The latest book by Associate Professor of Sociology Camilla Hawthorne, Challenging race and citizenship, explores how black Italians are fighting for change against the country’s restrictive citizenship laws. In Italy, citizenship is based primarily on ancestry or “blood”, which means that children inherit citizenship if they have at least one Italian parent. But this system means that around 600,000 to 900,000 children of immigrants born in Italy are not guaranteed citizenship in the country where they were raised. Among these are many Italians of African descent.
Hawthorne, herself the daughter of an African American father and an Italian mother, is a bilingual dual citizen who grew up dividing her time between the United States and Italy. These experiences inspired her research on the unique and thorny intersections of race and citizenship in Italy.
“I am an Italian citizen due to the same law that deprives so many of my fellow black Italians,” she said. “So I got really interested in understanding the racial histories of citizenship and how citizenship became a key strategy in black anti-racist politics in Italy.”
Over the past decade, Hawthorne has delved into these topics, often learning from and working alongside black activists, artists, and entrepreneurs in Italy. She also studied media coverage of migration and citizenship issues in the country, explored the creative and philosophical work of black Italians, immersed herself in relevant social media spaces and delved into archives to trace history. of the relationship between race and geography and Italian national identity. .
Challenging race and citizenship shares the results of this research. The book highlights how a unique form of racism emerged in the late 19th century as Italy sought to be accepted as European by differentiating itself from Africa. This new form of racial politics reimagined the Mediterranean as a dividing line, rather than the place of cultural, racial, and ethnic exchange that it had long been. Hawthorne sees echoes of this historic shift in claims by modern right-wing politicians that Italy could lose its identity by being “overrun” by migrants and refugees from Africa. She says it’s really only in the past five to 10 years that Italian historians have begun to take notice of the country’s long history of racism.
“Previous common sense was that because Italy is this mixed Mediterranean nation, racial categories had always been very fluid until Hitler’s influence on Mussolini led to Italy becoming a racial state during the fascist period,” she explained. “But what the archives show is that the ideology of trying to define Italianness and Italian citizenship by race has been around for as long as the Italian state.”
This is the social and historical context in which Italian-born children of black immigrants are now pushing for citizenship, and the book describes how activists have navigated within this context. Hawthorne says the movement is currently engaged in a careful balancing act. On the one hand, Italian-born black activists are eager to affirm their Italianness, and on the other, many also feel solidarity with first-generation migrants from Africa. So they look for ways to push for citizenship that don’t compromise the needs and rights of others.
“Citizenship is important and brings material benefits, but it’s also an exclusionary practice, where someone will always be on the outside,” Hawthorne said. “So we also need to think about the kinds of solidarities that are excluded when citizenship is the only goal. And what I’ve seen over time is that activists still focus on citizenship, but that’s not the end of their politics; they also see relatives from the diaspora arriving as refugees and do not view these struggles as separate.
One area where Hawthorne sees a need for caution in how citizenship struggles are framed is in the area of black entrepreneurship. Black-owned businesses are a source of immense pride and cultural celebration among black Italians, and entrepreneurship has given women the opportunity to build community and promote non-Eurocentric forms of beauty. But some entrepreneurs also present their economic contributions as proof of their “worthiness” for citizenship, and this argument also appears frequently in media coverage.
In the book, Hawthorne explains how this rationale can backfire. She says it can be used to legitimize the economic exploitation of immigrants and their children under the guise of celebrating “hardworking” individuals. At the same time, this reasoning marginalizes groups such as refugees or people with disabilities who could be labeled as economically “unproductive”.
Challenging race and citizenship also details how building broader solidarities to combat anti-black racism in Italy has forced activists to develop a new vocabulary for social change. For example, while first-generation immigrants were traditionally more likely to identify with their family’s specific country of origin, their children are now also adopting terms such as Black Italian or Afro Italian, in recognition of the shared experiences that come with growing up black in Italian. society. Activists also had to adapt terms from other languages or define new ones to capture the unique circumstances of racial injustice in Italy.
Increasingly, the movement has sought to address issues of race and citizenship in local and global contexts. Hawthorne says the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 showed how exciting new forms of resistance and solidarity can arise from these efforts.
“Making black lives matter in Italy means thinking about access to citizenship, the deaths of refugees crossing the Mediterranean and the exploitation of undocumented migrants in agricultural work, as well as police brutality “, she said. “At that time, a lot of people were thinking about black politics in Italy beyond just citizenship reform and seeing this whole constellation of issues with the regime of racial capitalism and colonialism. This is a great example of how we can mobilize together across the diaspora.