Blog post by Annavittoria Sarli, University of Birmingham, UK
Policy and media discourses in Italy refer to migration-related issues mostly in the language of emergencies, deviancy or alleged cultural threats. The everyday presence of ethnic minorities as a permanent constituent of society is rarely acknowledged. Such public discourse perpetuates a kind of socio-cultural immaturity, making it difficult for the population to accept growing diversity.
‘Italianness’, moreover, tends to be conceived as monoracial and monocultural. This idea of national identity drives an imagined net division between a monolithic national ‘us’ and ‘the others’ foreigners, who comprise both first generation migrants and their Italy-born descendants. It is an imaginary enshrined in the Italian law on citizenship, introduced in 1992 and never updated since then. Mainly based on jus sanguinis, it poses obstacles for migrant immediate decedents (MIDs) to become citizens of the country where they spent most of their lives.
To date, as many as 1 million people born or raised in Italy are struggling to obtain formal membership to the community of Italians. On a political level, the recent electoral success of a right-wing coalition has further legitimized a narrative hostile to diversity and in favor of an alleged cultural and racial homogeneity of the nation. Being white, Christian, and ‘Western’ tends to be increasingly seen as having an intrinsic value. Just a few weeks ago, Minister of Agriculture and Food Sovereignty Francesco Lollobrigida publicly stated that, in order to contrast demographic decline, Italy should not ‘surrender before ethnic replacement’. The expression, globally spread by the far right, refers to a supposed plan to encourage immigration to Europe in order to replace its populations, and clearly reveals a racist conception of collective identities.
Needless to say, MIDs living in Italy often experience dynamics of othering and racialization, with obvious consequences in terms of discrimination. My Identities article, ‘From being othered to promoting the value of otherness: pride and price of intercultural dialogue among migrant immediate descendants in Italy’ revolves around the question of how those who have been othered based on their ethno-cultural difference interact with the subjects they may, in their turn, perceive as ‘culturally other’. More precisely, it investigates what kind of intercultural competences (IC) MID’s tend to develop and what IC means to them within the context they inhabit.
Research was conducted through fifteen semi-structured interviews and five focus groups with university students born in Italy to migrant parents or arrived when they were under the age of eleven years. Respondents showed a high level of critical reflection over their strengths and weaknesses in intercultural communication and over the processes at play in intercultural encounters, especially those affected by power asymmetries.
Three thematic threads emerged throughout the analysis. Firstly, respondents’ high critical reflection over IC developed through a complex process of appreciation of their multiple ethno-cultural identifications, that not all MIDs have the opportunity to accomplish: ‘You grow some skills by having one foot in one culture and one in another - said a student - but it is also a burden. If you can't handle the weight, you may become a ‘bad’ person.” Accepting one’s multiple ethno-cultural affiliations is not straightforward in the Italian context, where having developed a hybrid self represents a marker of outsiderness. Feeling as if one does not fit causes intense pain and many MIDs prefer to embrace just one of their ethno-cultural selves while suppressing the others.
Only under certain conditions, through a lengthy and often harrowing self-scrutiny, is it possible to give a positive meaning to one’s inner diversity. Factors that favour such process are family members or teachers who encourage multiple cultural belongings, exchanges with other MIDs, and experiencing inclusive contexts, among which university is particularly relevant. The MIDs involved in this study clearly described how overtime they shifted perspective on their otherness: ‘By self-reflecting I learned that in reality I cannot and should not erase my diversity but that I should rather enhance its value, and I think this helps you value others’ diversity too.’ What used to represent a shameful vulnerability was re-signified as a strength: a training ground where to experience, more intensely than their contemporaries, the complexities of intercultural encounters. Thus, otherness is turned into a gift: an opportunity to become equipped for the challenges posed by increasingly diversifying societies.
Secondly, respondents described how they empathized with the difficulties faced by all cultural minorities, such as ethnic minorities, but also LGBTQI+ or disabled people. According to the narrations analyzed, respondents tended not to be scared, but rather attracted by visible differences: they felt they had something in common with people perceived as different by mainstream society, and shared their emotional burden.
Thirdly, respondents expressed their willingness to educate society to accept diversity. They played such role by engaging in dialogue with people adopting exclusionary attitudes, which exposed them to the suffering of being othered. Responding dialogically to micro-aggressions implies a constant control over their emotions, but aggressive responses are considered as counterproductive: ‘Even when you would like to get angry and scream...you find yourself there having to isolate and give weight to every single word.’ Respondents believed in and expressed pride in their commitment to promote the acceptance of diversity, yet, they perceived such engagement as a heavy emotional burden. Such a burden tends to be accepted without question, as the inevitable price to pay in order to build a space of agency within Italian society, and to foster a better future for themselves and other minorities.
Read the Identities article:
Sarli, Annavittoria. (2023). From being othered to promoting the value of otherness: pride and price of intercultural dialogue among migrant immediate descendants in Italy. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2023.2223056 OPEN ACCES
Read further in Identities:
Dynamics of identity and otherness within intercultural feminist practices in Italy
Ambivalences of the emotional logics of migration and family reunification: emotions, experiences and aspirations of Bangladeshi husbands and wives in Italy
Towards the elsewhere: discourses on migration and mobility practices between Morocco and Italy