Anti-racism without race

Emmanuel Chidi Nnamdi and his wife Chinyery.
Emmanuel Chidi Nnamdi and his wife Chinyery.

Earlier this summer in Fermo, Italy, 36-year old Nigerian asylum seeker Emmanuel Chidi Nnamdi was beaten to death by Italian Amedeo Mancini, a known soccer ultra, who was also associated with the local chapter of the neofascist CasaPound political movement. Emmanuel and his wife Chinyere had fled the violence of Boko Haram (they lost their parents and a daughter in a bombing) and had undertaken 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 Chinyere 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. Chinyere generously donated 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. (There is also a campaign to name a room at the medical school of the University of Bologna after Nnamdi.)

In Italy, anti-racist work is compatible with a broader trend in post-World War Two anti-racist work in Europe: 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. In the quest to do away with the term “race,” many in the antiracism movements 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.

Italy also 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. Furthermore, the last decades have seen a conflation of questions of racism with migration. Although a growing number of scholars working in Italy are now engaging with the concept of razza via race-critical and whiteness studies (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 anti-racism and emerging forms of autonomous black organizing in Italy.

Some have argued that the casting of antiracism in Italy as a “solidarity movement” (with both Catholic and Marxist undercurrents) is necessary given the small size of the country’s black population, but this argument is insufficient. While the Italian government does not collect official statistics on race, there are more than one million Africans living in Italy, about one-third of whom hail from sub-Saharan Africa countries (this figure does not include undocumented residents or people who have acquired Italian citizenship).

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 and forecloses any discussion of race and white privilege in the public sphere.

For example: In Affile, Italy, the authorities have allowed the construction of a mausoleum dedicated to General Rodolfo Graziani, known as “the butcher of Fezzan.” In a 30-year span of colonial wars in Libya and the Horn of Africa, Fezzan used mustard gas on the Ethiopian population and bombed Red Cross hospitals; he was thus listed by the United Nations as a war criminal.

Still, some self-professed leftists continue to suggest that it is intellectually lazy to describe incidents such as the murder of Emmanuel Chidi Namdi as racism, because doing so only reifies the scientifically delegitimized category of “race.” But the problem here isn’t with the term “racism.” After all, race was never solely about blood or skin color; this ever-shifting concept emerged to legitimate the violent world-making projects of colonialism, imperialism, and enslavement. Just because race is a biological fiction does not mean that it doesn’t continue to shape people’s lives in profound ways as a social reality and axis of domination.

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. At the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th, Italy was defining itself in racial terms in relation to both its internal North/South divide and its growing overseas empire in Africa.

After World War Two, race was disavowed in mainstream European anti-racism because of its ties to the horrors of fascist eugenics and racial laws. 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. “Anti-racism without race,” scholars such as Dace Dzenovska, Alana Lentin, and Kamala Viswewaran have argued, makes the goal of anti-racism projects the elimination of the term “race,” rather than the destruction the historically-sedimented structures of power underlying the creation of racial categories through which groups are differentially subjected.

In other words, Emmanuel Chidi Nnamdi was murdered by a racist system that legitimates the vile actions of individual fascists. He was a casualty not of one person’s aberrant phobia of difference, 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. Hence, banishing the word “race” does not make racism go away. It only weakens anti-racist activism by denying the legitimacy of Black people’s lived experiences of racism. 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.

For that reason, we 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 Nnamdi’s wife Chinyere an “African monkey” before he beat Emmanuel to death on the street in Fermo. 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.

*A version of this essay was first published in Italian for the web magazine Frontiere News

Camilla Hawthorne & Pina Piccolo

Pina Piccolo is a Calabrese-Californian writer and directs La Macchina Sognante. Camilla Hawthorne is a doctoral candidate in geography at the University of California, Berkeley. She currently lives in Italy.

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