White Historicide and the Returns of the Souths of the South1

by Joseph Pugliese

© all rights reserved

To what degree is whiteness studies in Australia still characterised by an Anglocentricity that fails to situate whiteness within larger, transnational relations of racialised power? This essay is an attempt to disrupt Anglocentric conceptualisations of whiteness within the context of the Australian nation by focusing on particular non-Anglo Australian diasporic histories and racialised genealogies. In transposing my focus on whiteness to locations outside the nation that are, for diasporic subjects, simultaneously positioned within the nation (as embodied histories that continue to inflect a subject’s everyday practices), I want to outline other histories affiliated with whiteness that inscribe a specific configuration of Australia’s diasporic subjects, Calabrese Australians, that would otherwise remain invisible within dominant Anglocentric discussions of whiteness. I would argue that within Anglocentric discussions of whiteness, whiteness is presented as though it impacts for the first time on the bodies and subjectivities of diasporic subjects only once they enter the Australian nation. As such, non-Anglo diasporic subjects are positioned in terms of ahistorical tabula rasa, doubly white-washed subjects devoid of prior histories of whiteness and racialised power. As Suvendrini Perera and I argue in our critique of the continuing operations of Anglocentric whiteness in Australia, “Migrants are not a singular group, and do not come to Australia as blank slates, but rather bring with them their own histories, experiences and ideologies of ethnic and racial differences” (1998: 13).

In the context of an essay concerned with naming and mapping the operations of “whiteness as an epistemological a priori” within the corpus of the Australian nation, Aileen Moreton-Robinson proceeds to argue that: “The discursive formation of Anglocentric whiteness is a relatively uncharted territory that has remained invisible, dominant and pervasive, even as it influences the practices of everyday life” (2004: 76 and 79). Moreton-Robinson’s naming of the a priori status of Anglocentric whiteness, as a dominant discursive formation within the Australian nation, functions to bring into sharp focus the presuppositions that found Anglocentric approaches to whiteness and that simultaneously ensure that non-Anglo histories of whiteness are erased.

It is the erasure of these other prior histories of whiteness that enables, in the context of contemporary Australian whiteness studies, this sort of homogenising declaration: “‘Southern Europeans’ self-representation suggests that we share two basic features with the dominant white Australian subject position. Firstly, we take for granted our own whiteness and, secondly, we render it invisible as a source of certain privileges” (Nicolacopoulos and Vassilacopoulos 2004: 45). Toula Nicolacopoulos and George Vassilacopoulos immediately qualify their assertion by underscoring the fraught history of Southern European migration in this country that has made “whiteness an issue” in that “their place in the country has been made dependent upon conformity to a certain inside-outsider status” (2004: 45). Despite this critical qualification, there is something in that collective declaration – “Firstly, [as Southern Europeans] we take our whiteness for granted” – that too quickly elides contemporary and historical relations of racialised power that would serve to complicate this position. In the context of Moreton-Robinson’s theoretical insight, I would argue that an a priori Anglocentric whiteness has already determined the epistemological dimensions of the terms of inquiry; consequently, Anglocentric “whiteness as an epistemological a priori” has already homogenised and informed the “ontology” of the Southern European. In other words, anti-whiteness critique is here shown to be producing its own unthought implication in the epistemology of Anglocentric whiteness, an epistemology in which, as Moreton-Robinson spells out, “a way of knowing.forms part of one’s taken-for-grantedness” (Moreton-Robinson 2004: 76). As Stuart Hall would say, this taken-for-grantedness is the moment of the “of course” in which hegemonic ideology is most graphically, if invisibly, at work – precisely as it declares its “common sense” taken-for-grantedness (1984: 193). A critical attendance to other histories of whiteness that inscribe non-Anglo diasporic subjects prior to their entry into the Australian nation would both problematise and qualify this “taken for granted whiteness.”

These non-Anglo diasporic histories of whiteness cannot suddenly be shed, as so many superfluous vestments, at the point of entry into the Australian nation. On the contrary, as lived histories, these other diasporic histories continue to inflect the embodied practices of everyday life, even if they remain unintelligible within Anglocentric frames of reference; and I emphasise the qualifier “other” here in order to bring into focus, as Goldie Osuri and Bobby Banerjee (2004) argue, the too often effaced status of Anglo whiteness as also a diasporic construct. As I proceed to illustrate below, the relation of certain Southern Europeans, such as Calabrese, to the category of whiteness is precisely what cannot be either historically or politically taken for granted. Moreover, entry into the Australian nation does not guarantee for all Southern Europeans an automatic conferral of whiteness, again as something that becomes so naturalised or normalised as to be taken for granted. What this homogenising conceptualisation of whiteness is predicated upon is a uniform, template white body that systemically effaces all the messiness and complications of live bodies that fail to conform to this model.

Even as Southern Europeans are now, at official, bureaucratic and administrative levels, classified as white or Caucasian, the lived reality for certain subjects is much more complicated. Precisely because the process of racialised identification is still, in this Anglocentric nation, driven by an ontology of the visible, whereby a subject’s racial categorisation and belonging is also determined by visible racialised identificatory attributes such as epidermal chromaticism, physiognomics and phenotypicality, regardless of their administrative and bureaucratic classification, some Southern Europeans are discriminated against – on the streets, in shops and institutions — because they appear to be non-white. I address this seeming paradox in the context of that untenable ethnic descriptor “of Middle Eastern appearance.” In my critique of this ethnic descriptor, I attempt to mark the violent contradictions that racialised categories generate for subjects whose ethnic or racial self-identity is not self-evident within caucacentric racialising schemata. These caucacentric schemata are predicated on ontologies of the racialised visible, in which race is represented as something that is visually self-evident in terms of a subject’s taxonomic allocation and distribution along the white supremacist racial hierarchy (Pugliese, 2002a, 2003; Guglielmo and Salerno 2003).

Having articulated this problematic, precisely what I do not want to deny are the material and symbolic benefits of whiteness that Southern Europeans nevertheless enjoy and exploit; these are, critically, the benefits of whiteness that are structurally enabled by the political and bureaucratic classification of Southern Europeans as white (Pugliese 2002b and 2007). Indeed, even prior to this classification as white, as Suvendrini Perera and I argue in “Detoxifying Australia?”, the very “possibility of the NESB immigrant in the Australian context is already predicated on a colonial violence that has established the effective – governmental, legislative and judicial – disenfranchisement of Aboriginal people in the process of constructing the Australian nation” (1998: 5). So that, for example, even as southern Italian immigrants laboured against a backdrop where their racial status as whites was fraught and contested, these same immigrants “arrived in a landscape within which the dirty colonial work of displacing the countryside of its Indigenous inhabitants appeared to have already been performed. In the context of an already expropriated land, the labour of the immigrant was one primarily represented as increasing national wealth” (Perera and Pugliese 1998: 5).

In the context of the non-Anglo histories and genealogies that I pursue in the course of this essay, I want to bring to light colonial and transnational operations of whiteness that complicate univocal understandings of diasporic whiteness. In my attempt to problematise Anglocentric conceptualisations of whiteness, this essay seeks to heterogenise whiteness in an Australian context by disclosing its otherwise invisible and unspoken transnational and diasporic spectres. I say “spectres” because whiteness, in the narrative that I unfold below, is complicit in so many deaths, burials and violent disavowals. Writing from a location far from the context of southern Italy, I stage a return to the village of my birth, Spilinga, Calabria, in order to begin an archaeological disclosure that will bring into focus the intersections of race, history and nation – as shaped by figures and forces effaced, if not entirely obliterated, by white supremacist nationalist histories. In my attempt to trace this other history, I unapologetically draw upon shards of family oral histories, anecdotes and cultural fragments, together with scholarly histories and archival evidence. I say “unapologetically” as I view these personal shards and anecdotes as invested with a contestatory power to speak what remains unrepresentable within these very scholarly histories and archives.

White Historicide and the Survival of Shards

Spilinga is situated on the slope of a Calabrian mountain, Monte Poro, overlooking the Mediterranean sea. The place has a complex and layered history of conquests, colonisations and, in the words of Pasquino Crupi, “forced deportations” (1994: 3). Between the tenth and eleventh centuries it was colonised by Arabs, who established an emirate at Tropea, a large town close to Spilinga. At Aramoni, where my paternal grandfather’s fields are, the Arabs built both a town and their necropolis. In the course of my childhood, I would insist my father repeat again and again the story of how they would unearth “Saracen” buckles, pots and amphorae in the course of labouring in the fields. These shards of Arab history were supplemented by other fragments. My father would tell me the story of beautiful ceramic plate that was affixed high up on a wall of a house in the quarter of Spilinga known as Carciadi. He remembers the plate as depicting a sun radiating red and yellow spokes. The oral history of the village dated the plate back to the time of the Arabs. My father’s story concerning this plate would end with his account of the morning that a number of officials from the National Museum in Calabria arrived in Carciadi. Accompanied by the carabinieri (police), and amongst much commotion in the village, the museum officials scaled the façade of this house and chiselled this Arab plate out from the wall. The removal of this plate haunted my father. He would dwell on how they were powerless to stop this act of cultural vandalism, and how the plate was taken away by these officials and never seen again. What was left in the façade was a blank hole, a gouged eye that now signified absence and historicidal erasure.

I say “historicidal erasure” as the history of Arab culture in Calabria is marked precisely by acts of violent censorship and effacement. This historicidal erasure of Italy ‘s Arab and North African past has been enacted both physically (in acts of cultural vandalism, for example, the destruction of mosques) and symbolically (through the dominance of a Eurocentric historiography underpinned by discourses of whiteness). For example, Alberto Foresi opens his provocatively titled recent essay, “The Jihad in Italy: The Expedition of Ibrahim II ibn Ahmad,” with this dismissive line: “The Arab-Islamic presence in Italy has always constituted a marginal fact in the national story” (2003). Remarking on the southern Italian emirates established by the Arabs at Tropea, Bari, Amantea and Santa Severina, he proceeds to write them off as “Organisms of brief duration, leaving scarcely any trace on the art or material culture” of the region (2003). These gestures of dismissal need to be situated in the long, entrenched and contradictory history of whiteness in Italy. As I have discussed in detail elsewhere (Pugliese 2002a), the history of whiteness in Italy is perfectly encapsulated by the racist aphorism “Africa begins south of Rome.” The racist North/South divide operates along this racialised geopolitical axis that demarcates the North as Aryan and European, and the South as African and Arab. As I discuss below, this racist divide was fundamentally articulated in the nineteenth century during the process of Italian unification, which saw the South positioned as a “terra incognita,” a “dark continent” to be colonised and civilised (Petraccone 2000: 56, 64; Teti 1993: 97).

Immediately after unification, the North/South divide was further underpinned by positivist racial theories that argued that there were two distinct racial groups in Italy: “Today Italy is divided into two zones, inhabited by two different races, the Aryans in the North, delimited by the Tuscan border (Celts and Slavs), and the Mediterraneans in the South,” constituted by an admixture of African and Arab blood (quoted in Teti 1993: 79). The whitening of Northern Italians reached its apogee in the declaration by the racial theorist A. Mosso that “The population of Northern Italy is little different from the Anglo-Saxon race” (quoted in Teti 1993: 79). As with all racial theories, this history of whiteness in Italy is marked by the torsions and contradictions of expansion and contraction, inclusion and exclusion. The Fascist regime, for example, in the context of its imperial drive for colonial expansion in Africa, worked assiduously to position the entire peninsula under the banner of whiteness/Europeanness in order to legitimate its colonial occupation of African states. In 1938 the regime published, in Il Giornale d’Italia, an essay titled “Fascism and the problems of race.” Written by a number of Italian academics working under the aegis of the Minister of Culture, this manifesto was clearly driven to include the “Mediterraneans of the South” within the category of European whiteness by establishing two categories: “European Mediterraneans (western – who are the Arian-Nordics of the Mediterranean)” and “Semitic Mediterraneans (eastern – who are Oriental and African)” (quoted in Israel and Nastasi 1998: 213). In the context of this racial schema, southern Italians were strategically absorbed into the body of “European Mediterraneans” whilst Italian Jews were excluded from the European/white body of the nation by being assigned the status of “Semitic Mediterraneans.”

It is in the context of this white supremacist document that the historicidal erasure of Arab culture from the Italian peninsula is also powerfully performed, as the manifesto proceeds to declare that: “All the Semites that have ever resided in Italy, and in particular the Arabs, have left no trace or have been entirely assimilated” (quoted in Israel and Nastasi 1998: 213). This description of absolute assimilation and total erasure found its physical and symbolic equivalent in the gouging of the Arab plate from the façade of that house in Carciadi. These words of absolute erasure are, however, contradicted by the oral histories and the everyday cultural practices of my Calabrese family. In the face of these white supremacist acts of both symbolic and physical historicide and their tactical contestation by the lived practices of everyday life, I want to invoke a haunting meditation by Michael Dodson: “And the past cannot be dead, because it is built into the beings and bodies of the living” (2003: 40).

In the face of the violence of historicidal erasure, something survives – traces transmitted intercorporeally from generation to generation. This seemingly erased past is not dead. It is embodied: “built into the beings of the living.” Contrary to official historicidal claims, the traces of this Arab past have not been obliterated from the lives of Calabrese. One has to learn to look and listen. “Our memories are not chemicals in our heads, but our flesh and our voices and our ways of seeing” (Dodson 2003: 40). Out across the water from Carciadi and Spilinga, the tonnare (tuna fishing crews) sing “U leva leva, e tiramul’ a rancata.” a song of the Arab ancestors who taught the Calabrians tuna fishing (Bellassai 2001). In the Calabrese of the Spilingoti and Carciadoti, Arab words continue to name and constitute the practices of everyday life (Placanica 1999: 76), both in Calabria and here in Sydney, Australia, the location from which I write. In the burial of our dead, for example, we lower the tambutu (coffin) into the taju (clay). These are the oral shards that survive and give voice to this Arab past in the contemporary practices of everyday life. “We do not need to re-find the past,” writes Dodson, “because our subjectivities, our being in the world are inseparable from the past” (2003: 40). In Spilinga and Carciadi this being in the world is shaped by an inseparable Arab past through the cultivation of oranges and the famous red onion of the region, both introduced by the Arabs, and by the making of filei (dried pasta), also introduced into Calabria by the Arabs (Marasco 1987: 63).

I refer to these fragments as they belie the myth of a Calabrian world within which the traces of this Arab past have been entirely erased and forgotten. Through the survival of these fragments within the practices of everyday life, “an ethnic alterity is kept – obstinate, fragmented, escaping every seizure” (de Certeau 1997: 172). Obstinate, fragmented, these shards are in fact repeatedly conjoined and revivified through the rituals of everyday life: fishing, singing, cooking, eating and burying one’s dead. “[T]hese ostensibly trivial relics oblige, even if it is in silence and with punctuality; they bring back into the field of what we ‘know for sure’ the irruptions of a ‘but all the same.” (de Certeau 1997: 172) Following the regime of enforced national unification, a disparate body of cultures, histories and traditions is declared to be “Italian”; but all the same, Southerners know otherwise, an otherwise knowing articulated through the survival of other words, other (hi)stories and other practices. “They represent what is passed over in the teachings that naively invest their faith in the contents of knowledge and that fail to perceive the scansions of materials by which a group defends, unbeknownst to its teachers, its present relation to a dispersed patrimony” (de Certeau 1997: 172). In the context of Spilinga, this dispersed patrimony of Arab culture found its magnetised locus in the quarter of Carciadi. As I discuss below, in Carciadi this dispersed patrimony was in fact gathered into a point of concentration that was reflexively marked as the Arab quarter of the village. Across different geopolitical spaces – Spilinga, Carciadi, Sydney – the scansions of materials continue to re-mark and punctuate the Arab history of contemporary Calabrese across the practices of their everyday lives. Across so much altered ground, the irruptions of a “but all the same” will serve to interrogate and contest the taken-for-grantedness of what we know for sure.

Intercultural Genealogies: Mata and Grifone-Hassam Ibn-Hammar

Emerging suddenly from an alley leading into the main street of Spilinga, the papier-maché giants, Mata and Grifone-Hassam Ibn-Hammar, begin their celebratory dance of love (figure 1). Accompanied by the rapping rhythms of drums and tambourines, they pursue each other, swerve in mock repulses and interweave in joyous gestures of affection and embrace. They chase the children terrified by their towering height and simultaneously magnetise a trail of other children entranced by the figures of the giants.


Figure 1. Grifone-Hassam and Mata dancing in the streets of Spilinga and Carciadi.

Grifone-Hassam and Mata, in the context of the village’s festivities, embody intercultural relations and inter-ethnic identities that fall outside the strictures and censorships of Eurocentric Italian national identity. They celebrate other genealogies, geopolitical networks and cultural geographies. These two lovers, the black Grifone-Hassam — characteristically given, in myth and legend, multiple points of origin (North African, Berber, Arab and Turk) – and the indigenous Mata, have been assigned, in the South, the power of founding various cities and villages. As they stage their dance across innumerable villages and towns in Calabria and Sicily, they celebrate foundational cultural histories and geographies that tie the South indissociably to Africa and the Middle East. In contradistinction to a South repeatedly represented in Northern histories and political analyses as backward, primitive and regressive, Mata and Grifone-Hassam represent a South already at the vanguard of multi-ethnic identities and inter-cultural relations.

These are the cultural histories and racial genealogies that, on the one hand, the violent regime of Italian unification and Italian nationalism laboured, and continues to labour, assiduously to obliterate from the face of Italianness. On the other hand, it is these very African and Arab histories and affiliations that xenophobic, Eurocentric Northerners are quick to mark, condemn and to mobilise in their arguments for secession from the South. As John Agnew writes in his analysis of the Northern League’s desire to secede and establish the independent northern state of Padania, “Calabria and Sicily [function] as its essential moments – defining what Padania is not” (2002: 177).

This othering of the South as non-Europe cannot, however, merely be relegated to an extremist group like the Northern League. On the contrary, this othering of the South inflects virtually every level of Northern Italian popular culture. A map, that was widely distributed in Italy in the 1980s and ’90s, geopolitically resignifies Calabria as “Saudi Calabria” and Sicily as “Gheddafiland-Sicily” (Verdicchio 1997: 31). On another cultural level, Gabriella Gribaudi draws attention to this marking of racial politics within the arena of sport: “When, in the early 1990s a large banner with the words ‘Welcome to Europe’ was held aloft at the Sunday football match in Milan’s San Siro stadium to greet fans of the visiting team, Naples, the latter responded at the return match with a banner that read ‘Turin, Milan, Verona. Give us Africa ‘” (1997: 86-7). Encoded in this banner is a celebratory ownership by the South of the very loaded signifier “Africa,” deployed by the North in order to stigmatise and denigrate it. This cultural ownership by the South of its African and Arab affiliations and genealogies, cast in the form of Southernness-as-Negritude (Baldini 1996: 30), is marked, at another level of popular culture, by the celebratory dance of the foundational figures of Mata and Grifone-Hassam through the village streets and squares of the South.

This attempt to re-orient the South along the very genealogies and cultures that the North, in a fetishistic act of racist double logic, both exploits and suppresses, must be seen as an attempt to heterogenise the South in terms of what G. Bottazi aptly terms “i Sud del Sud” (1990), that is, the Souths of the South: multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic (in the Calabrian context, for example, North African, Arab, Greek and Albanian). In this attempt tactically to heterogenise monolithic conceptualisations of Italianness, what remains to be addressed are the Souths of a North now thoroughly infused by countless southern immigrants, languages and cultures from around the entire Mediterranean basin, not just the southern Italian peninsula and its islands.

“Saudi Calabria”: Cultural Interdictions and Inter-Corporeal Relations

In order to begin to account for the symbolic power of the historical shards that I have been tracking in this cultural archaeology, I want to situate my narrative within the context of the transmission of oral history. As I mentioned in the opening of this essay, when I began to question my father about the Arab history of our village long periods of silence would finally be punctuated by isolated anecdotes, mere fragments of stories that seemed entirely disconnected. These fragmentary anecdotes frustrated me because they failed to deliver the sort of substantive narratives that I wanted in order to make sense of the picture of our past. My father, in retelling the fragments that were transmitted to him by my paternal grandmother, nonna Raffaela, persisted in articulating his anecdotes-as-shards – ephemeral, surviving fragments of our past. These fragments were transmitted to me across so many different contexts and spaces: at the dinner table, in the back yard, whilst driving in the car, in the doctor’s waiting room and from the hospital bed where my father lay dying. These historical shards were dispersed and gathered across so much altered ground; their articulation and reception were invested by a gamut of emotions.

The fact that, in the end, all that could be transmitted of our Arab past were disconnected fragments that literally and symbolically had to be exhumed and brought to light through a type of archaeological labour came to make sense in one anecdote told to me by my father. He spoke of the day that, as a young man, working the fields in my grandfather’s farm in the area called Aramoni, he unearthed an ancient brass buckle. It was exhibited around the village and it was identified as a “Saracen” artefact. The brass buckle prompted some of the villagers to talk of the Arab town and necropolis at Aramoni, that once stood where my grandfather’s fields are. Aramoni was once under the dominion of the Arab emirate established in the near-by city of Tropea (Ficarra 1993: 48). With the Norman invasion, Aramoni was literally razed to the ground. Most of the Arab residents were either killed or expelled – except, as there had been inter-marrying between the Calabrese and the Arab population, in the context of the village of Spilinga, this inter-ethnic community was allowed to co-exist on the margins of the village, in an adjunct that came to be know as Carciadi, that is, the place of the cacciati(outcasts). Walking the streets and alleys of Carciadi today, I can still discern in its architectural fabric the signifiers of its Arab past. Carciadi’s alleys, with their overhanging arches, preserve the architectonic signs of the village’s Maghrebian builders (see figure 2). The surviving architectural heritage of Calabria ‘s Arab past has hardly begun to be documented (see Zinzi 1988).


Figure 2. An alley in Carciadi and its Maghrebian architectural heritage.

Over the centuries, the literal dividing line between the two communities became indiscernible; which is not to say, however, that a residual history of difference did not continue to mark the Carciadoti in relation to the Spilingoti. My father tells me that the Spilingoti would often dismiss the Carciadoti as inferior and that they were known asurzarichi – that is, a reserved people who kept their doors closed and would lock them whenever they left their houses, in contradistinction to the habit of the Spilingoti, who left their doors unlocked even when they went out. My mother, in turn, remembers a chilling little ditty that the Spilingoti children would sing to taunt the Carciadoti children: “Carciadoti, caccia cani/ du coriu vosciu facimu campani/ e pi vui non ce riparu/ turnativindi aundi vi cacciaru.” (Carciadoti, outcast dogs/ out of your hides we will make bells/ there is no refuge for you/ go back from where you were thrown out). Embedded in this children’s ditty is that history of violence that powerfully encapsulates Calabria ‘s turbulent genealogy of conquests and expulsions. Inscribed in the invisible dividing line between Spilinga and Carciadi are the stratified histories of racialised violence and discrimination that call for archaeologies predicated on unearthing the complex lines of race relations that interlink the categories of the local and the trans/national.

In the context of this residual history of internal discrimination against the Arab-Calabrese Carciadoti that I have drawn attention to is that other history of inter-corporeal relations that cuts across racialised borders and cultural interdictions. The emblematic story of Mata and Grifone-Hasam finds its equivalent in the marriage of my paternalnonno Giuseppe, a Spilingoto, to my nonna Raffaela, a Carciadota. These complex, intertwined genealogies, traced annually in the amorous dance of Mata and Grifone-Hassam through the streets of the village, are metaphorised for me in the magical orange-lemon tree that stood in my grandfather’s ortu (garden) in Spilinga. As the Arabs are credited with establishing the cultivation of oranges in Calabria during their occupation (Marasco 1987: 63), the orange, in the South, is metonymically inscribed with this Arab history. In a labour of love, my nonno grafted an orange branch onto a lemon tree and, in the years that followed, there grew a tree in which the orange and yellow fruits flourished from the base of a single tree. This tree, long gone, is sustained and nourished in my memory. Invested with a love that was compelled to transgress and overturn both biological and cultural norms, it continues to bear fruit for me.

Italian Colonialism on Two Fronts

In the annals of colonial history, Italy is often represented as no more than a marginal player. I want to contest this representation. As I proceed to argue below, Italian colonialism has operated on at least two critical, and asymmetrical, fronts: internally, in relation to Italy ‘s South, and externally, in the context of the Italian colonial occupation of a number of North African nations. I view this movement of colonialism on two fronts precisely in terms of attempts to secure the signifier “whiteness” for the Italian nation-state, both symbolically and in geopolitical terms.

As I remarked in the opening pages of this essay, up until and immediately after the period of unification (1860-70), Northern Italians viewed the South as a type of terra incognita. Immediately after the period of unification, a collection of Northern Italian politicians, bureaucrats and academics descended into the South in order to begin the process of integrating the region into the larger body of the Italian nation-state. This descent into the South was literally viewed in terms of a process of discovery and colonisation. A contemporary account published in a newspaper of Lombardy articulates this labour of discovery: “The first, the most important labour we need to accomplish as Italians is, and must be, the discovery of Italy. For most of us – and of course it is not our fault – Italy is a bit like Africa for geographers.we find ourselves in terre ignote .Therefore we say that we must rise to the task of discovering Italy” (quoted in Petraccone 2000: 56).

Northern writings of the 1860s clearly document the colonial dimensions of the post-unification enterprise: the North is viewed as facing the “burdensome task of civilizing the South”; its work must be seen in terms of a “civilizing mission” (quoted in Petraccone 2000: 65). One of the leading theorists of the period, Alfredo Niceforo, argued that, in the South, “modern Italy has a lofty mission to accomplish and a great colony to civilise” (quoted in Astarita 2005: 301). In order to encourage northern bureaucrats, academics, engineers and so on to take up positions in the South, a colonial model was proposed that would establish “special careers with certain advantages like the House for Indian Affairs in England” (quoted in Petraccone 2000; 101; see also Triulzi 2005: 156). The dominance of Piedmont in the project of post-unification saw the establishment of a series of “subaltern prefectures” which saw the imposition on the South of Piedmontese laws, rules and conventions and the systematic liquidation of any vestiges of Southern autonomy. Antonio Gramsci, in his profound analysis of the political construction of the Southern subaltern in the context of the South/North divide, argued that this sense of estrangement was generated by the fact that Italian unification was not “built on a base of equality, but on the hegemony of the North over the South” (1975: 2021-22). Gramsci maps how the Northern “octopus” secured this hegemony and its economic-industrial expansion through the direct exploitation and impoverishment of the South.

On an external front, once the process of internal colonisation-as-unification had been set in train, Italy quickly set forth on a series of colonial campaigns to secure North African colonies. By 1885 it had established its first colony: Eritrea. There followed seventy-five years of colonial expansion into Africa that saw the occupation of Somalia (1891), Abyssinia (1887-1941), Libya (1911-1932) and Ethiopia (1935-36). On an economic level, this process of colonisation of North African nations was seen as instrumental in supplying Italy with both cheap natural resources and labour. Culturally, this colonial annexation of North African nations served to secure for Italians the desired symbolic capital of whiteness. In the process of occupying Abyssinia, one of the Italian soldiers of the fascist regime writes:

At the sight of these indigenes, there emerges in us a pride that we hadn’t previously experienced: that of being white. We feel in fact how different we are, that nothing can possibly unite us to them, that they are still at the A B C of civilisation, that they need to learn how to work, sweat, produce, repay. That between us and them there is truly an abyss, deep, unbridgeable.. For all these black faces we feel we can only ever be the fascists, the leaders, the guides, the masters – not comrades, never friends, never elder brothers. (quoted in Del Boca 2002: 37-8)

White pride comes into being in the moment of being confronted by the black face of the primitive and barbaric native. This white supremacist pride will literally be secured on the back of the black native: their subjugation and indentured labour will serve to legitimate the violent rule of colonial law as that which will enable the native to begin the long journey beyond the “A B C of civilisation.” The ramifications of this white supremacism went well beyond the realm of this colonial economy of expropriation and racist subjugation. The white supremacism celebrated by Italy’s fascist regime functioned to legitimate acts of colonial carnage. One historian of Italian colonialism, Angelo Del Boca, has mapped, in a series of landmark texts, this violent history.

Del Boca, beginning in the 1960s, has laboured to document Italy ‘s violent colonial history in the face of national apathy, lies and active forgetting. Alessandro Triulzi, working in the wake of Del Boca’s decolonising interventions, has drawn attention to what he calls an “enduring ‘politics of memory’ constituted by amnesia, erasures and self-censorship. The colonial past of our nation – in contradistinction to what has transpired in other countries – has not yet ‘passed,’ it has not been allowed to enter the diffuse and shared memory of the nation” (2000: 166-7). In tracing the operations of Italy ‘s colonialism, Triulzi has drawn attention to the fundamental ways in which the internal South was critically sutured to the external colonial operations of Italy in Africa. The establishment of the Società africana d’Italia (African Society of Italy) in Naples was not, Triulzi argues, coincidental, as Naples was the “first ‘live laboratory’ in post-unification Italy where, in the second half of the nineteenth century, visible images and representations of ‘internal alterity,’ those of the South, were produced and elaborated in tandem with the colonial process of conquering and codifying Italy’s external others” (2000: 167). In his study of Italian colonial photography, Triulzi has disclosed how the colonial aesthetic informing this regime of visuality was first formulated, post-unification, in the photographing of the South’s peasants and brigands in terms of racialised types, with all their attendant primitive gestures, costumes and so on. This two-fold colonial movement attempted, unsuccessfully, to annul internal alterity by distancing it from an absolute external other in order “better to define the borders of [white-Italian] national identity” (Triulzi 2000: 176).

In his account of the systemic white-washing of Italy ‘s colonial past, Del Boca draws attention to the fact that, between 1935 and 1941, over one million Italians went to Africa. For many, he writes, this “African adventure” was, in the words of one of the fascist soldiers, “a lovely long holiday”; represented in these innocuous terms, it becomes “a season already dispatched to memory, with its tensions, its enthusiasms, and its incantations. A season that is already sealed and immutable. It repels any attempt to interrogate and demythify it. It refuses, above all, the documented reality of the genocides, reprisals, the systematic use of poison gas, the deportations, the concentration camps, and the racial segregation” (2002: xi. See also, Rochat 2005; Labanca 2005). Del Boca puts paid to the myth of the “good Italian” coloniser (“Italiani, brava gente”) by drawing attention to the concentration camps constructed by the Italian occupying forces in Gebel that were “no less lethal than those of the Nazis” (2002: 166), and by underscoring the tally of victims produced in the course of these colonial wars:

In the course of the operations of the conquest and reconquest of Libya, between 1911 and 1932, the Italians caused the death of not less than 100,000 Libyans, including soldiers, guerrillas and civilians. In the various wars against Abyssinia, between 1887 and 1941, the forces under the command of Baratieri, Badoglio, Gaziani and Amedeo di Savoia perpetrated massacres that are difficult to quantify. If the sum of Ethiopian dead seems excessive – 730,000 dead in the period 1935-41 – one cannot, however, arrive at a lower figure than 400,000 dead for the entire period between 1887-1941 (2002: 113).

Ras Immirù Haile Sellase, the Ethiopian commander who led the resistance against Mussolini’s Italian forces attempting to colonise Ethiopia, has left harrowing testimonies of the use of poison gas (sulphur of bichlorinate ethyl), in contravention of international conventions, by the Italian army on his Ethiopian troops:

It was a terrifying spectacle.. It was the morning of 23 December [1935], when there appeared in the sky some airplanes. This did not significantly alarm us, because by now we had become accustomed to the bombings. That morning, however, they did not drop bombs, but strange barrels that broke open immediately they touched the ground or the surface of the river, and that spurted a colourless liquid in all directions. Before I even realised what was happening, hundreds of my men where hit by this mysterious liquid and they screamed in pain, whilst their exposed feet, hands and faces where covered in blisters. Others, who had drunk from the river, twisted in agony on the ground for many hours. Amongst the victims where many peasants who had brought their herds down to the river, and civilians from the surrounding villages. My officers, in the meantime, had surrounded me clamouring for advice, but I was stupefied and did not know what to reply, did not know how to combat this rain that burnt and killed (quoted in Del Boca 2002: 74).

I cite these rarely aired accounts of genocide and the use of poison gas by the Italian colonial forces in Africa in order to question that European moral self-righteousness that persists in representing these acts of violence and genocide as something exclusive to the regions of Africa or the Middle East. Furthermore, in keeping with the long history of Italian self-censorship and effacement of its own colonial violence, all those responsible for the multiple African genocides perpetrated during the colonial period have not – unlike, for example, the Germans at Nuremberg – been brought to trial for crimes against humanity. Del Boca, in his painstaking account of this violent Italian colonial history, has refused to relegate these matters to the past; on the contrary, he remonstrates that contemporary Italy has failed to repay its former African colonies the ethical and material debts owed to them: “The opulent Italy of the last two decades has lost a great occasion. It could have returned to Africa in order to make reparations and to redeem its reputation. Instead, it squanders its wealth and at the same time fails to honour its debts” (2002: 127; see also del Boca 2005).

The Returns of the Souths of the South

After his capture by the Italian colonial forces in March 1937, Ras Immirù Haile Sellase was transferred to a number of prisons located in the South of Italy, in the Lipari Islands, off the coast of Sicily, and at Longobucco, a remote and isolated town in the Calabrian mountains. After repeated requests to the Italian authorities to be transferred to a major city, Haile Sellase received this reply from general Attilio Teruzzi, Minister of Italian Africa: “It is solely due to racial reasons that you are forced to remain in Longobucco rather than being transferred – as you have repeatedly requested – to other localities of the Realm” (quoted in Del Boca 2002: 91). In the geopolitical and racialised schema of the Fascist regime, the South becomes the logical place to quarantine and isolate black Africans from the rest of the peninsula. Concomitantly, Italy’s African colonies are envisioned as the spaces within which to enact “demographic colonization,” that is, the colonial territories were designated as spaces to be occupied by the landless peasants of the South (Wright 2005: 122). In this imperial schema, these landless peasants were also envisaged as “potential soldiers for further African conquests” (Wright 2005: 122). Articulated in this point of intersection between the South and Italy’s external colonial policies is the mobilisation of Southerners as agents complicit in the national project of colonising Africa, supplying both the military and rural labour for Italy’s program of imperial expansionism.

The stratified and intertwined racial and cultural histories that I have been tracking are not dusty, archaeological shards with no contemporary relevance. On the contrary, they continue to constitute the complex geopolitical cartography of the South. In the face of the socio-economic devastation wreaked upon the region by a century of mass migration to northern Italy, northern Europe, Australia, Canada and the USA, the South has now become the point of landfall for another series of “returns”: the returns of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Albania. In the fields and towns of the South, immigrant labour is now critical to the very economic viability of a region so chronically depopulated by the previous waves of migration. And, in keeping with the stratifying effects produced by white supremacist racial hierarchies, the subjects of these southern returns are positioned and subjugated by the resignification of a pre-existent racist term. When southern Italians began to migrate up to the industrial North in search of jobs, their status as non-European interlopers was secured through the deployment by Northerners of the racist term “terroni” (people of dirt/people who are the dirt beneath one’s feet). In the last two decades, the African and Middle Eastern migrants and refugees who have made their way to northern Italy have been greeted by Northerners with the racist neologism “sottoterroni” (sub-people of dirt) (Verdicchio 1997: 31). In the vertical scale of the white supremacist racial hierarchy they are, in other words, situated as a strata below the very dirt beneath one’s feet.

These African and Middle Eastern returns, in which complex historico-cultural lines between the South and its Mediterranean neighbours are reconnected and re-invented, are what cannot be countenanced by the North and its racial fantasy of a pure white Italian nation. This point of contemporary reconnection is eloquently articulated by a Morrocan immigrant, Majuba Agig, facing racism in the city of Milan: “We do not take more,” she says, “than those who arrived twenty years ago, the Meridionali [southern Italians]. We are the brothers [and sisters] of the Meridionali” (quoted in Parati 1997: 182). This point of reconnection is precisely what is at stake in the Italian government’s increasing use of enforced deportations of African refugees and asylum seekers fleeing, for example, the humanitarian crisis in Darfur (Amnesty International 2004). As I discuss elsewhere, the returns of the Souths of the South are also marked by the catastrophic loss of life of refugees and asylum seekers whose fragile boats founder off the coasts of Sicily and southern Italy as they attempt to enter Fortress Europe (Pugliese 2006).

The Souths of the South/the South of the North — this is the other of Europe: coloured, illegal, politically and economically disenfranchised, even as it has been constitutive of the economic and cultural power and white identity of the North. Viewed in this context, the South is captured in the derisive, racially inflected northern Italian slogan “il Sud.” Yet, mobilised against this slogan is another way altogether of speaking the South: “Suddd.” This is the title of a song by the contemporary southern Italian group Almamegretta. In a visceral mix of Neapolitan folk, Arab and North African musical traditions and African-American rap (Verdicchio 1997: 166), Almamegretta powerfully articulates the complex Souths of the South in songs that trace cultural genealogies and geopolitical affiliations that stand in contradistinction to the white-nation fantasies of the North. The tripling of the ‘ddds’ in their neologism “Suddd” phonetically and orthographically enunciates a South that powerfully reaccentuates the derisive slogan of the North: “il Sud.” In the course of “Suddd,” Almamegretta map the history of exploitation and expropriation of the South by the North:

Suddd! M’abbrucia a capa m’abbrucia a capa m’abbrucia ‘o fronte
Co’ chello aggio visto mme abbrucia ‘o fronte
Te voglio fa sape’ chi ha costruito stu paese te voglio fa sape’ chi n’ha pavato ‘e spese
Chi è stato deportato pe’ quatto sorde ‘o mese? Guagliune Siciliani e CCalabresi
Famme miseria schifezze e malatie chist’ è stato ‘o prezzo che ha pavato a terra mia (Almamegretta 1993).

(“Souttthhh! My head burns my head burns my
forehead burns
Because of what I’ve seen, my forehead burns
I want to let you know who built this nation, I want to let you know who paid the price
Who has been deported for a couple of cents a month?
Sicilian and CCalabrian youth
Famine misery filth and sickness, this has been the price that my land/region has paid”)

The triple articulation throughout the song of the multiple ‘ddds’ functions, like a machine-gun rap, to mark the differential identities of the South; these identities are, in the impassioned singing and rhythms of Almamegretta, both owned and celebrated in an exclamatory gesture of Southern defiance: “Sud Sud Sud si nzisti tu resisti!” (South South South if you insist you will resist!).

In “Figli di Annibale,” Almamegretta sing of the somatic and cultural differences of the South that must be marked historically in the face of ongoing white supremacist historicidal erasures. In celebrating the black general, Hannibal, as emblematic figure of African culture in the South, Almamegretta reconnects the contemporary question of Southern racial difference back to another history that only figures, in hegemonic Italian histories, in terms of a military figure that was ultimately vanquished by the power of Rome:

Ecco perché molti Italiani hanno la pelle scura
Ecco perché molti Italiani hanno i capelli scuri
Un po’ del sangue di Annibale è rimasto a tutti quanti nelle vene si è rimasto a tutti quanti nelle vene
Nussuno può dirmi stai dicendo un menzogna
No se conosci la tua storia sai dove vieni il colore del sangue
Che ti scorre nelle vene.
Ecco perché ecco perché noi siamo figlie di Annibale
Meridionale i figli di Annibale (Almamegretta 1993)

(That’s why many Italians have dark skin
That’s why many Italians have dark hair
A bit of the blood of Hannibal has remained in all our veins, yes it has remained in all our veins
No one can say to me that I’m telling a lie
Not if you know your history, you know where the colour in your veins comes from
That runs in your veins.
That’s why we are the children of Hannibal
Southerners the children of Hannibal)

In the face of the Eurocentrism that dominates Italian historiography, Almamegretta’s lyrics articulate another historico-geopolitical space from which to begin to answer the question posed by so many Southern diasporic youth: why don’t I look Italian? – a question that encodes, tautologically, the question: why don’t I look white? This other space, I would argue, is designated by the evocative double expression “noi altri.” Transposing this term from another geopolitically divided and racialised ethnoscape, North/South America, and translating it from the Spanish to the Italian, I borrow Gloria Anzaldúa’s “nos/otras” (2000: 254) in an effort to overturn untenable dichotomies whilst also insistently marking questions of irreducible difference. The fractured relationship of Southerners to the concept of Italianness is best captured by “noi altri,” which translates as “us,” but that, at the literal level, encodes a fissure that insists on marking a critical difference that simultaneously translates the expression as: “we others.Noi altri articulates the fact that one can never simply own a singular, monolithic identity that is not always already constituted by differential relations, whereby the us/ noi is always already predicated upon an elided, subjugated or erased them/ altri. Noi altri embodies the geopolitical space of the South-as- Suddd and its multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, diasporic subjects. Re-orienting along every axis the question of Italian identity, noi altri/we others trace deep roots that radiate transversally across the multiple Souths of the South.

These Souths of the South, and all their complex non-Anglo histories, do not magically disappear on the entry of non-Anglo diasporic subjects into the Australian nation. Even as they are officially erased, these other histories continue to inflect non-Anglo diasporic subjects in the context of their everyday lives. Despite the assiduous work of past and ongoing Anglocentric regimes of assimilation, the everyday cultural practices of Calabrese in Australia are marked by these other histories: they continue to inscribe the rituals of speaking, cooking, eating and burying one’s dead. In the idioms of everyday life, they persist: the fragments cohere, inscribing bodies, orienting practices.

At the borders of categorical race theories are the limit cases that occupy the in-between space of the fold. The topology of the fold is what enables the mapping of points of connection between seemingly disjunctive points. Michele Serres succinctly articulates the topological dynamics of the fold:

[E]very historical era.is multitemporal, simultaneously drawing from the obsolete, the contemporary, and the futuristic. An object, a circumstance, it is polychronic, multitemporal, and reveals a time gathered together, with multiple pleats.. Classical time is related to geometry, having nothing to do with space.but with metrics. On the contrary, take your inspiration from topology, and perhaps you will discover the rigidity of those proximities and distances you consider arbitrary. And their simplicity, in the literal sense of the word pli: it’s simply the difference between topology (the handkerchief is folded, crumpled, shredded) and geometry (the fabric is ironed out flat). (1995: 60)

The concepts of race, ethnicity and identity that I experience as lived realities cannot be envisaged by categorical and homogenising theories. My past, as indissociably conjoined to my present whilst also orienting my future, is at once heterogeneous and multitemporal. My idiom is a constellation of polylingual words that transgresses univocal understandings of language. The intercultural and interethnic histories that I have drawn attention to fold over into multiple pleats that cut across and problematise facile understandings of multiculturalism that, from Anglocentric positions of dominance, proceed to assign homogenising ethnic categories to non-Anglo Australian diasporic subjects: for example, “Italian,” in which the fabric of identity is ironed out flat and the category of race is taken for granted. For a Calabrese, this racialised ethno-nationalist identity is a category that is always already fractured and disoriented by the complex and contradictory mesh of histories that I have attempted to delineate. The identity I understand as a lived reality is crumpled and shredded – only to be contingently folded and polychronically reconstituted, gathering together so many differential points that defy the rigid geometry of metrical theory, in which everything is stable, evenly measured and self-identical: I do not recognise myself in the self-identity you take for granted. The survival of so many historical shards punctuates my non-coincidence with the self-identical.

In unthinkingly reproducing the Anglocentric terms of inquiry that continue to exercise such control over the Australian nation, non-Anglo migrants risk becoming complicit agents in the maintenance of Anglocentric relations of power. Many non-Anglo migrants are “multicultural” before their entry into Australia. This fact repeatedly gets erased. On entry into the Australian nation, suddenly non-Anglo migrants are bestowed a “multicultural” status that is in fact monocultural (for example, Italian, Sri Lankan, Turkish, Indian, Greek and so on) because it effaces the heterogeneous histories and cultures that constitute these contested and already racialised ethno-nationalist descriptors. On entry into the Australian nation, non-Anglo migrants are assigned an official racial category (for example, “white”) that might, for some, be contested by their prior non-Australian histories and experiences and that may prove contingently untenable in the fraught lived reality of everyday life in Australia.

At the borders of race theory, there are the sentinels of homogenising categorisation that guarantee the a priori, taken-for-grantedness of univocal identities that reproduce the common sense order of the hegemonic nation. Yet the border, I hope to have shown, is “never a secure place, it never forms an indivisible line, and it is always on the border that the most disconcerting questions get posed. Where, in fact, would a problem of topology get posed if not on the border? Would one ever have to worry about the border if it formed an indivisible line? (Derrida 1998: 77). The question of topology is disconcerting because it brings into sharp focus the otherwise naturalised figure of the border – determining figure of power, placement and control. On the border, unbeknownst to the guards, the topology of the fold establishes heteronomous lines of connection that silently defy the homogenising process of official identity assignation. At this point of control, even as the body is scrutinised and the subject is officially classified, the embodied topology of the fold persists in signifying otherwise. Irrupting in the field of what we “know for sure” is the insurgency of a “but all the same.”


Note: All translations from Calabrese and Italian are by the author. All photographs are by the author. My thanks to Lara Palombo for her help in tracking down a critical reference.

Joseph Pugliese is Associate Professor in the Department of Critical and Cultural Studies, Macquarie University, Sydney. His current research projects include: the nexus between race and new and emergent biometric technologies, the cultural politics framing the issue of “terrorism,” and torture and trauma in the context of contemporary imperialism.


1. Pi tia papà: in memoriam.


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If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email ahr@anu.edu.au