The shooting of George Floyd sent shockwaves across the world, as protests against police brutality, racism, and symbols of slavery and colonial oppression escalated rapidly, often resulting in physical violence. In this article, Marianna Griffini explores the repercussions of the Black Lives Matter movement on Italy’s vexed relationship with its colonial past.
In the wake of the killing of African American George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis on 25 May, the anti-racist movement Black Lives Matter re-energised its campaigns against police brutality and racial inequality. Protesters took to the squares of major cities in the United States and the United Kingdom, among other countries, channelling feelings of systematic discrimination, stigmatization and exclusion experienced by Black people specifically and, more broadly, by non-white ethnic minorities.
The United States and the United Kingdom have a long history of racism, rooted in their experience as settlers, colonisers, slave owners and slave traders (see, for instance, Paul Gilroy; Shayla C. Nunnally). Italy’s case is different from the British and the American colonial and postcolonial paradigms as it had a comparatively less successful and shorter colonial experience. Indeed, Italy was a latecomer in the colonial arena: Eritrea, Somalia, and Libya were occupied, respectively, in 1885, 1891, and 1911. However, it was only during its fascist phase that Italy consolidated its domination over the its colonies, additionally conquering Ethiopia in 1935. Fascist racism was a crucial element of this colonialism. It became a tool to shape the new Italian man, imbued with fascist values which excluded the ‘Other’. This exclusion encompassed colonised African communities (Alexander De Grand). The distinction from and superiority towards the colonised Other was also critical to the maintenance of the Italian empire, which was subjugated through military force but had to be preserved through racial prestige (Alexander De Grand). Furthermore, the Italian postcolonial circumstances were different from the British and American ones, since Italy did not experience anticolonial struggles in the decolonisation process, but lost its colonies as a result of the Second World War. Additionally, Italian was not kept as the official language in former Italian colonies, except for Somalia under the Italian trusteeship between 1950 and 1960.
Despite its brevity, Italian colonialism was not exempt from racism. While the debate surrounding Imperial pasts and race has become increasingly topical in the postcolonial United States and United Kingdom, Italy has elided its memory of colonialism from public debate and politics, cloaking its racism under the mantle of “Italiani brava gente”, i.e. the belief that Italians are inherently good people, alien to racism (see, for instance, Angelo Del Boca). Nevertheless, a thriving strand of Italian postcolonial studies and anti-racist activists have kept the memory of this brutal past alive and shed light between Italy’s colonial legacy affecting Italy’s relation with the former colonial Other, who now has been transmuted into the immigrant Other.
Anti-racist protests swiftly crossed the Atlantic and the Channel, and enthused thousands of people in Italian squares calling for the end of racial discrimination. Protesters infused their anti-racism calls with demands for increased migrants’ rights, and for change in the Italian citizenship law from jus sanguinis, citizenship acquired by descent, to jus soli, citizenship acquired by birthplace. Within the domain of public history, activists demanded the removal of the statue of famed Italian journalist and writer Indro Montanelli, who admitted to purchasing a 12-year old Eritrean wife during the occupation of Ethiopia in 1935. A few days later the statue was splashed with red paint and the words “razzista stupratore” (i.e. racist rapist) scribbled on its base. The statue had been previously targeted by feminist activists in 2019 when the group Non Una di Meno splashed pink paint over it in order to avenge Montanelli’s Eritrean spouse and challenge the idea of colonial racist masculinity that such statues represent.
The controversy surrounding Montanelli’s statue did not just elicit a heated political debate around whether the statue should be kept intact, removed, contextualised, or updated with alterations and additions to give justice to the suffering inflicted. The debate threw Italy’s racism and its connections with Italian colonialism into sharp relief. Indeed, Italy has not yet grappled with its colonial past which has been sequestered on the fringes of memory but has potently resurfaced in the present climate. Postcolonialism (an analytical framework highlighting the colonial legacy in the present) then becomes a useful prism to analyse Italy’s tense relationship with its colonial past and present-day racism. The racialised construction of the colonial Other was instrumental for the creation of the Italian race and nation (see, for instance, Gaia Giuliani). In fascist times the colonial Other became co-constitutive for the Italian Self. With the abrupt end of Italian colonialism in the Second World War and with the incipient immigration flows into Italy from former European colonies from the 1970s on, the colonial Other turned into the immigrant Other. Since the 1990s immigration has gained salience in political and public debates. The colonial past, tainted by racism and borne by the immigrant Other has been more and more visible, but, at the same time, unseen.
The visibility of the colonial past is manifest in the framing of immigrants as different, criminal, inferior, and dirty or ill. These discursive stereotypes are not the reserve of one specific political ideology. However, they are also not generalizable to the whole Italian society, but are particularly widespread in uncritical media and right-wing political parties. In particular, within the context of the Italian far right, political parties reiterate colonial discursive tropes in their discourse on immigration, which is reminiscent of the colonial articulation of the Other as inherently different, inferior, mentally and physically unfit, and bent to crime. Montanelli’s unrepentant attitude in priding himself on his purchase of a 12-year old Eritrean girl reveals the conception of the non-white woman as repugnant, animalised, and submissive. Despite its visibility, the colonial past is unseen because it is not acknowledged widely in the public and political realms. Specifically, the Italian far right, which is one of the political and social actors opposing the removal of Montanelli’s statue, crafts a selective memory of the Italian colonial past where negative aspects such as racism, violence, and sexism are erased and seemingly positive ones, such as the construction of infrastructure, are extolled.
The murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives matter movement had huge resonances across the Atlantic in bringing to light Italy’s complex relationship with its colonial past and the undercurrents of social and racial inequalities within Italian communities. Reverberations of Italy’s colonial past underpin Italy’s racist attitudes that are now targeted at the carriers of that disavowed past: the immigrant Other.
Marianna Griffini has been awarded a PhD from King’s College London and has worked as a temporary lecturer in the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London. Her research, funded by the ESRC and the Fondazione Einaudi (Turin), concerns the far right, populism, racism, and postcolonialism. She has published articles and chapters on these topics.
Featured Image: Statue of Indro Montanelli. 28 September 2017. Rosario Mignemi. Wikimedia Commons