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Within, Against, Beyond the Color-Line: Generations and Migrations in Italy

Luca Queirolo Palmas | Journal: Challenging Italian Racism [6] | Issues | Oct 2010

s.o.s negative appraisal if they call me foreigner in the place I live
s.o.s. negative appraisal if they call me foreigner, I turn round and smile
(Straniero nella mia nazione –  Amir Issa)

A recent documentary, In between. 9 Takes from the European scene,[1] – a product of a European project on second generations – attempted to explore the scenarios, resources and vulnerabilities of a ‘mixed-race’ Europe: more specifically the children of immigration and the established relationships in the folds of a territory which subsequently give life to a brand new generation. By “generation” we intend a process that develops and precipitates around a significant event, something that occurs and affects how one feels, behaves, relates to others, or considers oneself whether as an individual or collectively; such as the murder of Pym Fortuyn and Theo Van Gogh in Holland and the subsequent wave of Islamophobia, the police killing of a teenager who runs off and the revolt of French suburbs, the Kafkaesque turmoil of residence permits and citizenship in many countries, the residential segregation which gives no hint of decreasing, the social alarm regarding gangs as the new public enemy, the first fingerprinting procedures at police headquarters…What counts is that these are all signs that earmark and publicly expose a generation articulated by a racialized securitarian rhetoric. How is such a generation developing in Italy at a time of escalating state racism?

Over the last 30 years Italy has become a country of immigration. But, even more relevant is the fact that  migration processes have progressively grown roots and affiliations within the territory over lengthy periods of time, and as such the perception of the migrant as a guest subject tied to a temporary dimension has been misleading. There are multiple traces of evidence (see Tab.1) that confirm the stabilization of flows; from the re-unification of families to the growth in mixed couples, from investments in the housing market to the growth in banking by migrants, from birth to schooling.

Foreign Minors (2008) 862,453
Incidence on total population of foreign residence 22.2%
Incidence of Foreign minors born in Italy (2008) 52.9%
New births from two foreign parents in Italy (2008) 72,472
Incidence on total births 12.6%
Foreign pupils (2008/2009) 628,937
those born in Italy 37.1%
Foreign pupils in pre-schools 125,059
those born in Italy 73.3%
Citizenships granted (2008) 39,484
Incidence of mixed marriages on total marriages (2007) 9.4%

Tab.1: Indicators of posterity of migration (Source: Caritas Migrantes, 2009)

As Sayad[2] taught us, the children of immigration often represent, in the eyes of those who consider themselves true natives, an inopportune posterity, an unmanageable and illegible presence, an unwelcome guest who has however all necessary characteristics to become to all effects and purposes a citizen, to be and to feel entirely at home.

The securitarian argument, in vogue in Italy today as much as elsewhere, multiplies stares and borders, categorizes from above, creates alarm and convenient targets, generates belligerent speeches and identities. Ahmed Djouder in his autobiography about a young man from the banlieue[3] renders the weight of this pervasive rhetoric in a few simple questions.

“When will you stop looking at us as immigrants, as foreigners, as thieves, as terrorists? Just try to imagine a world where you are discussed only in terms of percentages of immigration, marginalization, crime, criminal offences, insecurity?”

This is securitarism, the generalization of an internal border made of social control and new surveillance technologies in multiple, navigable public spaces (schools, hospitals, registry offices, construction sites), a phenomenon well exemplified by the recent introduction in Italy of the criminal offence of undocumented migration and by the consolidated legal-administrative obstacles to obtaining citizenship. The difficulty in gaining citizenship – still constructed around the principle of ius sanguinis – is in fact the hurdle which the children of migration come up against in their attempt to claim a status of equality. Such an anachronistic legislation has succeeded, in combination with new exclusionary policies which produce the oxymoronic figure of the non-immigrant foreigner: over half of the children of immigration, perceived by the receiving society as foreigners, were in fact born and grew up in Italy.

As a young Italian-Congolese girl expressed during the course of a research project, “It is difficult to be part of our generation. Our fathers had to fight to work, we have to fight to live.” Her brief statement conveys what is at stake: the clear perception of the color-line and the desire to overcome it in order to take control of their lives which is not solely about employment, but also affection, plans, idleness, pleasure, study, voice and expression. We get a glimpse in this testimony, as in others collected over a 10 year period of research,[4] of a ‘mixed-race’ pride as a response to the color-line; the refusal to be categorized according to empty ethnic and colonial classifications and to instead re-formulate a free and mobile statute in which identities are determined and transformed in different contexts, re-composed and miscegenated, contested or emphasized.

The pervasiveness of racism, both in practice and in reported speech that spans contemporary Italy,[5] derives on the one hand, from the difficulty in recognizing the consequences of a settlement migration; on the other hand, it is precisely through the generational encounters that take place during educational spaces and free-time that the question of the color-line is decided: whether it be the overcoming or affirmation of a society in which race becomes a means of overriding class and a means of facilitating new forms of stratification and social immobility.

What is the border today for these subjects? Something that coincides with their bodies, that moves with them as they move in space and lives on the looks and sanctions that such bodies suffer in their mobility. The border is therefore mobile as it is embodied. And it is against the body that a match between visibility and invisibility is played. The young immigrant is not only rendered invisible as she often lacks due recognition, but she is rendered too visible. She is denied what Goffman defines as a courteous disregard, or rather to use Delgado’s words,[6] the condition of dullness by virtue of which certain subjects are not:

systematically obliged to explain themselves, to justify their actions, thoughts, rituals, eating habits, sexuality, religious feelings they profess and their vision of the world, all data and information that us, normal people, would not consider disclosing to anyone out with our most intimate social circle. An imposed visibility and invisibility thus exists against which further strategies of invisibility and visibility are set to oppose or get around the looks and bureaucratic routines that represent, classify or render inferior young people of immigrant origin in public spaces.

On the one hand, citing the suggestive expression of  Dick Hebdige,[7] the children of immigration have to learn to hide while being in the headlights. On the other hand they undertake forms of exposure as a means of creatively managing the stigma; otherwise said, they turn the lowlights on while trying to turn off the spotlights. Full focus is on the proliferation of internal and external borders by negating immigrants and their children the right to indifference, “this is the primordial act of contemporary racism, to deny certain people defined as different the possibility to go unobserved, to oblige them to expose what others can keep hidden…”[8] If this right has been taken away from them, it is also in virtue of rhetoric strategies of orientalism from within[9] which exoticize and  render such presences primitive, turning bodies into mobile borders.[10] The border can no longer be considered a caesura between one space and another, but rather it moves with people, being registered as a sign of difference in the eyes of receiving and transit societies who have developed and attributed to it a (dis)value.

The debate regarding second generations is therefore of crucial importance as it radically affects the receiving societies’ view of immigrants and at the same time dislocates the idea of an assumed homogeneity of a nation in terms of its cultural background and identity. When will a hyphenated Italian exist? An Italian-Congolese rather than an Italian-Ecuadorian? Definitions of second generations exclusively use the criteria of birth or favor a mix of factors (birth, moment of arrival and school socialization). Ambrosini[11] more pragmatically opens the boundaries of this category to include all those children who have at least one immigrant parent, whether they were born abroad or in Italy. Nevertheless the term second generations, and its use in public and scientific debates is not convincing: (a) for its effects of reification (to be a child of immigration as a ontological property); (b) for the removal of contact with peers who are not children of immigration; (c) for the reduction of a biography at the origin; (d) for the transformation of an origin into a destiny. Such a category, which emphasizes the maintenance of a cultural distance, reminds young people coming from immigrant families that despite all their efforts they are and always will be linked to another cultural space and as such their residence is not worthy of full citizenship.

We would instead suggest for such differences to be considered as strategies and not things, a repertoire of experiences that are used in a contingent manner and that articulates irony, an ability to camouflage oneself, ostentation, emphasis and nomadic attitude. Such a perspective of daily multiculturalism, as proposed by Colombo and Semi,[12] provides an important contribution in bridging one of the main gaps in sociological research on the topic: while we have considerable knowledge regarding the schooling of young people of foreign origins, we still know very little about their multiple culture generations and their practices of access and voice in public space.

Sayad[13] again reminds us that racism exists and is perceived only when we leave the comfort zone of our own ethnic-national-family, when we take our first steps within and across the ‘host’ society. The generation we are referring to grew up within this Italy, it cannot be deported, aborted or re-allocated and ethnicized as it refuses a subordinate integration.[14] In the framework of a European research project, Benasso, Cortellesi and Villa[15] ascertained that young people of foreign origin interviewed in Italy considered themselves to be perceived according to their origin (whether it be of a national, ethnic, cultural, religious nature ), yet they also displayed a means of self-identification linked to age (being young or teenagers), from their musical tastes, to their looks, to sporting activities or sexual styles. In this perspective the colour-line, as a means of controlling the effective and symbolic mobility of a generation, is the after-effect of a border violation: that of the person who questions their own heredity experience of the migrant condition and who instead considers herself to be a child of her own life rather than a “child of immigration”.

Schooling plays a fundamental role in determining life opportunities given the multiple experiences of inclusion and exclusion that are concentrated and reflected within it. The school, through actions carried out by many players actors from the bottom upwards (teachers, headmasters, families, associations, cultural-mediators), has created a latent configuration, an implicit model of integration: the opposition to separate schooling; the irrelevance of the legal status of the minor; the centrality of the individual; a positive intercultural orientation (even if ambiguous or naïve at times); the centrality of the relationship with the families. The focus on open schooling however, did not often go hand in hand with attention to achievements, to suitable school policies to oppose dropping-out processes and to support avoiding the concentration of children of immigration in professional and technical institutions.[16][17] Research invites us to avoid considering minoritized pupils as a them, and whom have to be contested methodologically and theoretically to an us that takes on board a series of social factors (class, cultural capital, family conditions, school mood, teaching style). If we analyze the heterogeneity of the conditions of these pupils, even recent anxieties – from the proposal of separate schooling to the identification of a maximum threshold defined moreover by ambiguous criteria regarding risks in concentrating too many presences – express a fearful rhetoric which the production of exclusion presupposes. It is therefore necessary to perceive migrations as a dynamic ‘mirror’, as a process that works and moves freely and fully in a society, transforming itself and rendering an image that goes beyond the specific object of study; observing immigrations in schools in this manner does not limit us to simply unveil the distinguishing and folkloristic characteristics of the object under study, but allows us to understand the overall workings of these spaces and these institutions.

To understand the school experience means to examine the after-school experience, the relationship between youth culture starting from the roots of migratory flows to the diffusion of imaginary notions fuelled by global cultural industries. It is in this perspective that research on racialized youth has approached the topic of participation and perception of citizenship and belonging,[18] the role of social capital in determining academic outcomes,[19] the agency forms adopted by gangs,[20] the importance of religiousness,[21] the experiences of discrimination among hyphenated Italians,[22] the recreational-sport appropriations in public spaces,[23] consumption as a source of identity.[24] We need to get used to reading this generation’s agency and resistance, and identify the many signs that evoke and foresee the public eruption of a miscegenated ‘pride’ and its ability to be an incorporated element and experience of Europe: through artistic expression, whether it be hip-hop or theatre, in evangelical churches, boy-scout centers or squatted social centers; through the commitment to invest in education, in local gyms and in community regeneration starting from the neglected urban public spaces; through the invention of spectacular identifications by youth gangs, on the skaters’ ramps or on the graffiti walls; new social relations are emerging that move beyond color-line by forms of resistance that play on ambivalence.

It is necessary to supersede the debate on ‘second generations’ in Italy as it constitutes a term that reduces the social space to an origin or extraction, obliterating the ability of subjects to camouflage themselves, to transform identifications, differences and belongings; anchoring them to dimensions that have little to do with being immigrants of any generation; it is a term that is rejected insofar as it creates a distinction between young people of immigrant origin and young people in general, collocating them in distinct and immeasurable spaces. They are a new generation who refuse any number or denomination, generations who are on the move in society and in daily life, and by virtue of these unclassifiable and inappropriate movements generate a backlash of racist practices and rhetorics of closure. It is a generation who, in the face of pervasiveness of stigma and borders, begins to think collectively and to seek networks, to share projects, experiment resistance and creativeness together with other groups marked by a social as well as chronological age; of mobility, of precariousness and of re-invention of an us within, against and beyond the color-line.


1.  Alessandro Diaco, Paula Mota Santos, Hugo Morango, Eugenia Teodorani, 2009.  [↑]

2.  Sayad Abdelmalek, La doppia assenza. Dalle illusioni dell’emigrato alle sofferenze dell’immigrato, Raffaello Cortina, Milano, 2002.  [↑]

3.  Djouder Ahmed, Disintegrati. Storia corale di una generazione di immigrati, Il Saggiatore, Milano, 2007, 91.  [↑]

4.  Queirolo Palmas Luca, Prove di seconde generazioni. Giovani di origine immigrata fra scuole e spazi urbani, Francoangeli, Milano, 2006. [↑]

5.  Naletto Grazia, Rapporto sul razzismo in Italia, Roma, Manifestolibri, 2009.  [↑]

6.  Delgado Manuel, Sociedades movedizas. Pasos hacia una antropologia de la calle, Anagrama, Barcelona 2007,192.  [↑]

7.  Hebdige Dick, Hiding in the light, Routledge, London, 1988.  [↑]

8.  Delgado, ibid  [↑]

9.  Calavita Kitty, Immigrants at the margins, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2005.  [↑]

10.   Hage Ghassan, White nation, Routledge, New York, 2000.  [↑]

11.  Ambrosini Maurizio, Sociologia delle migrazioni, Il Mulino, Bologna, 2005. [↑]

12.  Colombo Enzo, Semi Giovanni, Multiculturalismo quotidiano. Le pratiche della differenza, Franco  Angeli, Milano 2007. [↑]

13.  Sayad [↑]

14. Hage [↑]

15.  Benasso Sebastiano, Cortellesi Giulia, Villa Alessandra, Crossing Sights: migrant youth in two Italian cities, in “Italian Journal of Sociology of Education”, Vol 4, N. 1, 2010.  [↑]

16.  Giovannini Graziella., Queirolo Palmas Luca, (a cura di), Una scuola in comune. Esperienze scolastiche in contesti multietnici italiani, Edizioni della Fondazione Agnelli, Torino, 2002. [↑]

17.  Chaloff Jonathan, Queirolo Palmas Luca, (a cura di), Scuole e migrazioni in Europa. Dibattiti e prospettive, Carocci, Roma, 2006.  [↑]

18.  Colombo Enzo, (a cura di), Figli di migranti in Italia. Identificazioni, relazioni, pratiche, Utet, Torino, 2010. [↑]

19.  Ravecca Andrea, Studiare nonostante. Capitale sociale e successo scolastico degli studenti di origine immigrata nella scuola superiore, Franco angeli, Milano, 2009.  [↑]

20. Queirolo Palmas [↑]

21.  Frisina Annalisa, Giovani musulmani d’Italia, Carocci, Roma, 2007.  [↑]

22.  Andall Jaqueline, “Italiani o stranieri? La seconda generazione in Italia”, in Sciortino Giuseppe, Colombo Asher, Un’immigrazione normale, Il Mulino, Bologna, 2003.  [↑]

23.  Zoletto Davide, Il gioco duro dell’integrazione. L’intercultura sui campi da gioco, Raffaello Cortina, Firenze, 2010.  [↑]

24.  Leonini Luisa, Consumi e identità, in “Mondi Migranti”, 3., 2008.   [↑]

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