Black Women’s Bodies in Italy: an exercise of power and pleasure for Italian Patriarchy

Anti-blackness in the context of Black Women’s experiences in Italy.

Over the last five years in Italy, a number of high profile cases of anti-blackness in the public arena has come to light with cases such as the first black minister Cécile Kygene being named an ‘orang-utan’ by Northern League senator, Roberto Calderoli, to the targeted shootings of migrants (The Guardian, 2018). Coupled with this, the rise of the racist far-right party, Lega Nord, into power has legitimised the voicing of xenophobic sentiments. Despite the anti-black and xenophobic attitudes which have been festering in Italy, the European community at large has – consciously or not – turned a blind eye. Such sentiments, however, are not a new phenomenon, but rather this anti-blackness is rooted in Italy’s historical denial of their black history.

Dating back as far as ancient Rome, the largely ‘forgotten’ and white-washed history of Septimius Severus, an African-Roman Emperor and in more recent history, Alessandro de’ Medici, Duke of Florence and the first black head of state in the modern western world, present two shining examples of Italy’s problematic acceptance of their own black history. In contemporary terms, the current discourse on the Italian immigration ‘crisis’ frames migration to Italy as a new phenomenon and seemingly erases the historical presence of black bodies in Italy and Italy’s own presence in African countries, namely Eritrea, Ethiopia, Libya and Somalia.

 It is against such backdrop that this essay explores the relationship between Italian identity and whiteness and how their ensuing preoccupation with ‘pollution’ has inspired deep-rooted anti-black sentiments in recent times. To understand how the problem of anti-blackness in Italy manifests, this essay will briefly outline two historical events – fascism and colonisation – which have solidified Italy’s anti-black sentiments. A survey of the treatment of black individuals in Italy and the examination of the historical subordination of women in Italian culture will be included in order to understand how anti-black sentiments coincide in the body of black women, impacting on how they are perceived and consequently, treated.

            This essay does not claim to be an exhaustive discussion on a period of history and a social context, which is too expansive and nuanced to be confined to the realm and length of one essay alone. Rather, what this essay aims to do is to foster an open discussion about anti-blackness and add to the topic’s currently limited literature with the intention of overcoming the taboo associated with discussing race in what is sometimes seen as a ‘raceless’ democratic society. In discussing race, this essay goes to show that democracy is not founded on ignoring issues but in addressing them in a space where thoughts can be challenged, and history well-examined.[1]

A brief survey of the concept of ‘Whiteness’ in the Western World  

Before specifically examining the concept of ‘whiteness’ in Italian society, it is first vital to briefly outline the theoretical framework through which concepts of ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ have generally come to be ossified in the wider European/ Western context. Historically, the ubiquitous invisibility of whiteness as a racial position has been sustained by the overwhelming disproportionate and pervasive Western representation of white as the ‘norm’. Dyer’s book, White (1997), deals comprehensively with the topic, with the focus on the normative ‘characteristic’ of whiteness as a framing position, central to his research. Whiteness is apprehended as manifesting in two main ways: as a dominant racial lens through which particular social interactions are examined and as a measurement against which difference can be ascertained (Dyer 1997: 3). In this vein, whiteness is the departure point from which judgements are made regarding what constitutes normality and abnormality and the means through which binaries (e.g. beauty vs ugliness, civilisation vs barbarity) are fed and sustained.

Despite (or perhaps, precisely because of) its dominating power, the presence of whiteness, as an identity, has always relied on the existence of other racialised identities such as Asian-ness and blackness (Garner 2006: 260), with whiteness defined in terms of what it is not, rather than what it is. Thus, the authority of whiteness is derived from the racialisation of ‘others,’ with the process of racialisation itself an exercise of power over those less powerful (Wolfe 2002: 52). Said’s Orientalism, extensively outlines this historical exercise of power, with the West self-portrayed as rational, virtuous, civilised, against the Oriental ‘Other,’ depicted as irrational, depraved, barbaric (1978: 40, 59).  That white people have occupied the very privileged position of defining not only themselves, but indeed also others, has worked greatly in their favour of establishing globally-enduring, white, power structures.

The Enlightenment period was particularly important for the instatement of a universal hierarchy in which rational Europeans, defined as the ‘white individual’ were placed at the top, presiding over the irrational ‘Other,’ characterised as non-white, communal beings (Eze 1997). Though Rose (1968) notes that the racially-charged enlightenment project of ordering beings and grading homo-sapiens has a long-standing history which is traceable to historical and biblical texts, this racist logic lacked a global philosophical and political framework within which it could operate and disseminate its ideas on a wider scale.

Darwin’s revolutionary work, The Origins of Species (1859) solved this issue by delivering scientific authenticity to such ideas associated with racial superiority and inferiority, and thus legitimised the colonial powers’ ‘civilising’ missions in Africa, Asia, and South America (see Dennis, 1995 for more). A central tenant to this system of discrimination and oppression was the colonial powers’ establishment of a hierarchy in which the colonial subjects were constructed as inferior human beings. This rationale involved colonial powers’ racialisation of their subjects as less civilised, less able, less rational, in a process that Fanon’s (1967) argument refers to as white Europeans ‘making of a negro’. In other words, the identity of black people is principally derived from the construction of white identity (Garner 2007: 19).    

Though much scholarship suggests that white people frequently construct themselves as ‘raceless’ individuals, unencumbered by the kinds of collective groupings of ‘Others’ (see: Phoenix 1996, Farough 2004, McKinney 2005), the reality is that whiteness is only invisible for those who inhabit it (Ahmed 2004: 1). Indeed, some white people have erroneously come to believe that to see ‘race’ at all is equivalent to being racist itself and consequently perceive those (‘Others’) who consciously ‘choose’ to see race as unable to move beyond a historically prejudice past and to engage in the ‘level playing field of contemporary colour-blind western democracies’ (Garner 2007: 5). For those, however, who do not inhabit whiteness, it is hard not to perceive and feel it. As Ahmed elucidates, ‘seeing whiteness is about living its effects, as effects that allow white bodies to extend into spaces that have already taken their shape, spaces in which black bodies stand out, stand apart, unless they pass, which means passing through space by passing as white’ (2004: 2).

We must therefore bear in mind that although the formulation of whiteness is inherently invisible, its influence and authority has always been discernible from the perspective of people of colour. Du Bois’ conceptualisation of ‘double consciousness’ captures black individuals’ experiences of this plurality: an individual’s consciousness of self and simultaneous perceiving of the self through the eyes of a (white) other. This process inspires a sensation of having one’s identity severed into several parts, rendering it near-impossible to possess a unified identity. As Du Bois describes, it is the ‘sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity’ (1996: 5). As a result, several distinct entities co-inhabit the body of a black person and live in continual conflict due to the impossibility of reconciling these multiple selves. 

The cognitive process of social categorisation further contributes to the partition of self, as the categorisation of identity based on social markers (predominantly race) serves to reduce and compartmentalise identity. Tversky’s (1977) ‘diagnosticity principle,’ elucidates how an individual is defined based on their most distinctive social feature(s) and are correspondingly assigned to social groups, possessing those common characteristics (Nelson & Miller 1995: 246). The result: social interactions based on membership to particular social groups rather than individuality. This social categorisation is made even easier by the presence of ‘nations’ and of ‘ethnological habit’ (Gupta & Ferguson 1992: 40).  

This classificatory method creates a natural connection between a people (e.g. Black people), a place (Africa) and a culture (e.g. ‘Nigerian’ culture), therefore making it seem unnatural when citizens of states do not match the established spatial schema of territory/culture. Undoubtedly, the meanings attached to race and cultures, which have been used to underline national racial regimes, has always been time and place specific. Though such regimes often rely on a ‘fixed’ interpretation of race and culture, it would be highly inaccurate to claim that both race and culture have remained stagnant throughout history.[2] For this reason, we must examine the historical context in which the national, racial regime of whiteness in Italy was established, and how this has evolved over the years.

The concept of ‘Whiteness’ in Italy

Though the origin of racial and ethnical awareness in Italy can be traced back to the ancient world, for the purpose of this essay, the conceptualisation of race will be examined in the post-Risorgimento period.[3] This section will consider how the two key historical moments of fascism and the colonial conquest continue to shape Italy’s contemporary understanding of race and racial relations in order to contextualise Black women’s experiences of anti-blackness in Italy.

Italy’s colonial adventure

Italy’s colonial adventure spanned the years from 1890 to 1941 and included the colonialisation of present-day Libya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia (Andall 2003). Although Italian colonialism has been frequently characterised as relatively ‘insignificant’ because of Italians’ ‘late’ arrival to the scramble for Africa, and because of their ‘weak’ and short-lived rule,[4] this does not detract from colonialisms long-enduring effects on attitudes towards race and racism in post-imperial Italy.

            The Italian colonisation of African countries was concurrent to other European colonisation in the continent and was in many respects similar to that of other colonising powers. Dissimilar however to its European counterparts, Italy’s colonial mission was not underpinned by the economic benefits that could be gained from the colonies as scholars such as Lenin and Hobson have claimed for other European powers (Segre 1996). Rather, Italy’s participation in the imperialist projects was, in part, for the purpose of exalting Italy’s international dominance and in response to the power vacuum that had been left with the decline of the Ottoman Empire (Ibid). That said, Italy did still very much enjoy the fruits of colonisation with Italian capital swelling through the establishment of several trade routes between Eritrea, India, Austria, and Saudi Arabia (Merrill 2018).

            Negash (1987) records that from 1910 onwards 50% of Eritrean exports were sent to Italy, and more than 50% of Eritrean imports were sourced from Italy. While there existed relatively peaceful periods of ‘co-existence’ during Italy’s subjugation of Eritrea and Somalia along with nonviolent land tenures and trade agreements between Italians and East African leaders, the policies which allowed for these agreements were fundamentally founded on an unequal, racist relationship (Labanca 1999; Tabet 1997). It is, however, the selective memory of colonisation that depicts Italians as the “brava gente” (“good people,” see Labanca 2005; Del Boca 2005) which downplays the damaging effects of colonial rule.

            Indeed, Italy and a large part of Italian society still suffer from the ‘myth of Italian innocence’ (Merrill 2018: 29). Despite the growing scholarship on Italy’s long-standing relationship with Africa, a form of cultural forgetting, forged through ‘deliberate state repression, and the Italian cultural myth of “Italiaetta,” referencing the mildness of Italian character […]’ (Ibid) has allowed for the evasion of any serious scrutiny of Italian colonialism in Africa. One such example of buried history is the construction of Italian concentration camps, and the subsequent genocide, in Italian controlled East African territory. It is known that these concentration camps, which produced high mortality rates, were constructed prior to the Nazi and Fascist camps of the WWII and served as both an experiment and blue-print for their European models (Walston 1997; Ahmida 2006; Smith & Andreas 2011). The ripple effects of the Italian colonial conquest may be obscured from Italian (and European) history, however, it is still very much alive and present in the history of colonial subjects. The first-hand experience of Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers reveal that the forms of the current torture techniques performed under Afwerki’s regime were first introduced under Italian rule and still bear their Italian names (Leogrande 2017).  

            The need to tackle the foreign presence of ‘Others’ in Italy is often framed by politicians and the media alike as a new phenomenon of the current immigration influx; this, however, is not the case. The establishment of Italian identity in relation to ‘Others’ can be traced back to the Ancient Romans’ preoccupation with controlling, as well as distancing themselves from, the “barbarians” (see Mathisen & Shanzer 2011). Such exigency of confronting the increasing presence of non-Europeans within the Italian Empire was also present during the colonial period. The result of such confrontation was often the construction of racial hierarchies in which Italians were at the top, followed by other Europeans. Arabs and North Africans occupied the middle, and black Africans were placed at the bottom of the hierarchy of human to sub-human (Gillette, 2003).

            Such social hierarchies have been transposed into Italy’s current social system. According to ISTAT (the Italian National Institute of Statistics), Romanians and Albanians (whom, Giuliani (2019) explains, hold the most proximity to Italians due to their familiarity of language and Mediterranean whiteness) are placed at the top of the hierarchy, followed by North Africans (mainly Moroccans and Tunisians) and finally Black Africans (mainly Senegalese, Nigerian, and Ghanaian) whose presence is seen to cause the most ‘discomfort’ (ISTAT 1998).

            Though Italy has often attempted to use the fact that they did not participate in the transatlantic slave-trade to ‘redeem’ itself from accusation of anti-blackness and racism in relation to their colonial conquest, ‘racism as a cultural psychological and political phenomenon was intrinsic to colonial imperialism’ (Merrill 2018), and existed in Italy prior to its imperial expansion in Africa (Tabet 1997; Giuliani & Lombardo-Diop 2013). When discussing French North Africa, Memmi (1991) describes colonialism as inherently racist and compares it to fascism in that both system maintain ‘control’ and ‘power’ through racialised police torture and reap benefits from the oppression of the many, for the few. Italian fascism has often been dealt with as a capitalistic, political economy, however, it is undeniable that colonialism was in many ways the underbelly which helped fuel the fascist regime by providing fuel for the racist ideologies on which a nation was found.

            As well as this part of history remaining relatively obscure in Italian society, it is also the case that Italians have yet to properly confront, acknowledge, and mourn their past which has been the foundation of present society. Having lived in Sicily for a period of one year, on the occasions when the topic of colonisation did surface in conversations, I was often met with a sincere displeasure for its ‘occurrence,’ confusion (as well as denial) that a historical event could still hold direct relevance, and a firm assertion that Italians (and more generally, white people) should not still be held accountable for their ancestors’ actions. What is at stake, however, is not the assumption or alleviation of culpability as much as it is the silent endurance of oppressive structures. To therefore state that a community/individual is not implicated in oppression because they do not actively participate in it, does not negate the fact that may still benefit from it. Such reasoning for absolution remains logically flawed, when we take into account Mills’ notion of the ‘Racial contract’ which is described as:

‘[A] set of formal or informal agreements or meta-agreements […] between the members of one subset of humans, henceforth designated by ‘racial’ […] criteria […] as ‘white’ […] to categorise the remaining subset of non-humans as ‘non-white’ and of  different and inferior moral status […] in any case the Contract is always the differential privileging of the whites as a group, the exploitation of their bodies, land and resources, and the denial of equal socioeconomic opportunities to them. All whites are beneficiaries of the Contract, though some whites are not signatories to it’ (1997:11).

To date, white Italians remain beneficiaries to this contract, despite the fact that they many do not perceive themselves as the signatories.

Fascist Italy

In the 70 years after Unification,[5] Italy was greatly preoccupied with the shaping of national identity and social ordering, which was largely based on assigning specific colour  (from less white to black) to particular social strata in different regions within the country, as well as to the population of ‘Italian Africa’. Blackness has consequently played a central role in the construction of Italians’ ‘whiteness’ since unification, with ‘anti-black stereotypes and mystification of blackness’ perceived ‘as the negation of Italian whiteness’ (Giuliani 2019: 25). Coupled with this, ‘centuries-long anti-Gypsyism, anti-Judaism, and anti-Semitism became the foundational elements of a racist popular culture’ (Ibid), sentiments which have endured post-colonialism and post-fascism through everyday racism.

Initially, during the 1920s-30s, the focus was on the establishment of an Italic civilisation. At the time, this was founded largely on the construction of ‘Mediterranean-ness’ which served to depict Italy as a ‘melting pot’ of Mediterranean countries (produced during the former Roman Empire) and to justify the so-called ‘racial differences’ amongst northern and southern Italians under a single racialised national identity (Ibid). It was later, under the rule of Benito Mussolini, that the fascist regime utilised this concept of ‘Mediterranean-ness’ as a social engineering mechanism to both whiten and modernise the revived Roman Empire.

Embedded within this racial schema of Italian whiteness, a new racial consciousness emerged amongst Italians. This conceptualisation of ‘Italian-ness’ drew on the romantic image of the Roman Empire and produced a self-portrait of a conquering race in pursuit of the renewal of the Italian Empire’s “greatness” (Goglia 1988). The first step in restoring Italy to its former glory was through the redefinition of Italian identity as expressed in the models of Italian masculinity and femininity against the masculinity and femininity of the non-Italian, subaltern. In this vein, Italian identity expressed through masculinity was perceived as virile, prolific, and authoritative against the subaltern’s weak, effeminate, and criminalised presence while Italian femininity was emblematic of purity and integrity, far removed from the hyper-sexualised and degraded femininity of the colonised woman. Through such claims, Italy articulated itself as a nation possessing historical and cultural superiority over its colonies as well as its European neighbours.

            Giuliani (2019) notes that the turn of the decade brought with it a significant discursive change to the language which was employed to define Italians: emphasis was not only placed on the homogeneity of the Italian race (delineated as the “Aryan” in the Fascist Manifesto) but there was also further distinction carved out between Italians and ‘inferior’ groups, which included the black, colonised subjects, as well as the Jews, who until the 1930s had been regarded as historically and biologically related to Italians.

            Though this essay does not allow for an in-depth examination of the fascist regime’s internal colonisation of the southern Italians, it is highly important to acknowledge, what has been called the colonisation of the ‘white Negroes’ (Curtis 1971). This process of nation-building which subordinated Southern Italians as racially inferior than their Northern counterparts, yet still superior to the colonised subject (and Jews) has had long-lasting ramifications for current racial hierarchy in Italy and the existing racial tensions between Southern Italians and immigrants – the latter of which are often seen as ‘stealing jobs’ from the former (Palidda, 1997) and thus, attempting to ‘steal’ their place in the social hierarchy.

            Visuality was central in the construction of national identity: ‘Risorgimento heroes and heroines in opera shows, schoolbooks and statues, and images of Italy as motherly woman in public spaces and buildings were a constant visual reminder that Italians belonged to a nation and as such they served as ideals or models of normativity and normality, signally who had the “right to look” and identify as Italian’ (Giuliani 2019: 34). Consequently, the images of ‘Otherness’ served to reinforced the construction of normativity through its contrast. In the process of solidifying a fixed definition of what the ‘civilised’ and ‘sovereign’ subject looked like, the visual present of colonised subject was from the very start intertwined in process of nation building, propping up Italian identity against notions of otherness. Ironically, it has continued to be the very presence of the threat of ‘contamination’ (i.e. ‘foreigners’) which has over the decades solidified Italian identity, without which Italian identity would not exist in the way in which it does today. 

The popular fascist magazine, La difesa della Razza (The Defence of the Race 1938-1943) provided a complementary, visual conditioning to the racial laws of 1938 which established the different legal statuses between Italians, Jews, Albanians, Slavs and Ethiopians (Gundle, 2005). The magazine, which sought to provide scientific justification for Italian racism, included anthropological studies and ancient sources as well as visual evidence of Italians’ racial superiority. The inaugural magazine’s front cover (which was later to become the magazine’s ‘logo’) depicted a photomontage of a classical male figurehead, alongside a portrait of a Jewish and African individual. The image, establishing a racial hierarchy, clearly divides the classical figure from the other ‘inferior’ races with a sword and in doing so ‘propos[es] violence as a suitable way to preserve racial purity’ (Aguirre 2015: 376).

La difesa della razza, Vol. 1 (1) (5 Agosto 1938, XVI), front cover.

Photography and visual representation therefore held a dual role in fascist Italy. On the one hand, it was a means through which the regime manifested its revival of Italian civilisation. To this end, Mussolini played a crucial role in becoming the embodiment of a robust nation, portrayed as he was as having ‘a fine, massive compact head; feature well chiselled […] a strong pouting wilful mouth; a sculptured jaw’ (Finer 1935: 58). As the fascist regime rooted itself more deeply in Italian society, multiple images of il Duce (the leader) were systematically disseminated as an explicit demarcation of both whiteness and Italianness. Dyer elucidates how the exhibition of Mussolini’s body was an extension of the cinematic adventures of ‘muscle-men’: ‘The muscle hero had landscaped his body with muscles and he controls them superbly and sagely; the lands of the muscle film are enfeebled or raw bodies requiring discipline. The built white male body and colonial enterprise act as mirrors of each other, and both, even as they display the white man’s magnificent corporeality, tell of the spirit within’ (1997: 165). Read in this light, such images can be seen to legitimise the fascist regime’s ‘aspirations for internal order and external power’ (Gundle 2005: 259), while simultaneously emasculating the black male colonised subject.

On the other hand, the voyeuristic nature of the regime was utilised to maintain and strength the ‘Oriental gaze’ (Said 1978) as Sontag explains, ‘to photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and, therefore, like power’ (1933: 2). Indeed, there was particular emphasis on the photographing of (nude) Ethiopian women, whose ‘nakedness was offered up as a taste of the exotic’ (Gundle 2005: 260). Giuliani describe both this physical and epistemological debasing of Otherness as ‘cannibalistic’, describing this symbolic cannibalism as ‘a legacy of the slavery-based construction of black subject, reduced to a mere body, a marketable object of pleasure and denigration’ (Giuliani 2019: 141). Though the presence of colonial posters, portraying scantily dressed ‘black venuses’ as colonial booty served to solidify and reproduce the coloniser’s supremacy and whiteness, the fascist regime concern with pollution drew strict boundaries for the rules of engagement. To safeguard against the dilution of the Aryan blood, Mussolini initiated a campaign against miscegenation by depicting mixed-raced people as sub-human and delegitimising their identity as Italian; this resulted in miscegenation becoming a criminal offence for all Italians in 1937 (Barrera 2005).

This fixation with pollution found itself transformed post-fascism. Though written in relations to the context of post-war France, Ross’ (1995) association of the French obsession with cleanliness and whiteness with a desire to erase feelings of guilt over colonialism is feasibly applicable to an Italian interpretation. The culture of cleanliness in Italy forms a central part of Italians’ greater preoccupation with making ‘una bella figura’ (making a good impression) and particularly takes precedent in Italians’ pride of a clean and presentable household. Ross argues that such ideological investment serves as a literal cleansing (in place of a metaphorical one) in which Italians have been trying to liberate themselves from moral darkness.

Such purging of a dark past, has unfortunately not, however, been reflected in wider society, with several fascist buildings still colonising public Italian spaces. One controversial building, which has remained unaltered and intact, has been the Palazzo della civiltà italiana in Rome. Though a symbol of fascist aggression (Ben-Ghiat 2017), instead of being loathed it has come to be considered an icon of modernist architecture: in 2004 the Italian state acknowledged it as a site of ‘cultural interest’; in 2010 it was partially restored; and in 2015 Fendi (fashion brand) moved its headquarters there (Ibid).    Ahmed (2006) demonstrates the importance of what space allows for through the symbiotic conditioning of space acquiring ‘direction’ through how bodies inhabit it, and bodies acquiring direction through this inhabitance. She argues that we become ‘racialised’ not only by how we occupy space, but space is, as it were, ‘already occupied as an effect of racialisation’ (2006: 24). In this vein, it is important to consider how in modern-day Italy the presence of fascist monuments, in such racialised space, inhibits black bodies from comfortably occupying public spaces. Ahmed comments, ‘if the world is made white, then the body at home is one that can inhabit whiteness’ (Ibid: 111). Indeed, as Fanon’s work (1967) demonstrates, bodies are shaped by their histories of colonialism, a history which has rendered our world ‘white.’ It is this very white and narrow definition of what constitutes ‘Italian’ that has been inherited in Italy and manifested through the presence of fascist buildings, which serve to remind us who is the body ‘at home’ and who remains outside the corporal schema of Italian-ness. 

Femmincidio (Femicide)

‘Femicide is usually perpetrated by men, but sometimes female family members may be involved. Femicide differs from male homicide in specific ways. For example, most cases of femicide are committed by partners or ex-partners, and involve ongoing abuse in the home, threats or intimidation, sexual violence, or situations were women have less power and fewer resources than their partner.’             –(World Health Organisation, 2012)

Social contracts surrounding expectations on women’s behaviours have historically been more severe than those regarding men. As a result, the punishments for such unmet expectations have been correlatively graver for women. In the case of colonialism, Italian women received a greater punishment for engaging (or even being thought to engage) in sexual relations with African men. While the law against miscegenation prescribed five years of imprisonment for Italian men, Italian women, merely accused of such would face public whippings and could be sent to concentration camps (Gundle 2005). This violence perpetuated against women still has a stronghold in the present day.

In a report by EU. Ricerche Economiche e Sociali (EU Economic and Social Research 2019), it was revealed, that one woman was killed every three days between 2018 and 2019. Since 2000 to present date, 3,230 women have been killed in Italy of which 2,355 have been killed in a family setting and 1,564 at the hands of their (ex)partners (Ibid). While femicide is not an Italy-specific issue, I was nonetheless surprised to see how highly prevalent (and visible) it is there and more so, how de-sensitised and indifferent Italians can be to it. One particular incident that occurred during my time living in Sicily was the death of Sara Di Piertantonio, who was doused with alcohol and set alight by her ex-boyfriend. Not only did Sara die a horrific death for exercising her right to no longer be in a relationship with her ex-boyfriend, but she died because no one stopped to help. The deputy prosecutor, Maria Monteleone stated during Sara’s court case that if someone had stopped to help her, Sara would still be alive (Mack 2016).

It is this detached attitude which has allowed numerous senseless violence to be carried out, not only against women, but also other minorities, including migrants who are already widely perceived as sub-human; the death of thirteen-year-old Sylvester Agyemang, is one of many such examples. On 13January 2014, Sylvester was killed while stepping off a bus on his way to school. According to the official stories, Sylvester’s backpack was stuck in the closing doors of the vehicle and it was while he was frantically trying to pry himself from the doors that his body was violently thrust towards the pavement where he landed head-first and broke his neck (ilfattoquotidiano 2014). What followed was a shocking apathy towards his death: while he lay in a pool of blood, the bus driver drove off. Moments later, another bus approached and turning a blind eye to Sylvester’s limp body, drove off despite failure to assist in the case of an incident involving bodily injury being a criminal offense in Italy (Art. 593 of the Italian criminal code).

The unchallenged perception of women as ‘objects’ is what makes such violence against women seem permissible. A short documentary on YouTube, entitled Il Corpo delle donne (2013) presents a video-montage of popular Italian TV shows where Italian showgirls are dressed in lingerie and revealing clothes. The voiceover, provided by Lorella Zanardo, shares a commentary on the history of how Italian telecommunication has manipulated the portrayal of women and the denigrating effects of such manipulation. Throughout the duration of the documentary we are flooded with imagery of the ‘mute showgirl’ who, at the side of the host, is reduced to an object of sexual desire and is present only to look ‘sexy’ and to not be engaged with intellectually. The opening line of the documentary reminds us of the power of the message which such images convey as Zanardo states ‘images are not only images, they are forms of communication, memory, knowledge and education.’

Historically, Italian women have been provided with the one mainstream model of the ‘Italian woman’ as the Italian ‘housewife’. This model was particularly pertinent during the fascist regime in which the concept of the ‘nuclear family’ was revived and emphasised. When Berlusconi’s media group, Finivest, expanded into the countrywide network that it is today, women were provided with a new and more ‘liberating’ model of the hypersexualised, desirable showgirl. Faced with these two overarching and seemingly binary models (traditional, oppressed housewife vs. modern, liberated ‘business’ woman), it is no wonder that despite the sordid roles that many of these women are forced to assume on game shows (in multiple clips we see women in the place of objects e.g. a table, or shackled and confined to boxes), many young girls aspire to be like these showgirls.

On the flip side, Italian men have over the years been taught by their role models that it is acceptable to objectify and disrespect women. During his time in office (2008-2011), ex-Prime Minister Berlusconi was found to have abused his power to take advantage of engaging in sexual relations with several showgirls as well as paying for sex with an underage prostitute (BBC 2013). When government officials’ actions openly and shamelessly disrespects women, it sets the precedent for what is acceptable (even if criminally prosecutable) behaviour in public spaces.

To understand how such exchanges in the public arena translate into the everyday lived reality of women, conducted a social experiment in Naples (2014) where a young woman walked around the city alone and silent for ten hours. During these ten hours she was subjected to forty different types of assaults (kisses, propositions, catcalling, denigrating names, and physical approaches). What this demonstrates is that there is a feedback loop between the macro and micro (Nisbett and Cohen 1996) in which the actions that take place in the public arena condition the treatment of women in the private sphere and those actions which take place in private settings reinforce those which are occurring publicly.

Who is a ‘stranger’ in Italy?

In 2015, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recorded Italy to house 5,0124, 437 immigrants, constituting 8.2% of the total population. In September 2019, 2,499 refugees and migrants were recorded to have arrived in Italy by sea. Though not a discussion for the scope of this essay, it is important to acknowledge that when we consider the question of ‘who is a ‘stranger’ in Italy?’, the definition of ‘stranger’ does not strictly refer to those arriving to Italy who were born elsewhere. Rather, the presence of ‘strangers’ includes those non-white Italians who were born and grew up in Italy, yet do not obtain Italian citizenship (for an array of reasons, but most commonly) because their parents are non-national citizens.

The word straniero/a is the Italian term for ‘foreigner’ which also doubles up to mean ‘enemy’ and whose prototype is African: ‘a subject who in modern European thought has long held the position of subordination, mysterious allure, anachronistic space-time, and danger’ (Merrill 2018).  This depiction of Africans is sustained through the solidified ideas that Italians have created of place and belonging and is routinely reasserted through media portrayals, state policies, and daily interactions. As a result, Africans (and those of African descent) are, as Fanon outlines, hyper-visible and present in society and yet are regularly erased from public spaces through the white gaze which reduces them to sub-human status; as beings who ‘do not belong’ and must therefore be feared, despised, exoticised, and above all ‘removed’.

This burden of hypervisibility forces the black body to become a site of surveillance and is impregnated with meaning through what Yancy defines as the “white racist narrative” (2008: 845). This narrative constructs an essence (blackness), which precedes black African migrants’ existence, therefore entrapping them within stereotypes of what they are, where they belong, and what they can and cannot do. In this vein, the visual representation of the black male body is as a locus of violence, while that of the black female body is one of pleasure and conquest. The deadly beating of Emmanuel Chidi Namdi is an incident that amplifies a constellation of assaults on black bodies.

In 2006, Emmanuel Namdi was killed by Amedeo Mancini who after verbally assaulting his wife (referring to her as a ‘monkey’), had attacked Namdi when he attempted to defend her (Scammell, 2016). Though Amedeo was found guilty, he was released from house arrest less than a year later in May 2017 on the premise that he was ‘capable of thriving in Italian society’ (Giuliani, 2019). In his defence, Amedeo’s lawyer conjured Emmanuel to be a physically violent ‘threat’ to civil society, claiming his affiliation with the Nigerian mafia in Italy and stating that Amedeo was only defending himself from a ‘naturally violent’ black man who could not control his violent reaction against offensive (but the suggestion is ultimately, ‘harmless’) words (Ibid).

The case of racial slurs directed against Cabinet Minister, Cécile Kyenge, showcases what happens when black women attempt to occupy space, which has not been ‘reserved’ for them. Kyenge, a woman of Congolese origin, travelled to Italy in 1983 to study and was a practising ophthalmologist in Emilia Romagna before being elected to regional, local government. She became Italy’s first black Minister and was the only Minister of Integration in cabinet during 2013-2014. In her capacity as Minister of Integration, she promoted migrant rights and urged for the granting of full citizenship rights to children born on Italian soil. Yet, despite being highly qualified and experienced in her position, members of the Italian parliament still felt that it was acceptable to undermine her position. On such occasion, former vice-president of the Italian Senate, Roberto Calderoli openly called her an orang-utan, and other extreme-right politicians have referred to her as ‘Zulu’ and ‘Congolese monkey’ (Kyenge 2018). She has been referred to by political figures as belonging ‘in the house’ and needing to be raped so that she can understand the rape of white women by black men (Merrill 2015). Kyenge has faced countless death threats and now lives under police protection. What Kyenge’s experiences brings to light the sedimented cultural beliefs of Black women as passive, sexual objects and the persistent patriarchy against which women, especially Black women, are constantly fighting against (Meret et al. 2013).

Black women in Italy: a site of power and pleasure

            Throughout history, black women have remained a site of power and pleasure for the white, Italian, colonial mind. During the mid-nineteenth century Italian colonialists circulated photographs portraying African women in the nude/semi-nude, with passive eyes lowered to the ground in shame. The photographed stance, along with the nudity served as ‘a metaphor of conquest’ conveying African women as erotic, passive beings waiting to be raped (Merrill 2018) and thus, legitimising the exercise of power and pleasure over black women’s subjectivities. Such a depiction was, however, only a ripple in a wave of depreciating existence of black women. In the course of the nineteenth century, Europeans began to show a deeper interest in the bodies of African women. The overriding image, which was circulated, was that of a black woman as a hypersexualised being.

            A large component of the process of such imagining was the ‘Hottentot Venus’: the name given to a series of women who were exhibited in sexual and ethnic ‘curiosity’ shows in Europe. The most prominent figure linked to this was a South African woman, Saartjie Baartman who was displayed as both a ‘medical’ and sexual experiment (Pieterse 1992). At the time, an adjacent area of research was being conducted, concerning prostitutes, who were viewed as the sexualised woman’s prototype (Ibid). Two key researchers in this field were Italian physician, Cesare Lombroso, and Italian historian Guglielmo Ferrero who published a study entitled La Donna Delinquente: La Prostituta E La Donna Normale (1893), a study on the ‘criminal woman.’ From their research emerges a strong analogy between the prostitute and the Hottentot woman, both of which are associated with uncurbed sexuality. Pieterese remarks how in Lombroso’s earlier study on the ‘criminal man’, he offers the profile of a Negro man as the criminal man’s prototpe; ‘is it [therefore] any wonder that the profile of the ‘criminal woman’ matched that of the Hottentot woman?’

            This greatly intertwined connection between Black women and prostitution has endured throughout Italian history and is still very much present to date with the thriving sex trafficking industry run by both national and international (most notably, Nigeria, Romanian, Albanian) mafias. It is because of the ingrained stigma surrounding black female bodies in Italy that the elected winner of the 1996 annual Miss Italia beauty pageant, Denny Mendez, a naturalised Italian citizen of Dominican Republic origin, was not so readily accepted as Miss Italia. Despite securing her victory over nearly sixty other finalists in a nationwide telephone poll in which nine million Italians partook, her ‘appropriateness’ to represent an ideal of Italian beauty was still questioned by two of the judges (Gundle 2005).  In La Repubblica of 5 September 1996, ex-showgirl and judge, Alba Parietti stated that the victor needed to be ‘a physical type who incarnates certain traditional characteristics’ (Ibid), the finely veiled meaning being that blackness was not amongst these qualifying characteristics.

            Indeed, far-removed from the ‘traditional,’ ‘feminine’ qualities of Italian beauty, female ‘blackness’ is depicted as something which feeds the sexual appetite. In the 2016 Sanremo Music Festival, the song ‘N.E.G.R.A’, an acronym for Nessuno È Giudice Razziale Assoluto (Nobody is an absolute judge on race) was sung by Cécile, a Black female singer of Cameroonian origins. Though the song entry did not go on to win, many have argued that it achieved its own victory in raising awareness of systematic anti-blackness which is manifested in the (mal)treatment of the black woman’s body (Scego 2016), and Cécile herself has defined the song as a ‘song against hypocrisy’ (Giuliani, 2019).

            The song’s lyrics describe the exoticisiation of black women and the presupposed (sexual) relations between the singer and a white man who desires her because she is black – therefore serving as a source of sexual satisfaction – however, ignores her when he sees her in public. Giuliani provides an in-depth visual analysis of the both the song’s lyrics and the music video, reaching the conclusion that the videography complements the lyrics’ denouncement of Italian society’s hypocritical aversion towards blackness, yet hyper-eroticisation of black female bodies. While I agree with Giuliani’s reading of the music video’s re-creation of the voyeuristic white gaze, challenged by Cécile holding the viewer’s gaze, I do not believe that such interaction could naturally inspire ‘shame,’ as she suggests, in the ignorant viewer. For those who lack the ability to reflect and critically engage with the subtle camera play, such imagery runs the risk of further cementing the voyeuristic gaze.

            The black woman’s body as a locus of pleasure in Italy has, in recent times, become most manifest through the sex-trafficking industry. The Guardian documentary, Freeing girls trafficked to Italy for sex (2016) reveals the epidemic state of sexual exploitation of black immigrant women, with over 9,000 Nigerian, trafficking victims brought to Italy by boat since January 2015. In 2016, 11,009 arrivals of women from Nigeria were recorded, with an estimated 80% forced into prostitution (The Guardian, 2017). Most of these women are enslaved in prostitution either through a pre-arrangement between a ‘madam’ and a family member (who sends the victim, unaware, to Italy) or fall into prostitution through an abysmal lack of prospective awaiting them in Italy.

            Those whose journeys across the Mediterranean are paid for by their ‘madam’ often find it near-impossible to escape a life of prostitution as they are expected to pay an infeasible debt of €35,000-€45,000 for their journey. Moreover, the degrading nature of their forced profession subjugates these women to payments as low as €5 for sex (Ibid), morally degrading their intrinsic worth as a human being and reinforcing the long-enduring power structures between white and black, male and female bodies. Black female bodies have thus become a site where the convergence of power exercised upon them by numerous external agents (traffickers, ‘clients’, the Italian government) coincides with the pleasure, which has historically been obtained through the association of black female bodies and prostitution.

            This convergence of the historical subordination of women and the anti-black sentiments in Italian culture thus finds a home in the black female bodies: a site where multiple violent assaults are sustained as a result of Italy’s reluctance to come to terms with the ghosts of its colonial and fascist past. In a bid to reclaim the right to write their own bodies into history and into public spaces, black women and men living in Italy have been sharing their experiences through the various media of music (Vhelade Bale Mura, Tommy Kuti), poetry (Michael Cappellin), novels (Igiaba Scego), blogging (Tia Taylor, Judith Mimi), and essays. There is still an urgent need, however, to decolonise racism in Italy, if we are to tackle the systematic and deep-rooted anti-blackness, which continues to pervade in Italian society. In Cecile Kygene’s words, Italian society’s failure to examine and learn from Italy’s past has resulted in ‘Italian laws create norms and practices of severe discrimination, and when the rights of one part of the community are ignored, there’s a loss of rights for all’ (2014: 44).


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[1] Disclaimer: In his work Whiteness, Garner acknowledges the danger of reification in the discussion of abstract concepts such as ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ (2007:8). The risk of reification, the process of turning an ‘ideology’ into a real object, will be present from the very start of our discussion due to the very real racial experiences of those who do not have the privilege of being classified as white, or white passing. The first pitfall therefore in discussing whiteness is to reify it. This is not the intention of the essay and by acknowledging such risk, I hope greatly to avoid it.

[2] Take for example Jews, who were once a religious community that came to be seen as a ‘race,’ though they have more recently become ‘de-racialised’ and ‘normalised’ as ‘white’ in some parts of the West (Modood 2010). 

[3] This was a socio-political movement that led to the reunification of different states of the Italian peninsula into a single Kingdom of Italy in the 19th century. Prior to this, different states in Italy had been fractionally ruled by both internal (dynasties, nobilities) and external (France, Spain, Germany, Austria) powers.

[4]It came to an ‘end’ with the death of Fascist leader Mussolini and the simultaneous defeat of Italy in WWII and the collapse of the fascist regime.

[5] Italian Unification (known in Italian as il Risorgimento) was a socio-political movement of the 19th century, which resulted in the consolidation of different states of the Italian peninsula (previously ruled by both native and foreign powers) into the Kingdom of Italy in 1861.

Sophia Lara Staffiero is currently working as a BAME community engagement coordinator for NAZ, a BAME focused sexual health charity. Her work focuses on supporting Black women (in particular) with accessing services for their reproductive health. She has previously completed her Master’s in African Studies at SOAS, University of London in 2020 and her undergraduate degree in Italian and Latin at the University of St Andrews during 2014-2019. She is co-author of a series of poetry collection, including ‘the tender places of worn-out fibres’ (2019), ‘The Snake and the Cuttlefish’ (2018) and is author of ‘Conversations at Crossroads’. Sophia also coordinates a joint venture for her platform winter’s bloom (, a space for candid conversations run by two women of mixed-heritage. She is passionate in learning about and celebrating her cultural roots as well as the beauty of cultures around her and is on the ongoing journey of living a more conscious, ethical, and sustainable lifestyle both personally and professionally

Black Women’s Bodies in Italy: an exercise of power and pleasure for Italian Patriarchy

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