Italy and the issue of migration: The difference between the words "race" and "racism".

Italy and the issue of migration: The difference between the words "race" and "racism".

Editor’s note: Barbara Pernice from Italy submitted her following personal story to Global Young Voices. You too can submit yours to us here.

The heated political campaign that preceded the Italian political elections earlier this year engendered an ongoing dark discourse around the migration influx that has been affecting the country.

The escalation began when centre-right wing candidate Attilio Fontana expressed his concerns on migration by saying: “It is unacceptable to say that we need to accept them all (i.e. the migrants), this would mean for us to disappear as a social and ethnic reality, because they are a lot more and are determined to occupy this territory. We can’t accept all migrants arriving here: we need to decide whether our ethnicity, our white race, our society will continue to exist or will be erased.”

Of course his statements were followed by a series of disdained comments but also by a thick and ongoing stream of similar comments on behalf of both politicians and ordinary citizens. It is by no chance that political figures that are fomenting this type of discourse, like Attilio Fontana and Matteo Salvini have been elected into high level governmental positions and are increasing in popularity.

Lega Nord, the right-wing party that won the elections in March (along with the Five Stars Movement), has increased its voter base by 11% from March to September 2018. It follows that, critically analyzing all such statements is an ever more incumbent duty.


Now, it is true that Italy, together with Greece, has been one of the main destinations for migrants because of its geographical positions. It is also true that European countries, such as Germany and France, must meet their relocation quota, something they haven’t done so far. Poland and Hungary refuse to take anyone at all, an overall situation that leaves the frontline states (i.e. Italy and Greece) to deal with a humanitarian problem that can’t be solved by them alone. This, though, is never mentioned in the racist comments we hear. Yes, the pressure is palpable, and one could think that it’s what leads politicians to use expressions such as “our race is at risk” or “they are determined to occupy our territory”, but is this really the case? Is pressure the reason why migrants are seen merely in numbers, as a threat to the country, to the “white race”, like some politicians keep claiming? Is this the reason why integration, development, human capital and potential are not considered the hate speeches we keep hearing?

I personally don’t think so. And fortunately, every time xenophobic comments reach the public ears, controversies start to rise. Typically then, the individual in subject tries to alter the content of his or her speech by saying thing like: “I meant that we need to reorganize our welcome in a way that it respects our history and our society”.

No, this is not what was meant. In most cases the words used clearly reflect the way these individuals see migrants: a threat to their race. They never use the word “welcome”, but rather “accept”, talking about migrants only in terms of numbers referring to them as a sort of invaders of both a territory and a culture.

Many people defend these comments because they claim that the criticisms stemmed from the word “race” triggering accusations of racism and xenophobia, and that this is nonsense because races do exist and are mentioned in art. 3 of our Constitution: “All citizens have the same dignity and are equal under the law, regardless of gender, race, language, religion and political views.”

Yes, races do exist, diversity is what makes the world richer and that’s why it was not the use of the word race that led to indignation and shame for our country, but rather the concept behind the hateful speeches that are constantly being delivered. Xenophobia and racism are the basis of them, whether you like it or not, whether you try to justifying such words by referring to the Italian Constitution or to the ignorance of the people that do not know the meaning of “race”, as an Italian journalist did.

An open mind will clearly see that the fear of contamination is blatant in every such speech; instead of calling for cooperation among European countries for the safety and integration of migrants, he wanted to highlight the perils that “the white race” is facing. What about the dangers migrants are fleeing from and those that they could come across if they are sent back? What about the wars, the deaths and the appalling conditions they’ve been living in? It is scary that a man that may hold a position of power in the political arena is not able to consider these things.

In a changing world, Italy is governed by men and politicians that still look backwards, fearing the different, the diverse and the encounter between ethnicities. The only hope is for the Italian youth to be aware of situations like this one, to travel and see other realities, meet new people, new cultures and different mindsets because the wave of globalization that is spreading throughout the planet is held back in my country by a dangerous wave of veiled old fascism.

Cover cartoon credit: Sergio Algeri/GYV
Photos credit: unsplash

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