘I am already here’].

Ghali is the rap singer of a young generation of Italians, thousands of whom, are not even, before the law, Italian citizens, because their parents were born elsewhere. For those Italians, or “stay-with a permit Italians”, recalls Italian-Ghanaian director Fred Kuwornu, there is not a citizenship law, based on “ius soli” which guarantees continuity and stability.[5]  The fact that the color of your skin can make you a foreigner at home, or thinking that the racial question is non-existent (the presumed “racelessness” or “colorblindness”) has a racist foundation, explain Afro-German scholar Fatima El Tayeb.[6]  It is based on the construction of European nations as white, on the myth of European whiteness.  In Italy this myth is rooted in the Fascist idea that Black Italians did not exist, an idea that became law in 1938 with the Manifesto della Razza, under Benito Mussolini, right when interracial unions were widespread in the so-called “Italian Africa”.

US history between the 18th and the 19th century tells us that immigrants from Southern Italy came to the US as free white people and then ended up being racialized because they did the jobs of Black American slaves in the sugar fields while living in the Afro-American communities in Louisiana.  For a while, Italians were the objects of an American panic which led to the American nation to limit the concept of whiteness and exclude Italians from it. This anti-Italian panic was a racist panic which even resulted in lynching.[7]

These days, we are all wondering how we can ACT to counteract the language of racism. There are people marching and joining protests. There are people volunteering and others making donations or gathering funds. There are people making phone calls and others getting informed and informing others. There are people who read.  As an educator, I believe that our pedagogical and curricular choices are always fundamental to the elaboration of an antiracist and antisexist language and to the decolonization of the curriculum. During my doctoral studies, I had eye-opening encounters with Francophone African and Caribbean cinema, with the poetic and visionary energy of Audre Lorde’s essays, with the reflections on Black ontology by Martinican philosopher Franz Fanon. In my own classes, questions of race and gender are at the center of discussion.  For instance, students find in the provoking livelihood of Igiaba Scego’s prose a way to reflect and compare across cultures questions of race and racism. However, next to decolonizing curricula, it is necessary to keep on diversifying the student body and to increase access to quality education as to facilitate real conversations and debates among students and their lived experiences.  Only in this way, is it possible for students and educators, to turn our bodies, so different in themselves, into a place of ongoing interrogation, as Frantz Fanon suggested in the closing lines of his “Black Skin, White Masks”.

[1] Originally published in Italian on https://www.stlouisitalians.com/news/anche-litalia-ha-i-suoi-george-e-le-sue-breonna-razzismo-e-proteste-antirazziste-in-italia.html

[2] See L’Espresso, May 28, 2020: https://espresso.repubblica.it/attualita/2020/05/28/news/non-vogliamo-essere-altri-nel-nostro-paese-il-futuro-ricominci-anche-da-qui-1.348900

[3] See “Pecore nere” edited by Laterza (2011)

[4] See the documentary by Dagmawi Ymer, “Va’ Pensiero. Storie ambulanti.” (2013)

[5] See the documentary by Fred Kuwornu, “18 ius soli. Il diritto di essere italiani.” (2012)

[6] See Fatima El Tayeb, “European Others: Queering Ethnicity in Postcolonial Europe” (2011)

[7] See Brent Staples on the New York Times, “How Italians Became White”. (2019)

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