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Racism – Historic Memory – Individual Responsibility

Renate Siebert | Journal: Challenging Italian Racism [6] | Issues | Oct 2010

I will propose a short reflection on racism in Italy based on my personal experience: I was born and grew up in (West) Germany, where I also studied and participated in the protests of 1968. Since 1970 I have been living and working in Italy. Over all these years I have noticed – with some disconcert – a widespread and apparently “naïve” racism both in public opinion and in the individual behaviour and beliefs of many people. As if Italian Fascism and its crimes inspired by explicitly racist ideologies and legislations had not left a sign or had not produced self-critical assessment during the post-war period.  As if no awareness or – we could say – no watchful super-ego towards racism’s dangers had developed in the socialization processes of the new generations and the re-socialization processes of the generations involved in Fascism and its crimes. As if no “mourning process” for the crimes perpetrated and no responsibility for the acts committed had ever taken place. My perception, of course, was structured through the Post-Nazism years in Germany, the Shoah trauma and the years of my militancy in the student movements of 1960s, where the emphasis placed on the responsibilities of previous generations and the fight against racism had been the cornerstones in the struggles for a more democratic and egalitarian society in Post-Nazi Germany.

In Italy, instead, widespread repulsion of one’s own responsibilities prevailed and this was also due to the undeniable participation of part of the population in the anti-fascist resistance fight.[1] All this has gone unnoticed until, in the second half of the 1980s, Italy – traditionally a country of emigration – became one of the countries of the “fortress Europe” attracting “non-Community” immigrants. With shocking speed and forms, the latent widespread racism has become manifest since then. And it has been manifest both in the behaviour of many people and in political and ideological statements and even in legislative measures. In this vortical process, along with insistent, incensed and self-absolving statements making reference to the axiom of “italiani brava gente” (Italians, good people)[2] coming from every level, the right-of-centre governments of the so-called Second Republic have adopted administrative measures and, at the same time, a political discursive style which is clearly anti-egalitarian, discriminatory and racializing.“We are not racist, but…” has become the in-terminable appendix to many public and private discourses. Recently, Gian Antonio Stella observed:

“Things have gone on like this for years. The fans of a Varese basketball team during a match against Maccabi Tel Aviv unfurl a banner saying ‘Hitler taught us that killing the Jews is not a sin’. Chorus: but Italy is not racist! A builder set fire to one of his workers, the Romanian Ion Cazacu, because he had dared to complain that his pay was one-seventh that of the other workers. But Italy is not racist! A young student from Ghana, Emmanuel Bonsu Foster, having been mistaken for a pusher, accused the Parma municipal police of having beaten him to blood and having written on the report cover ‘Emmanuel, nigger’. But Italy is not racist! Four drunk members of the Northern League demolished a restaurant in Venice, beating two immigrant waiters savagely. But Italy is not racist! Websites are full of pages shouting ‘fucking immigrants!’, ‘fucking gypsies!’, ‘fucking faggots’. But Italy is not racist! And so on and so forth…”.[3]

Ignorance about “other” lives, cultures and geography is rewarded and characterizes the socialization processes of new generations.

Starting from these considerations, I will discuss two conceptual links that are useful to better understand ongoing processes: firstly, the relationship between historic memory and individual responsibility and, secondly, the importance of the use of words and concepts in the efforts to fight against racism.[4]

The relationship between memory, responsibility and justice has become heated during the 20th century, a century tragically marked by totalitarianisms and genocides, first and foremost Shoah. Responsibility is a concept involving both individuals and collectivity. It implies a reflective and self-reflective process which allows a person or a group to assume the consequences of one or more acts – not necessarily violent or criminal acts – stemming from one’s own and/or others’ actions. Yet, the assumption of responsibility necessarily implies memory. Individuals or groups of individuals must, directly or indirectly, assume the responsibility for the actions committed in the past, for example the actions committed by the generation of their parents. The memory of their acts is of our concern. Such memory, however, is not a neutral record of facts, but it entails a selective construction of the past starting from the present. Therefore, responsibility directly concerns both what is remembered and how it is remembered. This, in turn, is not disjoined from the identity of individuals and their generational placement.

In fact, social stratification by generations is of great importance for our topic. Each generation comes into a “heritage” from the previous generation and this generation, in turn, passes on that heritage – elaborated and enriched through experience – to the next one.

Thus, both history and collective memory strongly depend on the individual and collective elaboration of the past and of the present that the individuals belonging to the same generation have performed and are performing. Generational transmission, both within the family and in schools and universities, is a living hinge between history and memory. It is a kind of transmission of knowledge (aware, but also often unaware transmission, involving unconscious processes and dynamics) that goes with affective relations among people. For that reason, intergenerational transmission leaves a mark on the individual, a trace that will tend to structure all his educational and learning processes. From this point of view, the “near” history – the history witnessed and transmitted as memory from a generation to the other – is a different challenge for each individual, vis-à-vis the “far” history, already codified and objectivized. Near history – or rather, the memory which has not become history yet – shapes personality, ethical orientations and the ability to understand and become empathetic, because it is transmitted hand-to-hand with the people whom we most love or hate, on whom we depend when we are children. Generations transmit knowledge to the next, but above all affective availability to self-reflection and recognition – or, on the contrary, repulsion and negation – which puts down roots in one’s psyche and predisposes one to accept or reject historical information provided by knowledge institutions.

I have often wondered what kind of a legacy was left by the colonial experience first[5] and the fascist one then – both characterized by racist ideologies and practices – to my Italian peers, i.e. the first generations of the post-World War II period. What kind of relationship do they have with the generation of their parents in this respect? And what is the extent of their eagerness to know what has really happened? I can only put forward some conjectures. I have always been surprised by the serenity with which the recent past, the memory of fascism, were recalled (my reference here is to the mass media, to a widespread common sense, to ordinary people, etc. rather than to individuals and families who were directly involved in the anti-fascist resistance). Often regarded as a historical, political and social issue, in Italy fascism is not considered a personal matter, as if it did not concern individual identity or one’s subjectivity. And the same is true of the various forms of racism: the manifest inferiorization of the Other, the irritating curiosity, the arrogant ignorance about foreign worlds and people, verbal and physical violence. Such forms of one’s own and others’ actions are too often experienced as normal, evident or legitimate.

We can conjecture that in Italy the relationship with the memory of totalitarianism has almost exclusively become the subject of an institutional conflict, something which concerns politics. Two elements have contributed to such a detached review (in the sense of a lesser psychological/existential involvement). On the one side, the possibility to attribute everything causing distress to Germans, the villains par excellence – and also self-confessed offenders. In the light of the atrocities committed by the Third Reich, Mussolini’s regime could easily appear as a light mise en scène. There is quite a widespread ideology in this sense. Secondly, the anti-fascist resistance – which is an undeniable reality, but also a myth – provided a positive object of identification: the just “fathers” existed, especially for left-winged activists. Thus, no break between generations occurred – because there was no gap in the transmission of values, traditions and forms of relations. And there has been no public discussion on the recent fascist past during the years that were crucial for the development of new generations. The family – the concrete one, made of parents, uncles, grandparents – remained safe, uncontaminated, “other” than the racist dictatorship and its implications in the post-war period.

In my opinion, such freezing of the historic memory along with the consequent trivialization of Fascist tyranny, of racial laws and of war crimes committed by Italy is in large measure responsible for the present-day situation. As Gian Antonio Stella writes:

“Here we come back to the neo-racism of today. Because the stupid frivolity with which the Northern League members call black people Bingo Bongo (savages)… is the child of a practically absolute ignorance of what our colonialism was. And of the absence of any sense of guilt for Italian Fascist racism … The issue is always the same: we have not come to terms with our past”.[6]

In the widespread racism that has increasingly characterized Italy over the last twenty years we can find a mix of structural and super-structural questions; cultural elements – ignorance, prejudice – are mixed together with elements concerning the labor market, the economic crisis and exploitation. Fighting against racist drifts in the present-day Italian society, sometimes, may appear as fighting windmills, because what makes the situation worse (beyond all the considerations on the absence of self-critical elaboration of colonial and Fascist racism), are the institutional policies: racism affirmed, legitimated and promulgated from above. A driving role in the last few years has been played by the Northern League which “has skilfully built an apparently inoffensive racism, which is actually the true force for its strategy of legitimization”.[7] A racism which is openly non-antisemitic and exempt from manifest Fascist reminiscences – a stratagem that has contributed to make it popular – but ferociously anti-Muslim and against immigrants. Such constellation appears especially alarming when we deal with the question of generations: it is children who soon and permanently absorb what adults’ world produces in terms of stereotypes and prejudices.[8]

All the more reason, it is necessary to get ready to fight against this constant threat which undermines the foundations of democracy, since it radically denies the principle of equality. With this respect, I would like to propose a brief reflection on the concept of race, used in diverse ways in different linguistic fields. While in many European countries the word “race” – after its positivist scientific legitimization in the 19th century and its criminal use by Nazi-Fascist regimes of the 20th century – has become a sort of taboo, it is still used in the Anglo-Saxon context: for instance, as a category of analysis of labor market structures, but also, paradoxically, in the struggles of black people for their civil rights (taking the racist insult of “being a race” on themselves, in a provocative manner) and in the setting out of anti-racist laws and rules. We know for certain that races do not exist. What exists are racialized human groups, socially built up and then perceived a “races” – but human races do not exist. Categorization by race creates differences among human groups well above its ability to acknowledge their objective diversity. It creates differences and hierarchize them. Colette Guillaumin in an important essay on racist ideology wrote: “the biologization of perception starting from the moment in which it is associated with the perception of social difference forms the core of the racist organization”.[9]

The same science that had legitimated the concept in the 19th century, today proposes another view:

“Many people continue to believe that human groups have fundamental biological differences… Genetics research is demonstrating that things are not like this at all… Genetics research is now about to end our long misadventure with the idea of race. We now know that groups overlap genetically to such a degree that humanity cannot be divided into clear categories”.[10]

Race is a social construct transforming specific cultural differences and social inequalities into alleged and unbridgeable natural differences.

Racist ideology is way of thinking, a belief starting from the assumption that human-kind is made up of categorically different human groups; through a process of naturalization of historical/social relationships and contexts, far from being natural, such an assumption is the antithesis of the utopia of “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” and the antithesis of the very concept of “individual”. Race becomes a legal category after that of citizenship. The idea of race per se is a collective concept according to which human-kind is biologically divided into sub-groups being insurmountably different among themselves and homogeneous within each of them. Both diversity among the alleged “races”, and homogeneity among the human beings belonging to these sub-groups, according to such a social construct, are hereditarily transmitted: soma and psyche are coincident: inferior races are uglier and less intelligent than superior races by natural laws and blood ties. It is obvious that such a social construction of reality is interiorized by people living in a racist environment and that it has severe consequences on their perception of social relationships and of the surrounding world. Therefore, the social, political and economic life is structured a priori according to alleged unalterable natural hierarchies.

The subdivision of society into groups of others by nature – for race issues – legitimates a treatment of appropriation and domination of racialized groups, which is substantially in conflict with citizenship rights, without infringing them formally. Such a stratagem has characterized imperialist and colonial policies of great powers,[11] and is still found in the European policies towards migrants. Citizenship, as a legal and concrete form of middle-class individual freedom, is based on individuals’ ownership of themselves. Equality is a universal concept which makes reference to the social dimension of individuality. In the new mechanisms of exclusion and appropriation – after the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen adopted in the late eighteenth century – the abstract universalism remains intact, because the exclusion from citizenship is carried out through the naturalization of the excluded groups.

Such a racializing structuring of economic and social relationships has characterized the policies of western powers in the 19th and part of the 20th century and has strongly marked public debate and a widespread common sense, or a common feeling, of large sectors of the population. However, after the end of World War II and the trauma of the Shoah, new racist beliefs have developed. A change has taken place in discourses, in the legitimization of racist attitudes, in political propaganda. The mythology of biological inequality has been replaced by the idea of “cultural difference”. It is again a social construct irreversibly dividing human beings: but this time, in the name of an alleged cultural difference. It is a neo-racism, a racism without race, for which Pierre-André Taguieff has coined the concept of differentialist racism.[12] The main target of such a new racist configuration – as it emerges in the Northern League’s racist ideology – is immigration as a factor of destruction of one’s own identity. However, we should be careful: biological racism and culturalist racism are different concepts from an analytical standpoint, but they become entwined and overlapping in reality. After all, anti-Semitism has always had a significant cultural component, as Islamophobia today: both these ideological constructs, besides racializing the religion – and thus the culture – contain elements of classical racism, the biological one.[13]

Old and new racism – the biological racism and the differentialist one – tend to mix together in Italy today. In the political discourses of all the right-wing components, for example, terms such as “Islamists”, “terrorists”, “niggers”, “Bingo Bongo (savages)”, “non-Community” and “inferior race” are often used in an interchangeable manner. “‘Muslims jeopardize our purity: their aim is to get married with our women’, said the former Forza Italia member of parliament Michele Arcangelo Bucci. ‘I don’t want to see fags down the street, I don’t want my grandchildren to be niggers, I don’t want to see mulatto grandchildren’, blathered the former Fiamma Tricolore senator Luigi Caruso, clarifying ‘I am not a racist, but roads, railways and infrastructure were built with the sweat of Italians, of our ancestors. Niggers, savages didn’t give anything of their own’”.[14]

And Mario Borghezio, Euro-MP of Northern League affirmed: “The Ulivo (former left-wing coalition) has ceased to bastardize our blood infecting it with the blood of non-Community immigrants!” Stella remarked: “Write an essay titled: in what other civil country a government party which over the years has gained the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Justice tolerates a racist talking about ‘infected blood’ among its members?”.[15]

To conclude, I would like to return to the use of the word “race”. I believe that it is important to make an ideal-typical, conceptual distinction, proposed by Taguieff (who in turn made reference to Guillaumin): that between hetero-racialization racism and self-racialization racism. The former is a racism based on the principle of a logic of domination and exploitation, imposing to keep the Other alive: “‘Race’, before being called inferior, is that of the Other, is defined as the very characteristic of the Other. Race is the Other”.[16] The latter, the self-racialization racism is based on the logic of total exclusion: only those who are “Us” are the race (the Aryan myth), the “Us” is human kind itself. Self-racialization fosters a particular repulsion of the Other, animated by fear. The racist ideology thriving on this passion can only direct all its energies towards the destruction of the Other.

“Hence, whereas colonialist racism could not, without functionally destroying itself, aim for the annihilation of its exploitable victims, Nazi racism, a racism of combat essentially directed against  ‘the Jew’, the singular name of the demonic other, had to go to the point of destroying without a trace the absolute enemy in order to realize its objectives”.[17]

The referent in both cases is the one who dominates; the relationship is asymmetrical by definition. However, it is the definition of difference which changes: domination racism, typical of colonialism, is based on an inequality logic, giving space to the Self-Other relationship on a hierarchical scale (hetero-racialization), while extermination racism, typical of Nazism, is based on a logic of identity (self-racialization) refusing any kind of relationship between the Self and the Other.

I raise a question (for which I have no answer, anyway): is it possible that, in the historic memory, the predominance of colonial racism and of economic exploitation (hetero-racialization) in the Anglo-Saxon world has had an influence on the use of the notion of “race” as a category of analysis of social-economic processes, while in Europe the historical experience of Nazism and Fascism before (and the ethnic cleansing in the recent wars of former Yugoslavia then), characterized by the myth of the “Aryan race” (self-racialization) – and, thus, by the predominant use of the term “race” in a context of genocide and extermination – has had a greater influence on  linguistic sensitivity? Or is it maybe in Europe the result of repulsion, causing a sense of unease and guilt determining the taboo of the word, without a reflection on what is underlying the concept?

Whatever the reasons of the aforementioned linguistic differences, it must be stressed that the critical and self-critical use of words is of paramount importance especially in a context of permanent or proliferating racism. It is fundamental – above all in the case of educational and learning processes or of messages coming from the mass media – to use the verbs “to racialize”, “to inferiorize” and “to label”. While it is extremely dangerous to use the word race, because the perception is affirmatively structured: they are indeed different, ever since and forever. In the relations of recognition – and vice-versa of misrecognition and humiliation – between “Me” and the “Other”, between “Us” and “Them”, the issue of reciprocity is crucial.[18] However, the idea of “race” hinders any form of reciprocity. Individuals of different origins (foreigners, migrants, refugees, workers, tourists, etc.) are perceived as compact and stigmatized groups of individuals who are inferior by definition. A terrible heritage for future generations.


1. See Renate Siebert, Don’t forget – Fragments of a Negative Tradition ,in “International Yearbook of Oral History”, Volume I, Memory and Totalitarianism, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992. See also the documentary film “Fascist Legacy” by Ken Kirby and Michael Palumbo, produced in 1989 by BBC. [↑]

2. Angelo Del Boca, Italiani, brava gente?, Neri Pozza Editore, Vicenza, 2005. [↑]

3. Gian Antonio Stella, Negri, froci, giudei & co. L’eterna guerra contro l’altro (Niggers, fags, Jews & Co.—The eternal war on the others), Rizzoli, Milan, 2009, p. 68.  [↑]

4. Laura Balbo, In che razza di società vivremo? L’Europa, i razzismi, il futuro, Bruno Mondadori, Milan, 2006.  [↑]

5. Nicola Labanca, Oltremare. Storia dell’esperienza coloniale italiana, il Mulino, Bologna, 2002; Paolo Jedlowski, Passato coloniale e memoria autocritica, in “Il Mulino”, No. 2, 2009.  [↑]

6. Gian Antonio Stella, op. cit., pp. 67 and 77.  [↑]

7. Martina Avanza, The Northern League and it’s ‘innocuous’ xenophobia, in Andrea Mammone and Giuseppe A. Veltri (eds), Italy Today. The Sick Man of Europe, Routledge, London and New York, 2010, p.132. [↑]

8. Paola Tabet, La pelle giusta, Einaudi, Turin, 1997. [↑]

9. Colette Guillaumin, L’idéologie raciste. Genèse et langage actuel, Paris, Gallimard, 1971 and 2002, p. 96.  [↑]

10. Steve Olson, Mapping Human History: Discovering the Past Through Our Genes (Italian translation: Mappe della storia dell’uomo. Il passato che è nei nostri geni, Einaudi, 2003, pp. XIII-XVI). [↑]

11. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (Translated into Italian: Le origini del totalitarismo, Edizioni di Comunità, Torino, 1996). [↑]

12. Pierre-André Taguieff, La Force du préjugé – essai sur le racisme et ses doublesThe Force of Prejudice. On Racism and Its Doubles, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 2001 (Translated into Italian: La forza del pregiudizio. Saggio sul razzismo e sull’antirazzismo, il Mulino, Bologna, 1994). [↑]

13. Monica Massari, Islamofobia. La paura e l’Islam, Laterza, Roma-Bari, 2006. [↑]

14. Gian Antonio Stella, op. cit., p. 72/73. [↑]

15. Ibidem, p. 74. [↑]

16. Pierre-André Taguieff, op. cit., p. 122. [↑]

17. Ibidem, p. 132. [↑]

18. Renate Siebert, Il razzismo. Il riconoscimento negato, Carocci, Rome, 2003. [↑]

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