Coronavirus: A (missed) chance to rethink racism?

Published 18 March 2020 / By Domiziana Turcatti

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I grew up in a small town in Lombardy. In history classes I remember being told that Italy was never a colonial power. The specific narrative was that: ‘Italy did try to become a colonial power but was never as successful as other European states’. My history book reinforced this. The Italian campaigns to crush Libyans’ resistance and the atrocities committed by the Italian army in the Horn of Africa were relegated only to a few paragraphs.

Given that Italy’s colonial past is often downplayed, it does not come as a surprise that racism is often denied. Following Critical Race Theory, scholar Bonilla-Silva (2017) defined racism as a social structure systematically awarding privileges to some while disempowering others. Numerous studies have discussed the discrimination migrants and racial minorities suffer in the Italian labour market and the challenges their children face in Italian schools.

But what does this have to do with coronavirus? In this blog I am keen to address this question by exploring some of the ways in which coronavirus has shaped current Italian discourses on racism.

Before it was a thing: Coronavirus as a ‘racial opportunity’

By the 23 February 2020, there were 121 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Italy. On the same day, the Italian government allowed the docking of the Ocean Viking rescue ship carrying 274 migrants in Pozzallo, Sicily. Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Italian right-wing party Lega Nord, attacked the Italian PM Giuseppe Conte for this decision: “allowing the migrants to land from Africa, where the presence of the [corona]virus was confirmed, is irresponsible”. Yet, at the time there was only one confined case of COVID-19 in Africa. Without entering the debate of open vs closed borders, it is clear how Salvini, and those who physically and verbally attacked Asian people, did not miss the chance to turn coronavirus into an opportunity for constructing migrants as vehicles of diseases.

Coronavirus as a political instrument reinforcing the idea of racism as prejudice

Coronavirus also became a political instrument reproducing the idea of racism as prejudice. On 19 February, the virologist Roberto Burioni criticised Tuscany’s government for not quarantining 2500 Chinese people returning from abroad. The president of Tuscany replied that Tuscany was following the national guidelines. He added: “who attacks us is either not well informed […] or a fascioleghista”. Fascioleghista is another word for racist, or at least was interpreted as such by Salvini. Now, what does this show? Coronavirus became another opportunity to use racism as a political instrument. The left attacks the right by saying ‘you are racist’. The right responds ‘the left are moralistic do-gooders’. One might argue that this narrative has been part of the DNA of Italian politics since the beginning of the litigation over borders. Yet, as Bonilla-Silva (2015) remarked, the construction of the right as the racist, angry bigots and the left’s self-absolving end up reducing racism to racial prejudice. In other words, racism ends up being understood merely as holding negative views towards ethno-racial minorities, rather than an integral part of many countries’ social structure, Italy included.

In the middle of the pandemic: From ‘racism against Italians’ to a patriotic moment

Yet, discourses about racism seem to have changed with the increased number of coronavirus cases in Italy. Many stopped witch-hunting for racists. Instead, before Italy enforced quarantine, online newspapers and bloggers went as far as to say that Italians were becoming victims of racism. This statement was justified by the fact that countries were advising against travelling to Italy and by episodes in which Italians abroad were prevented access to public places. By talking about racism in the context of Italians abroad, discussions about racism within Italy have been overshadowed. Recent developments that have turned the coronavirus into a patriotic moment (see for example this article) further exemplify my point. Here, patriotism is broadly understood as a sense of special affection for one’s own country, its wellbeing, and the willingness to promote the country’s good. While solidarity is very much needed in Italy right now, this patriotic sentiment has led (at least momentarily) to the sweeping of the word racism, together with its understanding, under the carpet.

Coronavirus: A (missed) chance to rethink racism?

In this blog, I suggested that the coronavirus crisis has been, so far, a missed chance to rethink Italian racial politics. Yet, my observations are not informed by a systematic analysis of Italian discourses on coronavirus and racism. Furthermore, while this blog painted a rather negative picture, counter-hegemonic discourses should not be downplayed. In fact, coronavirus has forced those for whom borders have never been an issue, including myself, to reconsider mobility as a privilege, rather than a given. I have also been seeing friends, colleagues, and migrant organisations raising concerns for the differential impact of the coronavirus situation on people with unstable legal, health, and socio-economic status (and the intersection of these). As a researcher of migration and mobilities, I look forward to global discussions, new research and ultimately a better understanding of the racial politics of global pandemics such as coronavirus.

About the author: Domiziana Turcatti is a DPhil Student in Migration Studies investigating how families shape and are shaped by onward migration.