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“Blood is Thicker than Water”: The Materialization of the Racial Body in Fascist East Africa


One of the major issues with the perception of “race” in modern Italy refers to what Alessandro Portelli defines as Italians’ “self-reflexive colour blindness.”1 What occurs in Italy is not simply a denial of race. Rather than seeing themselves as “White,” according to Portelli, Italians see themselves as “normal.” As a result, because colour is unspoken and not openly mentioned, it is believed that Italians are immune from racism. Such a structural colour-blindness, however, is problematic because it associates Whiteness with normality and, consequently, with Italianness.2 Simply put, to be Italian is to be White. Within this discourse, those who do not fit the alleged (White) Italian type are deemed outside the Nation on a number of levels.3

In order to understand and unpack such dynamics it is necessary to consider the category of “race” and the influence this had on the construction of Italian national identity. If “race” is a social construct devoid of scientific validity, it still retains enormous power in the modern world. In the case of Italy, the racial construction of national identity shows a complex ambivalence embedded in discursive practices revolving around an ambiguous production of both Whiteness and Blackness. Such an ambiguity, as highlighted by Tatiana Petrovich Njegosh stems from Italians’ liminal double racial status as racialisers (of Jews, southerner Italians and Africans) and racialised subjects in the U.S. and Australia.4 As a result, “race” in Italy today seems to be located within the interstices of a polarised discourse based on notions of “unspoken Whiteness”5 able to visually recognise “Italians” from “Others,” namely those called stranieri (foreigners), extracomunitari (a term used to define migrants coming from outside the EU) and the new “migranti” category (broadly used to address African migrants crossing the Mediterranean). Although colour is not openly named, meaningful biological connotations based on phenotypic features located on the body are at the core of Italian national identity. It is important to notice that such a disjunction does not work merely at a visual level. The racialisation of national identity, in fact, transversally affects Italian society and the everyday life of racialised subjects extending from education to housing, labour rights, work opportunities, political participation, health, personal safety, and legal discourse too, as discussed in this paper.

Drawing on ideas of performativity as applied to race, this essay illustrates some of the reasons why in contemporary Italy the idea of Blackness associated with Italianness still appears, to some, an impossible semantic match, an irreconcilable paradox. Owing to the interdependence of colonialism, ideas of “race” and “mixed race,” and the normative construction of Whiteness in relation to national identity, it seems necessary to investigate the nexus of race, gender and citizenship, through a performative lens. In order to do so, I focus on a series of laws and decrees passed during the Liberal and Fascist periods. These include the Codice Civile per la Colonia Eritrea (Colonial Civil Code for the Colony of Eritrea) of 1909, Law 999 of 1933, introduced to regulate the legal identity of “mixed race” children born in the former Italian colonies in East-Africa, and the racial laws enacted between 1937 and 1940. The investigation of these pieces of legislation is useful to highlight not only the influence that Liberal norms had on the promulgations of Fascist racial laws, but also how Italian citizenship, today, is still rooted in the idea of an alleged “racial citizen.”


The Performative Constitution of the Racial Subject

Following theories of performativity, “race,” rather than being considered a fallacious scientific fact or simply labelled a social construction, can be identified instead as the result of an active process of racialisation, one that discursively constructs the body.6 Racialisation is a key term here. Robert Miles defines it as a “dialectical process” through which biological features are attributed with meanings able to categorise and classify people.7 Similarly, Steve Garner explains how racialisation should not be intended as the investigation of “race” itself but, rather, as the process by which the idea of “race” becomes meaningful in a specific context.9 What is important to consider here is the idea of an “ongoing process,”10 as it is the sense of constant movement and transformation that leads to the investigation of “race” as performative. In order to understand the implications of race performativity, it is first necessary to draw its connections with theories of gender performativity as formulated by Judith Butler.11

According to Butler, gender and gendered behaviours are not something natural and pre-existing, nor are they related to biological differences between women and men. She argues instead that gendered identity, defined as an “object of belief,”12 is constituted by the stylisation of the body, namely the repetition of acts—such as gestures and movements—that gives significance and sustains the idea of the gendered self.13 Drawing from speech-act theory, Butler follows the idea that the performative can be seen as a discursive practice able to produce or enact “that which it names.”14 Gender, therefore is always a doing” performatively constituted by regulatory norms and practices which exist prior to the subject.15 This means that it is not the individual doing gender, but rather that gender norms that shape their identities, expectations and desires are imposed on individuals from the moment they are born. Butler does not deny the existence of the material body and some physiological differences. However, she claims the “intentional organized” materiality of bodies needs to be located in history. As she argues,

The body is not merely a matter but a continuous and incessant materializing of possibilities. One is not simply a body, but in some very key sense, one does one’s body and, indeed, one does one’s body differently from one’s contemporaries and from one’s embodied predecessors and successors as well.16

 As Kylie Stephens pertinently remarks, Butler seems to be interested in how specific materializations of bodies’ functions are able to maintain or challenge established cultural norms and social orders.17 In other words, Butler’s work illuminates how the “naming” of the gendered body within particular sets of discursive regimes, such as normative heterosexuality, is capable of producing such a body and to render its materialisation meaningful through the repetition of acts and expressions considered as the result of gender itself.18 Therefore, if the body is a “set of possibilities” influenced by historical conventions, as she argues, performativity should not be considered as one singular act, but rather as a “reiterative and citational practice” capable, through discourse, of producing “the effects it names.”19

Similarly, following Butler’s approach, it may be argued that the racial body, like the gendered body, is performatively constituted by discourse rather than being the result of a biological truth. Thus, it is by “naming” the racial body within particular sets of discursive regimes, such as normative Whiteness, that this body is produced and becomes meaningful. Paraphrasing Butler’s considerations in relation to the gendered body, a body becomes its “race” through the repetition of acts and expressions that are considered the result of “race” itself.

In relation to the construction of the racialised Mexican body, Xavier Indra, developed a framework called “racial performativity.”20 Indra starts from the idea that “race” does not exist; thus, he argues, to be identified as “race”, an individual needs be categorised into one.21 Owing to the fact that “race” does not refer to an existing “constitutive entity” and it cannot exist outside the “active forces” that build it,22 race is, therefore “performatively constituted as a kind of speech act that…retroactively constitutes and naturalizes the body to which it refers.”23 Similarly to Butler, Indra also reiterates the materiality of the racial body, although, he goes a step beyond Butler affirming that “if the racial body, in general is anything, it is material.”24 Thus for Indra, racial difference is much more than the material difference inscribed on the body. As he explains:

Racial difference is never simply a function of material differences that are not in some ways both marked and formed by discursive practices. The argument here is that there can be no access to a pure materiality of the body outside or before signification and, by extension, no access to a pure materiality of bodily life that is separate from discourse. The signifying act could thus be said to be performative to the extent that it delimits and contours of the racial body.25

According to Indra, a racial body materialises and becomes meaningful within a specific and contingent historical discourse and, as mentioned earlier, the historical location of the embodiment plays a central role in this matter. Sara Ahmed highlights how looking at processes of racialisation means necessarily to deal with the “multiple histories” that have produced the racialized body.26 To do so, she argues, it is imperative to acknowledge the indissoluble connections between the production of the racial body and the history of European colonialism.27 And this is a history that deeply concerns Italy too. Normative Whiteness, scientific racism, ideas of blood purity and conceptualisations on “race,” had a crucial impact on the formation of national identity. As Cristina Lombardi-Diop aptly reminds us:

Theories on and references to the racial identity of Italians as white have cemented the project of nationhood since its unification, while the idea of the racial superiority of Italians, in scientific and mainstream literature, has been the leitmotiv in Italian nationalist discourse during the interwar period as well as in colonial propaganda.28

Following ideas of performativity applied to “race,” the next sections will investigate how Italian colonialism and Fascism materialised the body of the racialised colonial “Other” through discursive practices able to produce hierarchical classifications of inequality. The analysis of the meanings and power relationships inscribed on certain bodies reveals how the normative construction of the black body as inferior and deviant29 has been fundamental for the functioning of Italy as a “racial nation”30 marked by the persistence of a specific colour line divide.


The Production of the Racial Body: Gendering the Mixed Race Category

By the end of the eighteenth century the racial body had already been materialised and performatively constituted by the use of powerful discursive practices, producing what Stuart Hall defines as “regimes of representations.”31 These regimes were aimed at the split of individuals in binary categories for the maintenance of certain social norms and order. As a consequence, the genealogical search for the origins of Europeans brought about the measurement of anatomical parts of the human body in order to identify and measure innate signs of differences. As Stephen Jay Gould demonstrates, the process of reification and abstraction of certain human features—such as intelligence—gave birth to the classification of human beings on a series of “worthiness” in which, Gould notices, “oppressed and disadvantaged groups—races, classes or sexes—are innately inferior and deserve their status.”32 Therefore, if by the end of the eighteenth century, the invention and acceptance of ideas of natural “races” differing from each other mentally and physically had already been largely institutionalised and accepted,33 a century later the threat of racial degeneration had gained a prominent place within European scientific discourse.34 The development of this debate in Italy, and in her former colonies, played a crucial role for the construction of the racialised Black “Other.”

Owing to the threat of racial degeneration represented by miscegenation,35 the juridical discourse became a crucial tool in consolidating the colour line divide and crystallising racial categories.36 Mixing could be potentially very dangerous not only because it was located in the ‘womb’ of the Nation. As noticed by Ann Laura Stoler, mixing called into question categories essential for the functioning of the colonial system such as identity and citizenship. “Métissage”, as she argues, did not represent just the threat of dangerous elements at national borders; rather it challenged the most internal frontiers of European nation-states.37 Therefore, the legal prohibition of interracial relationships became one of the main tools used by the colonial State to reaffirm the validity of racial knowledge and to prevent the instability of racial and colonial categories.38 Through the implementation of judicial laws and decrees based on the stratification and quantification of blood and colour, Nadine Ehlers shows how the “mixed race” body was located beyond what she calls “the peripheries of Whiteness.”39 We can observe a similar process of physical and symbolic removal of the “mixed race” body in the Italian colonial context too. Here, the role operated by the legal discourse brought about the fixing of certain positions of inequality based on the reification of racial categories and it produced the “calling into being” of specific racial subjects.

In 1905, eighty per cent of the European men living in colonial Eritrea40 were aged over sixteen and unmarried.41 The majority of those married went to Africa without their wives, and among the 482 women living in the colony only seventy-three were unmarried.42

Before the introduction of racial laws (1937-1940) and despite the presence of prostitutes and state-controlled brothels, Italian long-term residents usually had relationships with local women within a practice known as madamato or madamismo, literally meaning “having a relationship with a madama”.43 This term applied to concubines who would temporarily live with Italian men “performing domestic and sexual services and being rewarded in kind and/or money.”44 Madamato was built on an existing form of temporary marriage in Eritrea known as demoz,45 consisting of an Eritrean woman, normally a Coptic Christian, who “commits herself, directly or through her family, to live in conjugal union with a man, for a given length of time, and for the payment of a given sum.”46 According to Eritrean customary norms, the father of the children had to provide economic support to his partner and their offspring.47 Although a certain number of men legally recognised their children and provided for them,48 archival studies like the ones conducted by Giulia Barrera and Gianluca Gabrielli show that many men, especially military officials and those whose tenure in Africa was temporary, dismissed such norms and left their female partners and children.49

Several historians have already highlighted how the policies to regulate “race” and citizenship in the colonies were quite contradictory owing to the change of the colonial government’s political views.50 Yet, despite contrasting opinions on “mixed race” offspring, from the beginning of the Italian presence in East Africa colonial governors found it necessary to implement a corpus of laws defining the juridical status of citizens and subjects and to regulate interracial relationships due to the number of “mixed race” children born in the colonies.

The juridical status of “mixed race” Italians was regulated by the Codice Civile del Regno (Civil Code of the Kingdom) according to which the recognised children of Italian men were Italians.51 Nonetheless, these cases were a rarity considering that the majority of Italian men who temporarily stayed in Africa abandoned or never recognised their offspring. The 1909 Codice Civile per la Colonia Eritrea dealt with this issue and Italian citizenship became defined by anthropological criteria.52 Article 5 of the Code, in fact, affirmed that citizenship could be granted to the recognised child of an Italian citizen and a colonial subject, while Article 8 stated that in case of unknown parents, a child born in the colonies could gain Italian citizenship if their “physical features” showed the presence of Italian blood.53 Although the Code was never implemented, it was used as a juridical framework in cases dealing with the citizenship of “mixed race” children54 until the promulgation of further legislation in 1933. It is important to highlight here the importance of the Code for the performative production of the racial body through the use of legal discourse. With the 1909 Code, we witness the process of racialisation of national identity and the discursive association of the racial body with specific meanings ascribed to measurable phenotypic features. In other words, one may observe the naming of the body “Other” as performatively constituted within a particular set of legal measures embedded in discursive regimes, and how this body became meaningful.

A further development in the production of the racial body, and the consequent racialisation of citizenship, occurred in 1933 under the Fascist regime when the “race” category would make its entry in the legal discourse framing citizenship. The Ordinamento Organico per l’Eritrea e la Somalia (Law of 6 July 1933, No. 999) clearly reflected the impact of theorisations of “race” occurring in Italy during those years.55 Like its predecessor, Article 18 of Law 999 stated that children recognised by their Italian father had the juridical right to be considered as legally Italian because of patrilineality laws according to which a child’s racial identity was determined by paternal descent alone, regardless of the mother’s ethnicity.56 Yet, when it came to the case of unrecognised children, the new law displayed the clear marks of new racial-purity theorisations of identity and citizenship. Similarly to the Spanish probanza de limpieza de sangre or proof of blood purity,57 unrecognised “mixed race” Italians could gain Italian citizenship only if they were able to demonstrate on their body the signs of phenotypic features indicating clear racial intermixing with a member of the “White race,”58 or, as Barbara Sòrgoni puts it, to pass “the proof of race” test.59 This proof was successfully completed after a series of craniometrical tests which included the morphological analysis of the skull and the measurement of cranial capacity.60 The racial ascertainment was followed by the cultural ascertainment of “Italianess,” demonstrated by the presence in the “mixed race” subject of some cultural features able to show the “complete assimilation of the dominant race’s spirit,” such as the level of education (third grade of elementary school), lack of criminal records, monogamy, and religion practiced.61 In addition, the discourse on blood and citizenship was not only racialised but also heavily gendered, as demonstrated by Barrera.62 As she observes, the recognition of “mixed race” children by Italian men was accepted because of the belief in the superiority of male genes, a factor that in situations of sexual intercourse with members of “inferior races,” could guarantee the child would have “the physical immunity of the mother without losing the intellectual qualities of the father.”63 Yet, despite having passed the proof of race, many “mixed race” women saw their requests for citizenship denied due to their alleged misconduct and bad morals.64 Likewise, some Italian-Eritrean men saw their rights denied in cases of marriage or cohabitation with an Eritrean woman. Therefore, as Barrera puts it, the colonial government did not consider citizenship for “mixed race” individuals as their right, but rather, as a “selective process” aimed at controlling and domesticate this potentially dangerous group.65

The analysis of these pieces of legislation illustrates the production of the racial body in a specific historical time—colonial Eritrea—and how such a materialisation brought about the restriction of citizenship rights based on the use of specific racial norms. In this regard, Indra argues that the racial body, marked through colour, has been historically inscribed with different “economies of meaning” used to justify hierarchical positions of power.66 Therefore, the use of the performative approach in relation to race helps us understand how, in the case of Black “mixed race” Italians, the racial body created through the use of alleged natural differences inscribed on the body, was in reality not only a product of discursive manoeuvres, but also a historically situated and socially constructed “category of knowledge.”67


Negotiations within the Cracks of Colonial Discourse

The importance of the juridical discourse for the production of the racial body became crucial in 1936. With the birth of the Empire of Africa Orientale Italiana (Italian East Africa) in that year, Mussolini sought to create clear boundaries between colonisers and colonised; hence, a body of racial laws were enacted in order to protect the so called “Italian race.”68 In 1936, while briefing Italian governors in Africa on the new institutional segregationist direction to follow in the colonies, Alessandro Lessona, the Minister for the colonies, stressed the need for a “clear separation of social life and housing between Whites and Blacks, the repression of any attitudes of familiarity with natives, and a supremacy of the ‘White race’ in the everyday life.”69

The first racial decree dated January 1937 stated that Italian citizens having relationships of a “conjugal nature” with colonial subjects might face imprisonment lasting from one to five years.70 The aim of the decree was to prevent sexual relationships between African women and Italian men in order to stop the procreation of so-called meticci. Miscegenation was considered a serious threat to Italian blood and racial purity, and it is important to underline here the role played by propaganda in reinforcing negative ideas of “mixed race” Italians. Visual and textual practices were used as tools to instil support for state ideologies and to modify, or I would say, to colonise the collective imagination. For instance, in 1937 the editors-in-chief of six satirical magazines were summoned to the headquarters of the Minister of Press and Propaganda in Rome in order to be instructed on the new lines they should follow to support the regime’s views on racial mixing:

Satirical press can and has to fight against hybridism making races of colour look as physically and morally inferior (for instance highlighting black women’s ugliness, and the distance that divides the civilisation of whites compared to the civilisation of blacks).71

Through a further process of racialisation, the regime sought to associate negative moral qualities with “races of colour” and explained these as natural, as shown in the quote above. We can observe here the production of the Black “mixed race” body through a discursive manoeuvre aimed at legitimising segregationist policies and the “racial state.”72 To do so, a massive work of propaganda was heavily deployed in order to produce a media overdrive of manipulated representations aimed at Italians and Africans, both in Italy and in the colonies. In relation to the production of the “mixed race” body, in January 1937 Alessandro Lessona wrote an article published on the front page of the national newspaper La Stampa specifically addressing meticci.73 In his article Lessona explicitly defined “mixed race” people as a cast of “unstable individuals,” a “painful plague,” a “source of ill-fated” individuals and an “abnormal branch of the human family.”74 According to the Minister, male Italian promiscuity with African women meant not only a physical contamination, but also a social degradation of the Italian stirpe.75

The production of the racial body was heavily supported by anthropological discourse, and in particular by Lidio Cipriani, one of the main figures promoting anti-miscegenation. Considering the inevitable “regression” of the African “race,” in 1936 Cipriani warned the readers of the national newspaper La Stampa about the danger of contamination brought about by mixing with African blood and, interestingly, invoked the use of the law to protect the “purity” of Whites:

Only when the African is kept under the control of the European can this regression be avoided…No progress, however, is hoped to be promoted in the future by an African. Even for the suspicion of such a thing, the superior races should stay vigilant by interbreeding with Africans. The law should indeed intervene to prevent them. Anthropology teaches us that the decay of the people in the past had no other cause than that of a continuous mixing. Those nations that today welcome inferior races in their breasts… they proclaim their citizens with equal rights to White men, so they are exposed to a very serious and irreparable damage.76

Drawing upon such ideologies, the 1933 law allowing citizenship for “mixed race” individuals was repealed in 1936, only three years after it was promulgated. Furthermore, with the publication of a document entitled Manifesto della razza (Race Manifesto) in 1938, racism officially became part of the Fascist ideology. Although the Manifesto was presented as a ten-chapter document created by a group of scientists and academics, it had been edited by the anthropologist Guido Landra under Mussolini’s indications.77 The Manifesto began by affirming the existence of races, as explained in Chapter One: “Human races exist. The existence of human races is not indeed an abstraction of our spirit, but corresponds to a real phenomenon, material, perceptible with our senses.” “Race” was no longer a “feeling,” as Mussolini had affirmed only five years earlier. Now the meaning of “race” relied on science that had to be explained in terms of biology (Chapter Three). The Manifesto not only stressed the idea of different “racial compositions” and reiterated the Aryan origins of Italians (Chapter Four), but it also claimed that the purity of Italians’ blood had remained unchanged through the centuries owing to a lack of external contamination (Chapter Five). The Manifesto further stated that modern Italians were genetically identical to their ancestors, and that such rare and pure blood was “the greatest title of nobility of the Italian nation” (Chapter Six). The last three chapters seemed to reflect the new direction followed by the regime asking Italians to reckon with their responsibility as members of a pure “race” and exhorting them to proclaim themselves “frankly racist” (Chapter Seven). Miscegenation was clearly addressed at the end of the document stating that:

Union is admissible only among European races, and this does not mean true and real hybridization, given that these races belong to a common body and are differentiated only by a few characteristics, but are otherwise the same in most instances. The purely European character of the Italians would be altered by racial mixing with any extra-European race which would bring a civilization different from the millennia-old Aryan civilization.78

A final further juridical step aimed at locating the Black “mixed race” body beyond Whiteness, to use Ehlers’s words, occurred in 1940 when the regime introduced a specific set of norms to deny any possibility for “mixed race” Italians to gain Italian citizenship.79 In order to do so, their status was modified. The child born from an Italian and an African parent was not considered “Italian” any longer but rather “native” following a pattern similar to the U.S. system of the one drop rule. As a result, it became illegal for an Italian parent to recognise their children given that the latter were no longer Italians but rather “pure” Africans. As thoroughly illustrated by Ariela J. Gross, the legal discourse has been fundamental in the creation of racial meanings and racial categories able to define not just the status of a single individual, but rather an entire group80 as demonstrated by the Italian case.

These considerations inevitably lead us to a number of important questions in relation to negotiations enacted by those social actors positioned within the cracks of colonial discourse. Despite formal segregation, how did bodies, in theory regulated by the law, interact in practice in everyday life? What happened when bodies that were not expected to occupy certain places did so? And how did social actors negotiate their interactions within these grey areas?

It is interesting to consider that the highest number of “mixed race” births in the colonies was registered precisely at the pinnacle of racial segregation and physical separation. In the three years of the racial law period, from 1937 to 1940, in Asmara alone, there were 2,594 registered births without considering the number of unrecognised children.81 Furthermore, due to the massive presence of Italian soldiers (approximately 300,000) temporarily staying in Eritrea on account of the war against Ethiopia, the number of Eritrean women living with Italian men jumped from 10,000 in 1937 to 13,000 in 1939, eventually rising to 15,000 in 1940.82 These numbers show a disjuncture between law and practice occurring in a period of formally-institutionalized racism. The data, in fact, seems to tell us that the more rigid the discourse, the more complex and articulated were the negotiations in everyday life. Undeniably, discrimination and racism were at the core of Italian colonial society in East Africa, and yet, despite prohibition and segregation, African women and Italian men did live together, for a number of reasons. In some cases, they would not only share the same bed, but also the same table. And in other cases, the children born from such unions were legally recognised by their Fascist fathers as members of the Italian community.83These considerations show us that transgressions of discursive borders did take place—in this case, borders of intimacy—and that contrasting and apparently incompatible discourses managed to co-exist within the same colonial space. By reading some court cases relating to the crime of madamato, for instance, one can glimpse at the heterogeneous and complex negotiations concerning love, sex, and intimacy enacted by social actors in Fascist East Africa. These ranged from the desire of both parties to build a future together, to cases of rape and sexual violence perpetrated by Italian men against local women, all the way to situations of exploitation of opportunities and/or apparent advantage and opportunism. The need to formalise not only borders, but also bodies, clearly shows that several kinds of borders—physical, bodily, and racial—had already been largely crossed, and this movement of bodies had challenged the solidity of colonial boundaries which were predicated upon unstable and fragile separations.

In relation to the negotiations enacted by racialised subjects within a colonial context, it is interesting to notice the use made by these subjects of colonial categories. With reference to the figure of the madama in the former Italian colonies, for instance, historian Ruth Iyob shows how Eritrean women not only used colonial categories in order to improve their lifestyle, but they also played an active role in anti-colonial movements by exploiting their networks with “power-holders.”84 Although many madamas had been subjected to sexual violence, some also gained enough economic capital to be able to open businesses, especially taverns, and these, in turn, were often used as the location for secret meetings held by the anti-colonial resistance.85 Therefore, one may argue that the difficulty of establishing de jure and of expelling certain bodies outside of the borders of the Nation, as the Regime tried to do, originated in the fact that these bodies were already inside the Nation and that such a process had started with the beginning of colonisation. It is important to remember that bodies are not passive entities. If, on the one hand, the materialization of certain bodies reinforced and supported the persistence of racial norms, on the other, bodies responded, challenged, continuously negotiated, resisted, and at times, subverted discourses that racialised and gendered them.


Conclusions: Does Blood Still Matter?

As highlighted by Valeria Deplano, the Fascist legislation on “race” deeply changed the meaning of citizenship by deeming a certain section of the population outside the Nation including, amongst others, certain Italians, Jews, and previously considered Italians of African descent.86 Due to the persistence of racialised ideas of citizenship, the post-war willpower to make amends to those wronged among the Italian Jewish population did not find a similar counterpart in the reparations of the damage that colonial and Fascist governments had done to “mixed race” Italians. Through the analysis of post-war archival documents conducted by Deplano, we can observe how the category of biological race (in reference to Italians of African descent) was still very present within the post-Fascist political discourse on citizenship. A case in point, the legge sul meticciato of 1940—which forbade Italians of African descent to gain citizenship—was formally abolished only in 1952, after a long series of tense and opportunistic political debates between Italy, Great Britain, and Ethiopia.87 Furthermore, the formal repeal of the law did not imply or grant any right of citizenship for the children and grandchildren of Italian colonisers. As Deplano illustrates, the post-war republican governments kept considering the juridical position of Italian-East African applicants for citizenship, as the same one as defined by the previous colonial Fascist legislation, in which the degree of Whiteness, and an alleged degree of civilisation, played a crucial role. For this reason, Libyans, owing to an apparently closer cultural and physical similarity to metropolitan Italians, were granted different rights in comparison to Ethiopians, Eritreans and Somalis.88 The formal end of the colonial Fascist regime in East Africa did not mark the end of the relationship between Italy and the thousands of people who, for several reasons, felt that Italy was, after all, their motherland, as shown by Deplano’s research.89 By the same token, the end of the Fascist colonial regime did not end racialised conceptualisations of Italianness based on blood. According to the current citizenship law, 91 of 1992, citizenship is transmitted via blood, following the principle of ius sanguinis, meaning literally “right of blood,” according to which a child born to an Italian mother or father is Italian.90 It is important to consider that for almost a century, Italy has been a country of mass emigration. Between 1880 and 1915 alone, Italy experienced the largest voluntary emigration recorded in world history, with thirteen million people out of almost thirty-eighty million leaving the country.91 Yet, if institutionally one of the aims of this law was to guarantee citizenship rights to the descendants of the many who escaped poverty at the end of the nineteenth century, such a modality inevitably ends up defining a specific racial body.

Such an idea of citizenship takes us back to the beginning of this article, namely to the considerations on the liminal and fragile racial status of Italians. This complicated matter cannot be reduced to an issue of blood, or to a binary opposition between Black and White. As this article has highlighted, the nexus of race, gender, and citizenship lying at the core of Italian identity, is composed by an amalgam of intersectional discursive practices acting simultaneously. Tatiana Petrovich Njegosh aptly argues that Italians travel, inhabit, transform, and shift the colour line divide between Black and White by reshaping and re-signifying both Blackness and Whiteness, and the boundaries between these two categories.92 Therefore, the idea of race performativity seems particularly useful here not only in highlighting the discursive practices able to produce the racial body, but to sustain social order. Drawing from Butler’s work, Indra shows how performativity reorients our gaze precisely towards the instabilities that challenge the crystallising effects of such discourse, and it provides room for the resignification of the racial body. As he explains:

The idea here is that while the racial body acquires a naturalized effect through the reiterative practices through which discourse produces the effects it names, this very same process, this very same necessity of reiteration…also makes it possible for this process of normalization to be subverted…In other words, the iterability of being cited, which makes it possible for a racial body to acquire a naturalized effect, also makes it impossible to ever truly succeed in doing so.93

In a similar vein, Ehlers highlights how, on the one hand, the repetition of norms is an essential condition for the production of the racial body, yet, these norms cannot be inhabited immutably as they are “lived by subjects.”94 It is precisely when subjects do not reproduce and reiterate the norms at the core of their racial embodied performance—in such moments of slippage or crisis to use Ehlers’ words—that racial categories can be reshaped, contested, and challenged.95 Following a Foucauldian perspective, Ehlers demonstrates that resistance is possible within logics of oppression by the reinterpretation and manipulation of racial norms made by subjects themselves.96 Despite positing discursive practices at the core of identification processes,97 it is precisely Foucault who reminds us that discourse is not a crystallised entity.98

Therefore, it is through the challenge of discourse, through the resignification of norms and dominant master narratives, that we can hope to dismantle oppressive power/knowledge logics that affect the everyday life of those relegated to the borders of the subject domain. In so doing, we can reclaim those “alternative epistemologies” invoked by Patricia Hill Collins and capable of challenging invisible and untouchable positions of power. It is only through collective action, as she suggests, that we can achieve durable institutional transformations required for social justice.99



  1. Alessandro Portelli, “The Problem of the Color-Blind: Notes on the Discourse on Race in Italy,” in Race and Nation: Ethnic Systems in the Modern World, ed. Paul Spickard (New York: Routledge, 2003), 29-30.
  2. See: Gaia Giuliani and Cristina Lombardi-Diop, Bianco e Nero. Storia dell’identità razziale degli italiani (Milano: Mondadori, 2013).
  3. Portelli, “The Problem,” 29-30.
  4. Tatiana Petrovich Njegosh, “Gli italiani sono bianchi? Per una storia culturale della linea del colore in Italia,” in Parlare di razza: La lingua del colore tra Italia e Stati Uniti, eds. Tatiana Petrovich Njegosh and Anna Scacchi (Verona: Ombre Corte, 2012),14.
  5. Giuliani and Lombardi-Diop, Bianco e Nero, 5-12.
  6. Sara Ahmed, “Racialized Body,” in Real Bodies, ed. Mary Evans (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 46-55.
  7. Robert Miles, Racism (London: Routledge.1989),76.
  8. Steve Garner, Racisms. An introduction (London: Sage, 2010), 19.[/note Along the same line of thinking, feminist scholar Sara Ahmed argues how “race” is in reality an effect of racialisation rather than its cause.8Ahmed, Real Bodies, 2002.
  9. Garner, Racisms, 20.
  10. See: Judith Butler “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,” Theatre Journal, Vol. 40, No. 4. (December 1988), pp. 519-531; Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990); Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: a Politics of the Performative (New York: Routledge, 1997); Judith Butler, Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of sex (New York: Routledge, 1993).
  11. Butler, Performative Acts, 520.
  12. Butler, Gender Trouble,140.
  13. Butler, Bodies, 2.
  14. Butler, Gender Trouble, 25.
  15. Butler, Performative Acts, 521.
  16. Kylie Stephen “Sexualized Bodies,” in Real Bodies, ed. Mary Evans (New York: Palgrave, 2002), 31.
  17. Butler, Gender Trouble, 25.
  18. Butler, Bodies, 2.
  19. Johathan Xavier Indra, “Performativity, Materiality and the Racial Body,” Latino Studies Journal 11, 3 (2000): 74-99.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid., 97.
  22. Ibid.
  23. Ibid., 91.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ahmed, Real Bodies, 47.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Lombardi-Diop, Bianco e Nero,176.
  28. George Yancy, Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race (Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).
  29. Miriam Nandi and Paul Spickard, “The Curious Career of the One-Drop Rule: Multiraciality and Membership in Germany Today,” in Global Mixed Race, ed. Rebecca C. King-O’Riain, et al. (New York: New York University Press, 2014), 159.
  30. Stuart Hall, Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (London: Sage 1999), 257-258.
  31. Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, (London: Penguin,1997), 56-57.
  32. Ashely Montagu, Man’s Most Dangerous Myth. The fallacy of Race (Oxford: Rowan and Littlefield Publishers, 1997), 57.
  33. Macmaster, Racism in Europe 1870-2000 (Palgrave: New York, 2001), 58-85.
  34. See also: Ann Laura Stoler, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).
  35. See Ariela J. Gross, What Blood Won’t Tell (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).
  36. Soler, Carnal, 199.
  37. See: Stoler, Carnal, 2002.
  38. Nadine Ehlers, “Black Is, Black Ain’t: Performative Revisions of ‘Racial Crisis’,” Theory and Critique, 47, 2, (2006), 149-163.
  39. The first Italian possession in East Africa dated back to 1869 when an Italian shipping company bought the Bay of Assab, on the coast of modern Eritrea. Later, the bay was sold to the Italian state and declared an Italian colony in 1882. The official Italian domination over East Africa started in 1890 when all the Italian possessions gained up to that time were legally consolidated into a single political entity named “Eritrea,” which officially ended in 1941. See: Tekeste Negash, Italian Colonialism in Eritrea, 1882-1941. Policies, Praxis and Impact (Stockholm: Uppsala University, 1987).
  40. Giulia Barrera, “Patrilinearity, Race, and ldentity: The Upbringing of Italo-Eritreans during Italian Colonialism,” in Italian Colonialism, eds. Ruth Ben-Ghiat and Mia Fuller (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005), 97-108.
  41. Giulia Barrera, Dangerous Liaisons: Colonial Concubinage in Eritrea (1890-1941), PAS Working Papers Number 1 (Northwestern University, 1996), 5.

  42. Giulia Barrera, Dangerous, 7. For a history of madamato see also: Barbara Sòrgoni, Parole e corpi. Antropologia, discorso giuridico e politiche sessuali interrazziali (Napoli: Liguori, 2006); Sandra Ponzanesi, “Beyond the Black Venus: Colonial Sexual Politics and Contemporary Visual Practices,” in Italian Colonialism. Legacy and Memory, eds. Jaqueline Andall and Robert Duncan (2005); Gianluca Gabrielli, “La persecuzione delle unioni miste (1937-1940) nei testi delle sentenze pubblicate e nel dibattito giuridico,” Studi piacentini, 20, (1996): 83-140; and by the same author, “Un aspetto della politica razzista nell’impero: il ‘problema dei meticci’,” Passato e Presente, 15, (1997): 77-105; Ruth Iyob, “Madamismo and Beyond: the Construction of Eritrean women,”Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 22, (2000): 217-238; Silvana Palma, “Fotografia di una colonia: l’Eritrea di Luigi Naretti,” Quaderni storici, XXXVII, 109, 1 (April 2002): 84-115; Giulietta Stefani, Colonia per maschi. Italiani in Africa Orientale: una storia di genere (Verona: Ombre Corte, 2007).

     Barrera, Dangerous, 19.

  43. Sòrgoni, Racist, 45.
  44. See Barrera, Dangerous,1996; Sorgòni, Parole, 1998.
  45. Barrera, Dangerous, 19.
  46. Gabrielli, La Persecuzione, 77. Op. cit. footnote 42.
  47. Barrera, Patrilinearity 97-108.
  48. Ibid.,100; Gabrielli, La Persecuzione, 78.
  49. Gabrielli, Un aspetto, 88.
  50. Ibid.
  51. Gabrielli, Un aspetto, 88. The Disegno di Codice Civile per l’ Eritrea (Outline of Civil Code for Eritrea) was originally published in 1905 and was modified in 1909 with the Codice Civile per la Colonia Eritrea (Colonial Civil Code for the Colony Eritrea). See: De Donno, La Razza, 2006; Barrera, Dangerous, 1996; Gabrielli, Un aspetto, 1997; Sòrgoni, Parole, 1998.
  52. Gabrielli, Un aspetto, 79.
  53. Ibid.; see also De Donno, La Razza, 401.
  54. See Giuliani and Lombardi-Diop.
  55. Barrera, Patrilinearity, 98.
  56. María Elena Martínez, Genealogical Fictions: Limpieza de Sangre, Religion, and Gender in Colonial Mexico. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008).
  57. “Il nato nell’Eritrea o nella Somalia Italiana da genitori ignoti, quando i caratteri somatici e altri indizi facciano fondatamente ritenere che uno dei genitori sia di razza bianca, può chiedere, giunto al 18° anno di età, di assumere la cittadinanza italiana.” Law No. 999, July 6 1933, Ordinamento Organico per l’Eritrea e la Somalia, Art. 18.
  58. Sòrgoni, Racist, 51.
  59. Nicoletta Poidimani, Difendere la ‘razza’: Identità razziale e politiche sessuali nel progetto imperiale di Mussolini, (Roma: Sensibili alle Foglie, 2009), 85.
  60. Ibid.
  61. See also: Tatiana Petrovich Njegosh, “Gli italiani sono bianchi?” in Il Colore della Nazione, ed. Gaia Giuliani (Milano: Mondadori, 2015), 215-229.
  62. Giulia Barrera, “Patrilinearitá razza e identitá: l’educazione degli Italo-Eritrei durante il colonialismo Italiano (1885-1934),” Quaderni storici, 109, n.1 (2002), 21-54.
  63. Ibid., 27.
  64. Ibid., 42.
  65. Indra, Performativity, 82.
  66. Ibid., 83.
  67. Barrera, Dangerous, 1996; Sòrgoni, Parole, 1998.
  68. Centro Furio Jesi (ed.) La Menzogna della razza: documenti e immagini del razzismo e dell’antisemitismo fascista (Bologna: Grafis Edizioni, 1994), 29.
  69. Barrera, Dangerous, 1996.
  70. Ministero della Cultura Popolare. My translation.
  71. David Theo Goldberg, The Racial State (Malden: Blackwell Publisher, 2009).
  72. Gabrielli, Un aspetto, 90.
  73. Centro Furio Jesi, 290. My translation.
  74. Ibid.
  75. Mauro Valeri, Nero di Roma. Storia di Leone Jacovacci, l’invincibile mulatto italico (Roma: Palombi Editore, 2008), 384. My translation.
  76. Centro Furio Jesi, 226.
  77. “Manifesto degli Scienziati Razzisti. See also: Aaron Gillette, “The origins of the ‘Manifesto of racial scientists,” Journal of Modern Italian Studies, 6, (2010), 305-323.
  78. “Norme relative ai Meticci,” May 13, 1940.
  79. Ariela J. Gross, “What Blood Won’t Tell” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 2008, 10-14.
  80. Barrera, Dangerous, 43.
  81. Ibid.
  82. Angelica Pesarini, “Madri nere, figlie bianche. Forme di subalternità femminile in Africa Orientale Italiana,” in Subalternità italiane Percorsi di ricerca tra Letteratura e Storia, ed. Valeria Deplano, Lorenzo Mari and Gabriele Proglio (Ariccia: Aracne Editrice, 2014), 161-179.
  83. Ruth Iyob, “Madamismo and Beyond: the Construction of Eritrean women,” in Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 22, (2000): 217-238.
  84. Ibid., 230.
  85. Valeria Deplano, La Madrepatria è una terra straniera. Libici, eritrei e somali nell’Italia del dopoguerra (1945-1960) (Milano: Mondadori, 2017), 87.
  86. Ibid., 87-109.
  87. Ibid., 149.
  88. Ibid., 162.
  89. Law No. 91 of 5th February 1992. English version available at: http://www1.interno.gov.it/mininterno/export/sites/default/it/temi/cittadinanza/Sottotema_007_English_version.html. Accessed on July 1, 2017.
  90. Ruth Ben-Ghiat and Stephanie Malia Hom (ed.) Italian Mobilities, (New York: Routledge, 2016),1. Between 1860 and 1990 more than twenty-eight million people left Italy.
  91. Petrovich Njegosh, Gli italiani, 220.
  92. Johathan Xavier Indra, “Performativity, Materiality and the Racial Body,” Latino Studies Journal 11.3 (2000): 74-99.
  93. Ehlers, Black is, 161.
  94. Ehlers, Black is, 156.
  95. Ehlers, Black is, 161.
  96. Hall, Representation, 1996.
  97. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume One, An Introduction, Translated from French by Robert Hurley (London: Sage,1978),100.
  98. Patricia Hill-Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 2002), 190.

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