On BLM, race and the concept of whiteness in Europe

And on why I refuse to accept the concept of ‘whiteness’ outside the context from which it originated

I am a first-generation mixed-race from Italy, a country that recently started to be aware of the inexorable shift towards being more multicultural both at the national and European level. It is also a country that has recently rediscovered its deep problems with racism and a colonial past that was never fully addressed nor metabolized, and it is struggling to come to term with an increasingly mixed population. Over the course of recent years, I have closely followed the ongoing discussion regarding race(s) and racism. In this essay, I would like to address something that has been bugging me, especially during the past year: the unconditional adoption by the self-perceived ‘woke’ part of European youth of the concept of races and, in particular, whiteness — as per the North American understanding of the term. In my opinion, this reception of what I perceive as a new form of cultural hegemony comes with very troubling implications.

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When the Black Lives Matter movement found support in Italy, many people were confused, especially among the older generation. This confusion not only was conceptual, like in North America — it was also semantic. In particular: who did count as a Black person, with capitalized B, and how could we discuss this issue in Italian? When it comes to these kinds of questions, I always refer to my Afroitalian friends. After some disheartening conversations online, I decided to record some YouTube videos in Italian aimed at a more mainstream audience in order to explain which words combination was the most culturally sensitive to use (e.g. say ‘persone Nere’ instead of just ‘Neri’ — or worse). These videos were mainly aimed at people in my parents' generation, most of which had only a handful of interaction with a Black person over their lifetime — and sometimes recount them in a very eyebrow-raising way, like they were surprised these people are actually civilized free-thinking human beings. But, as I said, Italy has still a long way to go in order to overcome its internalized racism and come to terms with its colonial past. Well, the same applies to the rest of the continent.

I fully support the Black Lives Matter movement. Period. And to me, supporting the movement means also being aware that it is a matter of take it or leave it, meaning: I can only support it as it was conceived, and I cannot appropriate it — or twist it to fit my narrative or agenda. Unfortunately, I think this is what has happened in some instances outside America, including Italy. And this is wrong — no matter the good faith. Black Lives Matter is a cultural and political product of the United States, and it would be rather surprising if it turned out to be perfectly, automatically translated into a completely different political and cultural landscape, such as the European one.

I remember disagreeing with the protests taking place in Italy that sensationalized the alleged hypocrisy of those supporting BLM but not the highly contested ius soli (birthright citizenship) or the cause of the migrants that every week dies in the Mediterranean. I do not believe it is correct to appropriate the spotlight of BLM by pushing its borders to fit issues that are strictly Italian (in the case of the ius soli) or European (the immigration and refugee policies). The reason being: where to draw the line? In my case, for example, I have some reservations towards the unconditional acceptance of the ius soli, not because I do not wish that the new generation of children born on Italian soil should automatically be Italian at all effects, but because experience suggests that immigration policies tend to transform into self-fulfilling prophecies. It is a very complex matter that I would like to unpack in another article, but the main reason is that I do not wish for women to resort to having children in order to have a better shot at getting a residence permit for themselves and their families. For sure, that of easier access to citizenship is a pressing issue that must be solved sooner rather than later — but it needs its own conversation and its own political movement. It is not fair to use the BLM spotlight, even to support the most sacrosanct of the causes.

Protestants holding a signal saying “19.000 deaths in the Mediterranean — #Blacklivesmatter” in Milan. Image by Vincenzo Ligresti, originally published on Vice Italy.

It is great that thanks to the BLM movement many of my countrypeople finally got a wake-up call circa the need of listening more to Black and Black Italian voices. Nonetheless, I am sceptical of their newly assumed role of depositaries of universal knowledge circa any question on the matter of racism and critical race theory.

I did my homework. I listened to podcasts, read books and articles and essays, had never-ending conversations (mostly in the role of the listener) with my Afroitalian friends. It definitely has been a learning experience, that raised awareness of my own ignorance of Black Italians’ plights, especially when it comes to the legal side. At the same time, however, I do not share some people’s insistence in attempting to translate and import the whole ‘race and racism’ package from North America.

The main issue I would like to examine in this essay is the concept of race, with particular reference — and scepticism — towards the newly-imported idea of ‘whiteness’.

“You’re such a basic white bitch, and you’re not even white” jokingly told me an American friend when I was a grad student at Xiamen University (People’s Republic of China). Like most foreigners in my class, I moved to China thanks to a governmental grant issued by the PRC’s government. For a year I lived in the dorm known as Guoguang 4, reserved for International students since the Chinese ones rather not live in the building marked by a number that has the same pronunciation (albeit different tone) to the character standing for ‘to die’. The biggest blessing in disguise of that experience was the fact that there was only one other Italian — that I ‘found’ only after some months. Therefore, while all the different nationalities naturally gravitated towards each other (with few exceptions) I was periodically adopted by different groups of newly found friends. First, it was the Russians — for who I was Sasha; afterwards, the Turkish — who went even more extreme lengths and renamed me completely ‘Gizem’, which according to them matched my mysterious personality (actually, I could not really grasp most of the conversation, hence the reason of my timid laughs and prolonged silences). Finally, I found the Americans.

It was them that introduced me to their conceptualization of different races, and especially the concept of whiteness. They were shocked when they found out that I am Filipino — I apparently somewhat failed to mention it for several months. That changed everything! Actually, I was so used to Italians claiming that I am Italian — end of the conversation — that they somehow convinced me. This applied especially to my family. Only recently I started re-claiming my Filipino heritage — and the fact that as I get older it seems to become more evident also leaves me little room to get a pass over questions or comments regarding my ‘exotic looks’. Even writing the first lines of this essay, ‘I am a mixed-race Italian’ would have sounded like a fraud a few years ago.

Anyways, I have to confess that I have never been to America (like, anywhere on the continent). However, my understanding is that the North American idea of whiteness is close to that of Chinese people, what I will call a homogenized construction of whiteness. I will now explain why I do not think it can apply to Europe.

First and foremost, many of what Americans and Chinese people alike would consider ‘white’ have ancestry somewhere in the European continent. In the United States, ‘white people’ are considered as a homogenous, quasi-monolithic population because they blended together (more or less spontanoeusly) over the years, while in China (and, more generally, in Asia) they are more or less equally seen as ‘exotic’ (of the privileged kind). In Europe, however, we can tell each other apart quite well, and it is insulting to ignore these differences, especially if we adopt an intersectional standpoint. I will get to it in a minute.

First, most Europeans can probably tell each other apart, or get an idea of another’s origins, based on looks (after all, we were killing each other on sight during the past couple World Wars… Just saying). Of course, there might be macro-areas in which features can be similar, but I would be quite surprised if someone assumed my dad was Finnish. And I mean, my dad has beautiful blue eyes but… still. There are also a number of things that can give you away: your style, your clothes, your accent, your name. If I hear someone with a surname such as Kaczyński, for example, it goes without saying that that person in Polish or of Polish descends. My first thought would not be ‘they are white’. And I would not remotely assume that a Polish person holds some sort of ‘white privilege’ over me, to be completely honest — being mixed-race and all other things considered. Moreover, as we do not have a common language, our accents will always give us away. I have been living in Scandinavia for years, and I married a local: anyone still understands I am Italian. There is be no way I could pass for a Swede, even if my surname was Paulsson.

I was in high school in 2007 when the European Union (EU) enlarged and Bulgaria and Romania became member states. Especially through Romania, a lot of people that would have been called ‘extracomunitari’ (non-EU citizen) prior to the enlargement started coming through and enrolled in public schools. It was not only the Romanians, it was also the Moldovans, the Ukrainians etc. Let me tell you, they did not get a pass because they were as white as it gets. The racism towards people from these countries, both at the interpersonal and institutional level, was blatant at times. Having an Eastern European boyfriend or a girlfriend would have meant social suicide. Unless they would be extremely beautiful, or extremely wealthy — or both. If there was no derogatory slur in place yet, neologisms were quickly created, including local dialectal versions.

Where I come from, the wealthy Northeastern region of Veneto, everybody knows the etymology of the most common form of Italian greeting, ciao. This word in fact comes from a Venetian salute that refers to slaves that Venetians used to abduct from Eastern Europe.

The word derives from the Venetian phrase s-ciào vostro or s-ciào su literally meaning “(I am) your slave”. This greeting is analogous to the medieval Latin Servus which is still used colloquially in parts of Central/Eastern Europe or the antiquated English valediction “Your Obedient Servant.” The expression was not a literal statement of fact, but rather a perfunctory promise of good will among friends (along the lines of “at your service” in English). The Venetian word for “slave”, s-ciào [ˈstʃao] or s-ciàvo, derives from Medieval Latin sclavus, a loanword from Medieval Greek Σκλάβος, related to the ethnic “Slavic”, since most of the slaves came from the Balkans.

Of course, all people are conditioned by the society they live in, and strive to be accepted and gravitate around power. Power, in many contexts, rhymes with the socially and politically constructed concept of whiteness. It is not surprising then if these people, for example, have come to identify as white in the United States.

However, the idea of whiteness comes with a baggage of issues. For example, the idea that ‘white people cannot be racist towards other white people’ (“it’s called xenophobia”), or cannot be victims of racism, and that their culture cannot be appropriated. These are lies — dangerous ones. Periodically, I find myself staring at Twitter threads in which Italians are made fun of because, apparently, some tries to argue that we are not white-white. While a quick search would show how Italians were made white in the United States through a political process that followed decades of systemic racism and violence, I cannot state enough how Italian culture is constantly appropriated, mocked, and generally misrepresented. It does hurt me when I see stereotypes, it does hurt me when people mock my accent and it does hurt me when people glamorize the mafia. Sometimes, it happens at once. I will never forget the look of betrayal from a former colleague of the Italian Embassy I was a trainee at when I admitted that I ate with the local staff at a popular ‘Italian’ restaurant called ‘Cosa Nostra’. Afterwards, I read with shame their outpouring on Facebook in which they recounted how seeing that restaurant was a constant trigger since their grandfather, a policeman, had indeed been killed by Cosa nostra (the Sicilian mafia). A trigger that can be found almost all over the world, if you have a look on Google maps. Imagine me opening an ‘Oriental restaurant’ and call it ‘Taliban’, or an American-inspired diner and call it ‘9/11’. Indelicate at best, triggering at worst, right?

To conclude, I reject that the idea of ‘whiteness’ as understood in North America and elsewhere can be applied to Europe. Accepting the concept would mean excusing racism towards other ‘white’ people, especially women, that are marginalized. My first thought goes to the women from Eastern Europe that are trafficked and literally enslaved to date. Trust me, as a woman, I often feel vulnerable, but I never feared someone would try to abduct and traffic me.

I struggle with not seeing as problematic the concepts of race as it is sometimes presented to us by Black Europeans that seem to have become the vessels of American’s latest attempt at cultural hegemony. Americans are so fond of the one-drop rule, but it is impossible for me to discern this principle from biological racism à la Nazi. It is a dangerous game to play in Europe, where a few decades ago experiments were still conducted on humans at the institutional level in order to determine whether different types of human being were all, in fact, equally human. Especially in a society such as the Italian one, which is slowly but steadily shifting towards having an increasingly more mixed family and multicultural population. A society where only a few years ago it would have probably been very inconvenient at best and unthinkable at worst for the average teenager of a good family to have a Black boyfriend or girlfriend, it is important that we start reflecting on our own problems with racism (interpersonal as well as systemic) and our colonial legacy, using our own — new if needed — terms.

A young woman holding a sign saying “It is not Blacks vs Whites, it’s all of us against racism” during a protest in Rome. Image of Elisa Elia, originally published in IlMigrante.org

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