On the Problematic Nature of a Word

by Camilla Hawthorne and Pina Piccolo

I am happy to act as a host for this joint article by Camilla Hawthorne and Pina Piccolo on the politics of ‘mesticcatio’, or cultural hybridity, in Italy. Since their essay Anti-racism without race in the journal Africa is a Country, a number of developments spurred them to deepen this initial discussion, which was prompted by the racially motivated killing of Nigerian refugee seeker on Emmanuel Chidi Nnamdi in Fermo, Italy, in July 2016.

In their current contribution, which appeared originally in Italian on the la macchina sognante blog, they expand on some of the issues currently facing the anti-racism movement in Italy. Their joint joint contribution seeks to draw both from their professional research and personal experiences in the anti-racism and immigrant movements in Italy and the US.

An increasing number of racist episodes in Italy lately are indicative of the exacerbation of anti immigrant and racist sentiments and policies in the country. Although manifesting at increasingly alarming rates over the past 10-15 years, these racist policies, sentiments, and practices (including camps & detention centers, surveillance, border militarization, pushbacks etc.) are linked both to the history of Italy and to current developments. The latter include the deepening refugee crisis in the Mediterranean and throughout European borders, as well as the European failure to address it with different visa policies; the failure of the Italian legislature to once again deal with citizenship issues, including the need to move to citizenship granted ex ius sanguinis to ius soli, the rise of the international right, as shown by the US election, Brexit, the predicted success of Marine LePen in the upcoming French election. These different developments call for more effective ways to face the racist onslaught both by the people who are most directly targeted and by Italians who choose to combat racism and xenophobia, whether they have full citizenship rights or are children of immigrants (with second class status), whose parents are of non European descent.

One example of such episodes has been the barricading of local residents in Goro, a small village in the Po Delta, against a small contingent of African asylum seekers scheduled by the government to be housed temporarily there. One of the issues that Goro has brought to the fore is the ongoing perception, by large sections of the Italian population, of being “invaded” (or besieged, as journalist Massimo Franco puts it in his latest book L’assedio (“The siege”, Mondadori 2016); of having to take measures as to “protect” its demographic composition (something that was also underlying the recent grotesque campaign by Italian Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin encouraging the birth of “white” babies, see Addes Tesfamarian acute analysis here) from the peril of losing a supposed (recently-‘achieved’ but still precarious) “whiteness”, is preyed upon by right wing Lega Nord proponents such as Salvini who are fond of spreading conspiracy theories such as the Kalergi plan, a plan supposedly hatched to replace the European population with a “lesser” species of “crossbreeds”.

Comparatively, in the US, a full blown illusion of living in a post racial society has been peddled over the past years, due to changing demographics, and reinforced by having a black president. But the reality of racial disparities at the economic, social, political, and occupational levels, not to mention the racist violence to which people of color are constantly subjected (increasingly so since the last election), is so stark as to defy even the most optimistic post-racial illusions. Here in Italy, given that migration is a more recent phenomenon, the issue of being in a post racial society is not considered a fait accompli but rather becomes in some cases a sort of longing, wishful thinking on the part of progressives that is best represented in the claim of meticciato, depicted at times as already here and at times as something to work towards.

But because words are not inconsequential, and as we know “words create worlds”, it behooves us to take a deeper look at the word “meticcio” and “meticciato,” both terms fraught with a number of ambiguities because of their historical derivation, which places them squarely in a colonial frame. In addition, there are specific Italian issues arising from its geographic placement, which have made its claim of whiteness suspect to the “purer” European nations. Hence, the Italian racial identity fluctuates between the need to prove itself “whiter” than the whites, or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, it claims being “Mediterranean” and hence more mixed, with a colonialism that was less harsh and a greater propensity for mixing.

Here in Italy, given that migration is a more recent phenomenon, the issue of being in a post racial society is not considered a fait accompli but rather becomes in some cases a sort of longing, wishful thinking on the part of progressives that is best represented in the claim of meticciato, depicted at times as already here and at times as something to work towards.

Meticciatio and Italian (post)coloniality

In Italy, the history of those dangerous encounters (see Tatiana Petrovich Njegosh’s essay “Il meticciato nell’Italia contemporanea. Storia, memorie e cultura di massa) between Italian men and Eritrean women under Italian colonialism —a phenomenon known as madamato or madamismo— was once touted by colonial apologists as evidence of a lack of widespread racial prejudice in Italy, or of a more fluid folk understanding of difference (see the work of Giulia Barrera for a critique of this view, and Vincenza Perilli for an overview of the racial politics of madamato). The more complex reality, however, is that throughout Italian history, “mixedness” has been seen as either a problem, or alternatively, as the solution to a problem of state making and empire building. This goes all the way back to the project of national unification and the attempts to define the racial character of the nascent Italian nation: from Lombroso’s theory of the two Italies (the Aryan north and Mediterranean or Semitic south) and his support of certain forms of “mixing” as a means toward racial uplift, to Sergi’s theory of an autochthonous Mediterranean race with origins in Africa (see scholars such as Gaia Giuliani, Fabrizio De Donno, and Vito Teti for excellent overviews of these turn-of-the-century Italian racial theories). These ambiguities (which are also explored in Jacqueline Andall and Derek Duncan’s collection National Belongings: Hybridity in Italian Colonial and Postcolonial Cultures) were reflected in the various Italian colonial policies enacted in the early twentieth century to ascertain whether the mixed-race children of Italians and Eritreans could be classified as “citizens” or “subjects.” Ultimately, Fabrizio De Donno argues, the institutionalization of Aryanism by the fascist regime –reflected in the infamous fascist racial laws of the late-1930s– ultimately sought to eliminate the “problem” of meticciato by banning interracial unions entirely.

caption from Asmarina – a documentary about postcolonial Milan

It is for precisely this reason that Italianist scholar Rhiannon Welch has critiqued the rush to label new literature produced by postcolonial migrants in Italy as “hybrid”, because this term actually works to obscure the relations of power that this literature actually challenges –especially when these texts are reframed and marketed as “colorful” works for predominantly white audiences to consume. Drawing on Robert Young, she writes in Intimate Truth and (Post)colonial Knowledge (an essay which appears in the aforementioned Andall and Duncan volume) that “today’s cultural model of multicultural conviviality requires a reification of difference in order to arrive at a presumably more agreeable, because politically reconfigured, homogenization.”

Indeed, one could say that the postcolonial migrations of the last four decades into Italy have catalyzed a profound ‘identity crisis’ in the sense that they has forced Italy to grapple with its colonial legacy. This is ‘the empire striking back,’ as scholars at the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies once wrote. One response has been to say that there was something different and more benign about Italian colonialism. Alessandro Triulzi, writing about reworking and revisioning of Italian colonial memory, describes this as an ever-shifting process of “displacing the colonial event and diluting it into a hybrid haze of nostalgia for the colonial period”.

When Hybridity Becomes Post-racial Colorblindness

Our particular critique of neoliberal, colonial nostalgia, or race-blind inflections of meticciato is rooted in generations of thought by feminist, queer of color, and anticolonial theorists. Indeed, it is not uncommon for analyses of hybridity or meticciato begin with Gloria Anzaldua’s path-breaking and genre-defying text Borderlands/La Frontera. Distressingly, however, an alarming number of scholars and commentators tend to forget that Anzaldua sees the figure of the mestiza as occupying a privileged position to view the world from a perspective that inhabits, rather than resolves, contradiction and ambiguity. Postcolonial feminist scholar Paola Bacchetta has noted that Anzaldua preferred that her work not be “quoted out of context.” Despite Bacchetta’s warnings, what is neglected when Anzaldua’s words are appropriated to support arguments about “transcending difference” is that she was never working with an abstract, metaphorical mestiza. She wrote from her own embodied experiences as a lesbian feminist of color who resisted the violence of borders through a radical politics of self-naming.

And, as Sabine Broeck points out, there is still a great deal of conceptual ambiguity about what we mean when we talk about hybridity or meticciato: “The question whether hybridity is chosen or imposed, accepted or rejected is decisive but often remains hidden under a certain aestheticization of the phenomenon”. This ambiguity has dangerous consequences, because the aestheticization of hybridity does not take into account power relations. It ignores the horrific conditions under which many instances of hybridity are made possible, from the sexual violation of enslaved women to the brutality of colonial practices of economic extraction—the grotesque intimacies of imperial domination that are glossed as instances of colorful and even transgressive “contamination”.

But critiquing race-blind and power-neutral invocations of meticciato on the left does not mean erasing the complexities of individual and collective identities. Just to provide an example, Critical Mixed Race studies (admittedly a variegated emerging field with many different methodological and conceptual approaches, many of which do tend to problematically exalt the figure of the “post-racial” mixed subject) suggests that it is possible to both recognize the porosity and malleability of racial categories, while still engaging with the continuation of social stratification based on race. The edited collection Global Mixed Race, for instance, gives many complicated instances of meticciato, including colonial systems of domination in Brazil (a country that is frequently touted as a “hybridity success story”) in which “mixed-race” peoples were exploited as a “buffer population” to maintain the racial order that separated white elites from enslaved black masses.

The question whether hybridity is chosen or imposed, accepted or rejected is decisive but often remains hidden under a certain aestheticization of the phenomenon.

Italy and the Problem of Abstract Models

Of course, in different countries the issues of race and the struggles against racism manifest with specific modes that are dictated by their own specific historical development. The outcomes are generally a result of many different factors, including political, social and economic power balances, overall international circumstances, the intellectual currents and discourse prevailing in the countries of immigration/emigration, etc. Based on the fact that fairly large scale immigration into the country is a relatively new phenomenon compared to the Americas or some other European countries, it shouldn’t be surprising that people in Italy would be looking at the experiences of other countries to foresee what the advantages and problems might be, but at times the reliance on models seems excessive, almost like demanding a recipe before actually engaging in the work. Other factors that may come into play may not even be included in any previous model and are related to the migrations happening under the aegis of neo-liberal globalization at a time of economic crisis and the ensuing militarization, contradictions between resistance to globalization through appeals to nationalism, not to mention the beginnings of mass migrations due climate change.

But going back to the issue of models, almost all literature dealing with migration mentions them. One of the more accessible analysis is the clear outline found in the book L’Islam spiegato ai leghisti, by sociologist Khaled Fouad Allam: the melting pot model of the US (which is more of a antasy than a reality, as attested by power differentials between the different groups, institutionalized racism and the brutality exercised against ‘minorities’, etc); the communities model enacted in great Britain where different communities – mainly constituted of a great influx of people from the former colonies- live side by side in their own communities, in a parallel way, with rights and obligation without much interexchange (here again, in actuality this ‘model’ faces similar problems as the ones outlined for the US); and then the supposedly universalist model set up in France where the immigrant population- again mostly from former colonies- is accepted as long as it gives up its original identity and abides by a sort of colorblind Frenchitude that claims to have reached the pinnacles of human civilization as defined by the principles of its ‘revolutions’, secularism, etc (and again this ‘ideal type’ is belied by issue of banlieu, discrimination, etc.). Next to these kinds of “institutional social models” are the more articulated ones adopted by people engaging in integration on the ground. A good summary as pertains to the Italian experience is provided in Cestim’s educational handbook.

One of the factors accounting for the emphasis on models in Italy and the propensity to shift among them may be a sort of inversion between “model” and “practice”, a tendency that may originate in the fact that the debate in Italy is set up by “experts” who are white Italians rather than stemming from experienced life and actual struggle (as was the case instead in the U.S. civil rights and Black Power movements and their later formations and struggles). So there is an inversion in which the “model” is primary rather than the outcome of actual material conditions and struggles that have led to certain results, the collective evaluation of them, the drawing of lessons, etc., regardless of the rhetoric of those in power. Suffice it to remember that the US rhetoric of the “melting pot” or the French rhetoric of equality—both of which conveniently ignore legacies of colonialism and slavery—were actually resisted by people struggling against racism, leading to the coinage of new terminologies forged in the struggle (such as “intersectionality” by black feminists).

Meticciato: From Valorizing Diversity to “Managing” Diversity

At a practical level, over the past ten-fifteen years, the terms “meticcio” and “meticciato” have been adopted in the day-to-day discourse of the anti-racist movements and at the institutional level (notably through the influence of former Integration Minister Cecile Kyenge, who popularized also the French versions mixité and and ‘metissage,’ as well as various and sundry politicians and administrators from the “left”). This has been seen as a sort of ‘evolutionary step’ from the unsatisfactory ‘multicultura’, to ‘pluralismo culturale’, to ‘intercultura’ causing a shift in the nomenclature of initiatives on the ground to oppose xenophobia and racism, as well as new designations for cultural products.

A parallel phenomenon has been occurring on the literary front as well; drawing more specifically from rival schools of thought in literary and post colonial theories, one can witness, for example, the move from the unsatisfactory term “letteratura migrante”, to “letteratura della migrazione”, to “letteratura interculturale”, to “letteratura mondo,” to finally settle, for the moment, on the prevailing trend of “letteratura meticcia”, which in turn breaks down into “romanzo meticcio”, scrittura meticcia, etc.

Following this shift at the semantic level, even protests confronting xenophobic and racist politicians like Matteo Salvini of the Lega Nord and his followers giving the Roman salute in Piazza Maggiore in Bologna in 2015 had as one of their main slogans “Bologna città meticcia”.This harkens back to the fourth area of meaning of the word ‘meticcio’ according to Tullio De Mauro’s Il Grande Dizionario dell’Uso tying the term to a territory where people of different provenance live together or where people that are the result of crossings of different populations live together. Both Battaglia’s Il Grande Dizionario della Lingua Italiana and the aforementioned usage dictionary agree in assigning the first semantic place to animal husbandry. There the meaning related to crossing different breeds of animal to produce a ‘meticcio’, and in an analogous manner, the human offspring from the crossing of different races, emphasizing the colonial origins of the term. The term ‘meticcio’ the dictionary explains, derives in fact from the Spanish ‘mestizo’, tracing it to the Americas, especially Latin America where the Conquistadores elaborated el sistema de castas in a systematic attempt to classify the population in a hierarchical way placing the Europeans at the summit of course, then the descendants of Europeans born in the colonies, then the offspring of the crossing of Europeans with indigenous women, with the African slaves, and assigned names to the various generations. In what can be seen as a fit of hyper-didacticism, colonial courts hired painters to paint portraits of what the different degrees of purity and the different outcomes of interbreeding looked like.

But within this currently prevailing trend of popularity of the term ‘meticciato’, some have raise objections, such as the site Sconnessioni precarie, which takes a closer look at the deployment of “meticciato” and issues some useful warnings. Some of the unease among progressives in Italy vis a vis the issue of diversity (another term forged in the anti-racist struggles in the US, superseding ‘tolerance’) may come from Italians being heirs to two strong cultural and ideological traditions, those of Catholicism and Marxism. The first relies on a “mediated” way of relating to the world through an authority (priests, saints), and sees the “Other”, the stranger, the guest through the lens of Caritas, people in need, which is hardly a good starting point for a relation of reciprocity or equality. In an ironic twist, it is to Caritas reports on migration that Marxist based organization have to turn when they cite figures about migration, as that organization is the one that collects them in a more thorough way throughout the country, often by means of capillary networks actually interacting with immigrants in need.

Thus, for Catholics, in a way, the arrival of the ‘migrants’ and the need to take care of them falls within the century long history of struggles between the Church and the State to take care and control needy populations, whether they be the sick, the poor, the criminal, the insane, the maimed, women who don’t fall within the ranks, etc. As a matter of fact, the ‘accoglienza’ of the Church preceded the efforts by the State to devise laws and structures to deal with and manage incoming migrants. Within this frame, the international contexts that have generated the need for people to leave their homes and the issues of justice associated with them become removed.

If one were to examine the laws and structures put in place by the Italian State to deal with immigrants and refugees over the past 30 years, one would be hard put to find substantial differences between the policies of center-right and center-left governments that have alternated in that time period. The Marxist approach as re-elaborated in Italy in the 20th and 21st centuries, especially at level of historical praxis by the PCI and successors, tends to focus not on need but rather on the issue of rights (and the ‘duties’ that stem from those rights), and increasingly on security. In relation to the issue of rights, there is a tendency to emphasize how the presence of an underclass of migrants may undermine the rights and victories of the “traditional working-class”, meaning autochthonous white workers, the previous advances made by the trade unions, especially in the context of the economic crisis. .

In addition, one must consider the unease traditionally felt in Marxist quarters over what used to be called “the National Question”, something that doesn’t seem to have been dealt with in exemplary ways if one considers the historical realities of “minorities” in the former Soviet Union and China, the struggles of Afro-Cubans, etc. Conversely, an assessment of the state of the anti-racism movement in Italy today, also calls for a consideration of the lingering effects of ‘Terzomondismo’ a current that was widespread in Italian Marxism.

Some of the unease with dealing with issues of racism and discrimination could be seen in its reluctance to address racism and discrimination, practiced by workers as well, during the big migrations of Southerners to the North in search of job opportunities (all done most likely to avoid creating disunity within the working class). Earlier it could be traced to the colonization of the South as part of the unification process, something that Antonio Gramsci addressed extensively in his writings, an ideological prejudice that has saturated the views of Northerners vis-à-vis Southerners for more than 150 years now. Failure to address this issue reared its ugly head decades later in the PDS’ failure to set a clear demarcation line with the Lega Nord over racism; D’Alema’s actual claim that the Lega was a rib of the working class and dubious practices within the former PCI and successors to avoid sharp lines of demarcation and seek alliances with the Lega whenever politically expedient. Not to mention the frequently used argument that it is economically convenient to keep the immigrants because they are paying contributions into the social security and pension fun, thus securing the pensions of workers now.

In addition to the difficulty of accepting the fight against racism and for diversity as having merits in their own, as containing elements that are outside the discourse of “rights and duties” and more in the field of freedom, and hence their need not to be subsumed by the class struggle, many Italian Marxists are a little more than suspicious of the traditions that may be brought in by migrant groups, especially in terms of undermining “laicità”, i.e., secularism (perhaps in connection to the fact that the Church wields such power in the country that hosts the Vatican).

An assessment of the state of the anti-racism movement in Italy today, also calls for a consideration of the lingering effects of ‘Terzomondismo’ a current that was widespread in Italian Marxism.

Leaving for a moment behind the ambivalences of the Italian left vis-à-vis migration and racism, let’s consider for a second how the significant struggles of immigrant workers in the agricultural fields, their rebellions and uprisings as well as unionization efforts from Rosarno to the tomato fields of Puglia and Campania, the rise of more autonomous workers’movements, have attracted the interest and solidarity of many young people working in the solidarity and anti-racism movements, rather than the institutional left. Scholars who are beginning to engage in this kind of analysis in Italy and are devising new metaphors like “The Black Mediterranean” to describe these immigration phenomena outside the scope of “emergenza” include Heather Merrill, Gabriele ProglioFederico Oliveri, Alessandra Di Maio and Timothy Raeymaekers, who rely on traditions of Black Marxism and other more interdisciplinary and intersectional approaches that. have long seen struggles against capitalism, sexism, and racism as fundamentally interconnected.

Some of the work of examining the weaknesses of the Left’s discourse and practices on the issues of racism, especially in the media and at the institutional level, has been initiated by Italian scholars and journalist who are part of the Marxist tradition, notably with their studies of ‘razzismo democratico’ (Salvatore Palidda, Anna Maria Rivera, Giuseppe Faso, Giulio di Luzio). What clearly emerges is the need to engage in much deeper analysis of this issue and perhaps transcend some blind spots that are created by ideologies. This is particularly important task in a country where the State and the Church continue to dominate power discourses into the 21st century. Because of the complexity of these issues, these cannot be but initial and incomplete observations: many of these factors clearly deserve an in depth analysis, especially now that we are acquiring more of a temporal distance from 20th century practices and paradigms and may be able to evaluate better their effects..

Resistance and the Radical Imagination

An important byproduct of analyzing real relations between people, their actual power differential, as opposed to ideas based on wishful thinking is that it may clear the ground for debate about what does it mean for people to hold privilege over another group of people. This may open the space for some experiments and brainstorming about how to act as allies, accomplices or co-conspirators, a whole array of figures that cannot emerge from the present configuration of discourse and practices, but alas a very necessary leap that must be made if any progress is to be attained.

Along with the need for further analysis of this greatly diversified situation, the other dire necessity concerns the development of practices of resistance, especially from those who are directly affected. Within this, there is great potential for the role that artistic production could play not only as a form of resistance but as a source for projecting what a different way of relating among people may be, unleashing the potential of diversity into practices of liberation and freedom.

We want in fact to hold on to the possibility of imagining a different kind of world. But this world cannot be merely willed into existence by utopic, post-racial fantasies without direct struggles on the ground that are led by those whose lives are most directly marred by various forms of racial violence. A different world is not merely an inevitability because of the macro forces of demographic change and immigration—it must be actively fought for. One place where we have seen this recently is in the work of the Milan-based youth organization Il Comitato per non dimenticare Abba e per fermare il razzismo, formed after the murder of nineteen-year-old Abdul Guiebre in 2008 (this is the same group that organized a demonstration in honor of Emmanuel Chidi Nnamdi this past summer in Milan). The Comitato comprises both the children of immigrants and those of “autochthonous” Italians. As they explained in an interview in October, they want to reclaim the concept of meticciato from its connotations of contamination and degradation. Meticciato has become a way for them to jettison the discriminatory categories of integrazione, immigrato, and extracomunitario and in their place build a new language for dismantling the interconnected power structures of racism, militarism, border fortification, and capitalism. (For more on this, see the forthcoming chapter by Annalisa Frisina and Camilla Hawthorne in A fior di pelle. Razza e visualità.)

As Sabine Broeck and other scholars have observed, the Caribbean is an important touchstone through which various theorists have unpacked the concept of hybridity—even C.L.R. James argued that the Caribbean should be seen as a way to reconceptualize modernity along the new relations that were forged in the violence of slavery and colonialism. Édouard Glissant believed that the creative, creolized cultural forms of the Caribbean could challenge the colonial fixation upon pure lineages, but also noted that this transcultural contact was also the product of colonial violence. For this same reason, Robert Young centers the violent racial history of this concept, so that we can continue to sit with its political and historical ambiguity.

We should therefore heed these scholars, who warn against falling back into sanitized metaphors of “exchange” – whether it was the colonial exchange of goods and humans or the neoliberal marketization of “multiculturalism” or “ethnic cultures”—as they all still rely on a sort of colonial desire to ‘seize’ ‘consume’ or ‘possess’ the other. One example of an artist who has fallen victim to such consumption, but who has left us with artistic productions that reflect upon these processes, is the late Italian/Ethiopian writer Carla Macoggi. Macoggi paid a high price for historical meticciato in Italy. She was a writer born in Ethiopia, the daughter of an Italian army officer and an Ethiopian woman, taken to Italy at 12 under shady circumstances. She chronicled her own troubled history of identity and deceit, one that she herself chose to not survive, but left for us to scrutinize, perhaps as a warning, in her two novels “Kkeywa- Storia di una bimba meticcia” and “La nemesi della rossa”.

To get away from such tragic outcomes, we should heed those scholars, writers, artists, and radical activists who remind us that if we want to talk about hybridity, we must always do so alongside resistance. This is the resistance of enslaved, colonized, and racialized people against systems that sought or seek to erase and destroy them, creating new and creative forms of life with the limited means available to them.

In the spirit of helping this process along would like to issue a call for further contributions on these and related issues, either in essay form or as artistic production. We also would encourage setting up events to help create together new ways of relating, as happened in the event “Sprigionando pensieri” held in Bologna on October 29, and in Reggio Emilia on December 17, in the event “La bellezza della diversità” organized by the association Roots Evolution.

For some, meticciato has become a way to jettison the discriminatory categories of integrazioneimmigrato, and extracomunitario and in their place build a new language for dismantling the interconnected power structures of racism, militarism, border fortification, and capitalism.



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