Queer Black Italy and the Politics of Experience

I recently took an invaluable and enlightening course designed to help instructors add material on Italians of African descent — or what is increasingly called Black Italy—to the Italian Studies curriculum. The course was a rich resource of information on many aspects of Black Italy, from its history to its presence in contemporary culture. In the wake of the events of 2020, I have been rereading critical race theory and exploring how it could better inform my teaching — but also my research in Italian culture and civilization. This past year, I was part of a task force of the American Association of Italian Studies convened to explore the possibility of creating a Critical Race Studies Caucus, and my own recent research has begun examining the intersections of race and homosexuality in early 20th century Italian literature. I also led, at Penn State Erie, a Critical Race Studies reading group that met every other week or so throughout the 2020-2021 school year. All of which is to say that I have been thinking a lot lately about my aspirations to be a white co-conspirator in anti-racist struggles. Clearly, it is my white privilege that made it possible for me to treat 2020 as a kind of watershed moment in reckoning with racism, but it is also true that my previous work often dealt with intersections of race and sexuality in Italy.

The thoughts I’ve gathered here are in response to a particular moment in the Black Italy course, but they are also part of a discussion I’ve been engaged in for most of my career, a debate concerning how to bring together an analysis of racism with queer theory’s critique of identity politics and the post-structuralist critique of the intentional subject. That debate has produced more questions than answers, and, as I struggled to bring my thoughts together, I was keenly aware of both accusations leveled against my past work by some queer male critical race theorists—accusations that either I had what they termed “race fatigue,” or, worse, that the reading of Marlon Rigg’s film Tongues Untied that appeared in my book The Ethics of Marginality was marked by a hysterical and defensive white fragility. Clearly, my relationship to some male queer theorists of color is fraught, and anything I write here risks being dismissed by some readers as more of the same—more of my own resistance to hearing these queer male voices of color, including their critique of my work. But as I often tell my students, writing need not be an occasion to display the already known. It can instead function as a means of figuring out what one thinks. While exposing the world to one’s still nascent reflections is always risky, the genre of the blogpost seems particularly suited to these kinds of ruminations. And while the device of the rhetorical question might prove tedious and even evasive to some readers, in a blog post, I am willing to take that risk.

The course on Black Italy was taught by documentary filmmaker, activist, and scholar Fred Kuwornu, the value of whose efforts to explore and make visible the lives and work of Black Italians cannot be overstated. Black people have lived on Italian soil and made contributions to Italian culture for thousands of years, and, recently, representations of Black Italians have increased, whether in social media or film, the visual arts, and literature. Historians of Black Italy have contributed to this project by doing archival work highlighting figures like murdered partisan Giorgio Marincola or reconsidering Black Renaissance figures like Alessandro de’ Medici. All of this is occurring against a backdrop of increasing hostility in Italy to immigrants in general and immigrants from Africa in particular, and so these projects of providing alternative representations from those circulating in the Italian media in particular necessarily have a political appeal.

Many of these proliferating representations of Black Italians are specifically the result of activism and its attempts to intervene in Italy’s unjust citizenship laws, as well as a public climate that often argues on the one hand that there is no racism in Italy and on the other that people of African descent cannot be Italian. During the COVID pandemic, Black Italian activists brought to public scrutiny the deplorable conditions in which Black Italian migrant workers in the agricultural industry suffer. Many of the speakers invited to our course narrated incidents of discrimination, hostility, physical violence, and exclusion that were painful to hear. Italian born children of non-naturalized immigrants, for example, cannot acquire Italian citizenship until they turn eighteen (Act 91, article 4, 2a), and this only contributes to a climate in which Black Italians are treated as not belonging, regardless of the actual circumstances of their births or the contributions they make to Italian culture. The response of some Black Italians to their circumstances has been to produce artworks and social media content that is deeply tied to activism in their community’s interest.

The last day of the course, we heard from Jordan Anderson, who has worked to make the contributions of Queer Black Italians more visible. Anderson is a self-identified queer black man who is of Jamaican birth but now lives and works in Milan. After describing his negative experiences in Italy meeting white Italian men who treated sex with a Black person as something to check off of one’s bucket list, he explained that, despite his initial fantasies of finding an Italian Romeo (his words), he had to face the racism and white centeredness of the LGBTQ+ Italian community. While it was relatively easy for him to find someone who wanted sex, no one seemed interested in going on a date, and he found dating apps particularly debilitating environments where racism was rife, whether it be via the sexual fetishization of his blackness or racial epithets directed at him when he turned someone down.

In the question-and-answer period following his remarks, I cautioned that, given that what an LGBTQ community even IS in Italy is not at all self-evident, it was important not to generalize. In Italy, there are many men who have sex with other men who do not identify as gay or queer; some of these men are married to women. It’s not that they are simply “in the closet”: it is (also) that Italy has a long history of prolific ways of entering into, defining, and understanding same-sex behavior, and that there is even something to be valued in a refusal of a policing of identity that demands that one recognize oneself in categories historically bequeathed to us by the late nineteenth century’s homosexual/heterosexual divide. To assume that all of these White men, some of whom held appallingly racist attitudes, represent Italy’s LGBTQ+ community is problematic. For there are, in Italy, politically identified LGBTQ+ groups like Perugia’s Omphalos, whose webpages, for example, mention a subgroup of the organization that deals with issues related to migration to Italy. It is true that the presence of this subgroup demonstrates precisely that the association is not centered on Queer Black Italy – and to some degree assumes a White queer subject. But this is not the only subgroup in the organization. Other “gruppi tematici” include people under 28, women, trans people, sport, and deaf people, for example. Milan’s LGBTQ+ association Arcigay also includes a group on immigration and homosexuality.

Were my comments (further) evidence of my white fragility? This is a question I take seriously—seriously enough to write this blogpost. I can easily see how someone might say that I should just have listened to the speaker’s comments and not let my white defensiveness threaten to discount his experience of racism within the white Italian queer milieu—which is what my comments risked doing. (Never mind other issues I wished I could have raised, like the fact that, in the modern period, all differences are sexually fetishized to the point where, as Rey Chow so brilliantly illustrates, we cannot talk about race minus a discussion of sex and gender.) That I felt it necessary, in the midst of a critique of the racism of the Italian LGBTQ+ community, to remind my fellow students that there are also Italian LGBTQ+ groups seeking to decenter whiteness (to however limited a degree) is evidence of my own white defensiveness and privilege. My comments risked shifting attention away from what we were here to discuss—racism in the Italian LGBTQ+ community. (Though in fact what we were actually here to discuss was Black Queer Italy in presumably all of its permutations. And I wonder if I am not exaggerating here my own white power; could my efforts really have taken the rest of the class “away” from what the speaker was saying? How far away? Did my whiteness somehow assure that my words would be taken as more authoritative than his?) My comments also allowed me off the hook, allowed me to avoid examining my own complicity in silencing the voices of queer Blacks, Italian or otherwise.

The problem with blaming my response exclusively on my alleged white fragility is of course that it ignores the point I wanted to make—that Italian LGBTQ+ culture is more heterogeneous than the speaker’s initial statements allowed (for he did not disagree with my point that generalization risked simplification.) Yes, obviously, there is racism in the Italian LGBTQ+ community, and Queer Italian Blacks are subject to a grotesque and painful manner of racial fetishization by white men—as are many queer Black men, period. This critique must be heard and addressed. But shouldn’t those cultural spaces where it IS being addressed be discussed, too? Shouldn’t anyone seeking knowledge of Black Queer experience be aware of these efforts, some of which are being coordinated by Queer Black Italians? (Or is the racism of some white men who have sex with other men not as obvious as I assume? Perhaps the problem is that I was bringing too much of my own experience as a queer scholar in the US to the table, as it is undeniable that some of the most important, respected, and urgent voices in queer theory today are those of Black people and other people of color: Sara Ahmed, Roderick A. Ferguson, Hiram Pérez, Dariek Scott, José Esteban Muñoz, Eng-Beng Lim, Dwight A. McBride, Amber Jamilla Musser, Jasbir K. Puar, C. Riley Snorton, for example. But the kind of gay racism Anderson experienced may not in fact be well known to my non-queer-identified, Italianist colleagues in the class.)

Obviously (or maybe not so obviously), all signification occurs in a context. In this particular context—one in which both the speaker and I, as queer men, would necessarily act as native informants—I made the conscious decision that my heterosexual colleagues—regardless of their races and genders—needed to be aware of these efforts, lest they hastily conclude that Italian white queers generally are racist. Well, of course they are—but no more (or less) so than many non-queer white Italians. Does one person’s plea for visibility always depend upon the making invisible of the complex reality of how culture operates—which is as a site of contestation? As some readers of Gramsci sometimes forget, hegemony most decidedly does not suggest a state of domination but rather a process in flux, and hegemony can only secure itself by working to erase traces of resistance.

As for listening to the speaker minus offering a critical response, my own approach has always been to treat Black intellectuals as I do White intellectuals, which is to engage with and respond to their words via what is sometimes called my own positionality– in other words, as a queer white male intellectual with a US passport, whose job has provided him with material privilege, and not as the universal subject of Western philosophical lore. I also assume that Black intellectuals and I share, however unevenly, a certain disciplinary training and point of view that traverses our differences, and so I try to speak across race via our shared disciplinary language, which is itself a site of contestation and not irremediably tainted by whiteness. This means that I am not afraid or hesitant to disagree with anyone based on his/her/their color or gender or sexual identity or class position. We are not our ideas, and disagreeing with someone is not the same as “cancelling,” discounting, silencing, or enacting violence on them. Power does not work that way.

But perhaps my assumptions are part of the problem. Black intellectuals are not White intellectuals; they do not have the institutional privileges someone like me has; their words, ideas, and artworks have been subject to dismissal in a way mine have not; when they speak, even to “sympathetic” white colleagues, they risk not being treated seriously; their Black bodies are subject to the threat of violence in a way my white body is not. But is the chief insight of intersectionality that, ultimately, race does indeed trump all other forms of oppression so that, for example, the words of any queer Black critic are going to carry less weight than my own, even when their institutional position is in some ways superior to mine? In other words, shouldn’t intersectionality also focus upon those instances in which various forms of subject constitution do not result in a subject who can claim the position of most marginalized? (A counter question: is my tone here defensive, and even defensively white?)

To my mind, our interchange was grounded in certain irreducible problems and inescapable contradictions related to representation, which, as Gayatri Spivak reminds us, is a word that in English means both “proxy” and “portrait”; standing in for the Italian Queer Black community, our speaker offered a portrayal of it, as well as a portrait of the white Italian LGBTQ+ community. Some of what we struggled with are the contradictions of the testimony of the native informant, who resists standing in for, in this instance, all queer Italian Blacks, and yet is called upon to do just that. As a contribution to a twenty-hour course on Black Italy, a single person is invited to employ an hour or so to represent all of Black Queer Italy and, in recounting his experience, he tells a group of straight-identified scholars that White Italian queers are racist. Whether he likes it or not, he bears a certain representational burden. The problem is not his testimony, however; it is the assumption of some of his witnesses that the authority of his experience is unimpeachable and guaranteed by the color of his skin—what Spivak in another context has called chromatism. And yet, thanks to identity politics, this is how experience functions. Experiential discourse grounds its truth claims in a lot of specious assumptions around the subaltern as knowing subject, and one of the issues that troubled me throughout our class was the way in which discussions of Black Italy seemed to rely on an instantiation of the Black Italian subject as the intentional subject, a subject minus, for example, an unconscious whose presence might challenge the authority that subject claims to wield over its own experience. Where the intentional subject of white, Western universalist discourse was, the intentional subject of Black Italy shall be.

My point here is not that Black people have been absent from the debate around the status of the subject, as the presence in the archive of Franz Fanon, Antonio Viego, and Hortense J. Spillers, for example, well attests. My point is that the act of making a subject visible via the discourse of experience always risks “forgetting” any critique of the subject, as well as neglecting a discussion of how modern identities, even subaltern ones, are deeply tied to capitalist neoliberalism. Another topic we really were not able to cover in the course was the contradictions of employing capitalism to achieve greater cultural visibility. I am not suggesting here that any of us can occupy some pure space outside of capitalism. Rather, I am interested in what Spivak once called the itinerary of the silencing, the way in which all of the emphasis on rendering Black Italians visible via social media in particular risked occluding any discussion whatsoever of the fact that, for example, some of this “work” was “powered by” Converse, as the cover of Anderson’s Zine called The Queer Black Italian Experience proclaims. Other underwriters of some of the projects undertaken by Anderson’s My Queer Blackness, My Black Queerness include Gucci and Bulgari.

This is neither a critique nor a cheap shot; I certainly have Gucci in my wardrobe. My concern is that, across all twenty hours of our course, no discussion of possible conflicts of interest between economic and social justice for Black Italians and capitalism was ever entertained (minus my own reminder that capitalism is proving remarkable skilled at commodifying responses to the US’s increasing discussion of its racism; I was shocked, for example, by how quickly, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the activism it reinvigorated, US television ads now feature interracial couples. The speed and skill with which the fiftieth anniversary of Gay Pride is being hyper-commodified is also particularly startling, and I have no idea if anyone has commented upon the way the arguments about whether “kink” should be allowed at Pride are taking place against this backdrop of corporate sponsorship.)

Part of what I wanted to highlight in my comments is our continuing use of, and reliance on, that deeply, deeply flawed concept, community, especially to describe a group of people defined by a similar desire to engage in same-sex interactions, as well as a history of surveillance, approbation, pathologizing, and violence against that group and its sexual practices. Clearly, activism depends upon forming coalitions, and the language of community “performs” that coalition-building—but in a way that Mary Louise Pratt reminded us is highly problematic. For communities are typically defined in utopian terms, and utopia is nowhere. On this particular planet, there is no horizontal, fraternal, sovereign space where, for example, men who have sex with men gather. That place is no place. I think I understand the deep sense of disappointment Anderson felt when, seeking a welcoming and diverse LGBTQ+ Italian community, he experienced instead the pain of being the object of vicious if sometimes unconscious racism. And, perhaps like him, I still feel appalled by the way people whose personal and cultural history includes blatant experiences of discrimination would then turn around and subject others to racism (or misogyny, or classism, or ageism). But, as Michael Warner, in The Trouble with Normal, reminds us, to assume that whom you have sex with determines your freedom from false consciousness is itself problematic.

Opposing the notion of community, Pratt highlights the way something like LGBTQ+ culture needs to be viewed as a contact zone, a space where subjects come together and grapple with one another under conditions that include the history of colonialism and its aftermath and capitalism’s continued efforts to redeploy the remnants of that history in the service of profit-making. Approaching Italian LGBTQ+ people as a contact zone, we assume from the get-go that this group will include the same power differentials that occur in the larger society. But, recognizing, as Foucault says, that wherever there is power, there is also resistance, we do not assume that anyone is either absolute oppressor or absolute victim. When we approach LGBTQ+ people as a contact zone, we may be better prepared to do the work of confronting racism among “our own.” As for the critique of the category of experience, this, too, has long been a theme in my work.

Obviously, none of what I’ve written here is adequate to the complexity of trying to deconstruct whiteness. From the point of view of deconstruction, “centering” Black voices can only be the first step in the process of dismantling hierarchies of race. That first step, however, is a necessary one; one cannot have a displacement minus a reversal. And clearly, we are not there yet. So perhaps I should have just kept my mouth shut. Perhaps it is not the time yet for dialogue but rather listening. So, when you finish reading this post, follow the links above and go listen to Anderson and the work his co-conspirators are doing. At this particular point in history, it is they who should have the last word.