The Image of the Immigrant in Italy


The recent immigrant revolts in southern Italy have laid bare a problem afflicting every member country of the EU. The tension between national identity and immigration has produced, especially in Italy, very serious xenophobic outbursts which once again force us to question the grand narrative of globalization. Traditional centre-left and centre-right political parties are simply unable to cope with the problems posed by increasing rates of immigration. In addition, the global financial meltdown, growing unemployment and economic insecurity have greatly exacerbated existing social issues, many of which tied to the phenomenon of immigration. Within this context, parties such as Italy’s Northern League are able to garner consensus by blaming the immigrant for social and economic woes; vowing to protect Europe from the Muslim invasion and restore the Christian roots which had made the Old Continent so powerful in antiquity.

Yet, recent expressions of Italian racism are not the direct result of financial instability, and we cannot solely blame the neo-liberal crisis for collective xenophobic outbursts. Italian racism, like all types of racism, is infinitely more subtle, and has its roots deeply embedded within popular narratives and myths. My point here is to analyse a form of latent racism ingrained in social, historical and cultural fabric, which re-emerges in times of crisis. Recent manifestations of xenophobia represent what anthropologist Annamaria Rivera calls a “regurgitation of racism”, which implies that racism has never been properly digested and expelled from the collective conscience.

To analyse the deepest roots of xenophobia we must look at the ways in which the immigrant is represented in popular culture by the media apparatus. A subtle analysis of which images the media presents of the immigrant is required. I am convinced that there are certain embedded collective myths and cultural behaviours which serve to legitimize and justify racism, preventing xenophobia from ever being properly digested. These embedded characteristics are a constituent feature of Italian identity and are omnipresent in the subtext of mass media products. Edward Said teaches us that culture and politics are never separate and independent domains; rather, they mutually reinforce a particular hegemony to which they both belong. In such a way I wish to expose certain cultural attributes as being the unconscious depositories of latent racism.

The Importance of the Media

Before delving into our discussion we must see which images are presented to the Italian public. According to a 2009 report conducted by La Sapienza University on how immigrants are represented in Italian media, 36% of news coverage depicting immigrants is related to terrorism and criminality, while 36.5% is related to illegal border crossings. In news coverage related to any kind of criminality 60% of the times the protagonist is an immigrant. When representing the broad theme of immigration 69.9% of images proposed are related to the themes of security and public order. In 78% of cases, the immigrant is represented negatively. 74.8% of images depicting immigrants are solely of young adult males.

These numbers do not reflect immigrant demographics and do not even come close to reflecting the true rates of Italian criminality. What they do represent however is the monopolization of the entire system of representation, as immigrants simply do not have the means to represent themselves. This occurs through stereotype stratification where a very narrow and precise image of the immigrant is repeatedly conveyed. In this way the image which has been arbitrarily attributed to the immigrant becomes embedded within the collective imagination.

There are three recurring general ways in which the immigrant is represented. I will banally refer to them as the “Bad Immigrant”, the “Good Immigrant” and the “Weak Immigrant” images. This might sound as if I am generalizing, yet my point is exactly to deconstruct such generalizations.

The “Bad” Immigrant

The image of the “bad immigrant” is used in contexts invoking national as well as personal security. Drug trafficking, criminality, prostitution and all sorts of heinous crimes have traditionally been attributed to the “other”. In this way, the immigrant represents the obverse: if Italy stands for cleanliness, reason, hygiene, and goodness, the immigrant is dirty, irrational, infectious and “bad”. These are ontological attributes which cannot be rubbed off from a skin colour other than white, not even in cases of second or third generation immigrants. The persistence of this form of racism, which is the most common, is inherent to a western philosophy completely permeated by Manicheanism. Examples of the “good” versus the “bad” include the Ancient Greeks and the Barbarians; the Romans and the Gaulles; the Christians and the Muslims; Liberal Democracy and Communism and so on… This way of perceiving reality as “us-good” and “them-evil” is easily taken advantage of and has historically been used to fortify essentialist claims to national and ethnic identity.

However, in the case of immigrants being accused of rape, the mythical and psychological connotations are much more profound. The image of the immigrant rapist is one of the oldest constituent features of racism: “the topos of the “other’s” body as a menace to our women, his unrestrained and bestial sexuality, challenging our right of property over our community’s women.” (Rivera, “Regole e Roghi”, 2009) The media campaign mounted in the summer of 2008 dubbed “rape emergency” betrays the hysteria of a sexist and male dominated culture which has historically exhibited complete disrespect for women rights and gender equality.

Statistics demonstrate that rape committed by Italian men is not treated as seriously as rape committed by immigrants. According to the World Health Organization 70% of violence against women occurs within the family nucleus. According to a 2007 ISTAT report, 7 out of 10 Italian women who have been victims of sexual assault have been assaulted by family members or companions. Thus, rape is not an alien phenomenon imposed on Italians from without; rather, it is endemic feature and has historically been a hidden reality of the Italian family. Italians are also the first in Europe in terms of sex tourism: it is very common for Italians to embark on colonial-esque sex adventures. These facts lead us to the conclusion that rape (and all types of misogynist behaviour including sex-tourism) committed by Italians is tacitly accepted.

The figure of the immigrant rapist not only challenges notions of national identity, but challenges an understanding of ethnicity based on descent and homeland (an understanding which corresponds to the Nazi ideology of Blood and Soil used to justify ethnic cleansing and eugenic projects). The possibility of the “other” intermingling with “our” women completely disrupts notions of racial purity and represents the symbolic truncation of male lineage. The fear of loss of male biological power and the deprivation of the power to start a family to “pass on the seed” (which equate to castration in Freudian terms), are more serious than fear of loss of cultural, national or religious identity. This is why, when the right of possession over female sexuality is challenged by the immigrant, the whole community(male and female) reacts hysterically, to the point where the mayor of Rome in the summer of 2008 encouraged the formation of lynching squads to suppress the “rape emergency”.

We can find evidence of this cultural acceptance of autochthonous rape in the legend of “The Rape of the Sabine Women”. Shortly after the founding of Rome in 753 B.C., the first generation of Roman men did not have enough women with which to begin the glorious Roman race. Thus, King Romulus and his men resorted to abducting women from the neighbouring Sabine villages while massacring their husbands. The very founding of Italy’s imperial lineage was born from a collective act of rape: an act which was justified by the glorious unfolding of Roman historical achievements. The acceptance of the Rape of the Sabine Women as a necessary event for the existence of the Roman Empire (the Empire also represents Italy’s expression of the “mission civilisatrice”) is the original precursor to today’s acceptance of Italian rape and cause of hysteria when dealing with immigrant rape.

The “Good” Immigrant

Rivera points out that amid the media campaigns mounted against immigrants, one will usually encounter a news story depicting the “good immigrant”, one in which an immigrant heroically saves an Italian despite this betraying his illegal status in the country. This was the case with Mohammed Haida, a 22 year old from Morocco who saved an Italian man from a suicide attempt in August 2009. Mohammed was treated as a hero, brought on television and was also granted the permit to legally reside and work in Italy. Rivera asserts that the construction of the image of the “good immigrant” is perfectly symmetrical to that of the “bad immigrant”: they are both part of the same narrative technique used by neo-colonialist media. The young Mohammed was paraded on TV with the same amount of nauseating Eurocentric paternalism as Robinson Crusoe civilised Friday.

Said’s analysis of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in Culture and Imperialism is of great use to us here. For Said, the heart of darkness described by Conrad represents notions of bestiality, incivility and barbarism as being inherent characteristics of African culture. Only the civilising power of colonialism can shed light on the darkness permeating the very heart of Africa. Similarly, a character such as Robinson Crusoe’s Friday is the product of the process of civilising savageness. Friday renounces cannibalism and embraces Christianity. However in his most essential form he remains a savage, is prone to reverting to bestiality and is thus in need of constant tutelage. In the same way, Said points out that for Europeans, African colonies were simply incapable of independence and required constant supervision lest they give in to their barbaric ways. Thus, the “mission civilisatrice”, the “white man’s burden” and the practice of tutelage were solely attainable through benevolent and brutal deployments of power. The corresponding benevolent and brutal deployments of power today are symbolically represented by the constructs of the “good” and “bad” immigrant. Moreover, following Foucault’s notion of power-knowledge, we will notice that these representations are not symbolical but the actual violent deployments of power.

The image painted here is two-fold: on one hand we have a “civilised” savage, on the other the “barbaric” savage. There cannot exist a way in between the two extremes, for both are solely represented through European “structures of attitude and reference”, to use Said’s words, which saturate the entire system of representation. In the same way, the “good” and the “bad” immigrant images are part of the same discriminatory attitude of reference expressed through the biased mass media apparatus. The point worth making here is that the media very rarely presents images of immigrants in which they appear as normal citizens, with the same preoccupations and enthusiasms that Italians have. The portrayal of extremes where the only possibilities of immigrant existence lie in the “heroic” and in the “criminal” preclude the condition of “normality”. In this way it is easy to draw the divide between a normal and rational Italian, and an unbalanced and irrational immigrant.

The “Weak” Immigrant

The final general recurring image attributed to the immigrant is one depicting immigrants in a state of need: in conditions of physical exhaustion, as if residing in a state of chronic weakness. Most African migrants arrive in Italy on small boats departing from Libya. The physical conditions in which they arrive (if they arrive- Italy’s most recent anti-immigration law requires Italy’s coast guard to push the boats back to Libya) are horrendous, as they spend days under the scorching Mediterranean sun, usually without water and food, endlessly drifting in hope of reaching the beaches of Malta or Sicily. 36.5% of total news coverage depicting immigrants presents images of newly arrived migrants on Sicilian shores. These images depict distraught people which have lived in cramped overcrowded conditions on small boats in the middle of the sea for days.

What the media presents the Italian public with is a stereotype of an immigrant which arrives in a weak condition and is in need of help; help which will eventually take the form of tax money and public services. They need access to medical facilities and housing, and their children will be required to attend the public school system. I do not wish to insinuate that Italians are completely cold-hearted and want to refuse such services, quite the contrary. My point is that the image of the weak immigrant reinforces the embedded collective, and in Italy’s case profoundly Catholic, notion of charity. In fact, Italy’s most efficient and brilliant organization which helps newly arrived immigrants is Catholic and is called Caritas -Latin for charity. The sincere help given to immigrants by Italians (sometimes begrudgingly but always honestly) in the form of organizations such as Caritas or through public services cannot but stem from Italy’s Catholic values.

In Christian theology charity is the most important of the three theological virtues, and means literally unlimited love-kindness toward others. However, this meaning has changed, and today charity is understood more in terms of a benevolent act of giving. Charity is a gift, a donation from one who has more to one who has less (in its most consumerist articulation charity involves giving so long as it does not significantly diminish the donor’s material wealth). I am not disputing the sincere motives behind modern articulations of charity; yet, does it not set up an asymmetrical power relationship? Does charity not symbolically presuppose the figure of a magnanimous, wealthy giver and that of a poor, weak receiver? My criticism to charity is that it poses the immigrant as being a-priori weak, and in constant need of help. The “weak” immigrant stereotype is a complete construction: Italian immigrants are ranked first in Europe in terms of opening up their own businesses, demonstrating that they are able to climb the economical and social ladder through their own hard work.

Moreover, the particularly distressing issue with Italy’s expression of charity is that it is in contrast with the most basic understanding of human rights. Human rights are a-priori rights which every human possesses no matter what his status is: be him a first world citizen, a criminal, or a migrant worker. Italy’s catholic roots distort such an understanding, placing human rights within the logics of charity. In this way human rights are granted to those in need. Yet, human rights cannot be granted – they must be mutually recognized and extended from human being to fellow human being. They are no one’s to give – by definition.


The picture which emerges from this analysis is one which demonstrates how much Italian culture is attached to its two contrasting eurocentric heritages: the Enlightenment and Catholicism. There has always been a struggle between a secular, progressive, republican Italian identity, and a more Catholic conservative one. There have also been many attempts to combine the two. However, immigration throws both identities in complete disarray, as if the very presence of the “other” represents an obstacle to any identity claim.

In What is the Enlightenment? (1984) Foucault states that the Enlightenment completely permeates contemporary European thought. The Enlightenment grants the European collective conscience the feeling of being “on the right side of history”; because, after all, democracy, science and human rights were invented there. However, that very sense of progressive righteousness is xenophobia’s strongest base. We have witnessed this in the constructs of the “good” and “bad” immigrant, where the “other” simply cannot be rational, normal and balanced: these are attributes which emerge from the Enlightenment, and as such, are property of Europe and Europeans.

In this way we witness a paradoxical situation. Italy’s Catholic tradition, which has generally represented the obstacle overcome by the Enlightenment, paradoxically is much more progressive in terms of immigrant solidarity than Italy’s republican tradition. This should not come as a surprise as Catholicism has historically had a very strong  popular and, according to Joseph Ratzinger in his Without Roots, socialist wing which has always been in contrast with the Vatican’s conservatism. What should come as a surprise, and simultaneously be cause for alarm, is that what has probably been history’s greatest emancipatory movement in terms of political and social thought -the Enlightenment- has proven to be one of the greater obstacles to immigrant integration and solidarity. Where Catholicism becomes an obstacle is when it tries to articulate human rights, when rights are granted as an act of charity.

In conclusion we must resist explaining racism as being solely caused by contemporary social, economic and political conditions. It is clear that racism has much deeper roots: roots which derive directly from the ways in which Europe defines its own identity. In asking the question “what does it mean to be European”, Europe should not use its great emancipatory movement as a way to define difference and neglect rights to non-Europeans. This entails the act of enclosing the Enlightenment in a closed system. Such a system must retain its emancipatory potential by striving to remain “open”, and as such accessible to all.


Filed under Human Rights, Immigration, Racism

4 responses to “The Image of the Immigrant in Italy

  1. Alan Hertz

    A couple of minor dissents. The dichotomy between Romans and Gauls was much more fluid than modern divides you discuss. The Roman notion of earnable citizenship meant that the Gaul need not remain a Gaul; he [definitely HE]could become a Roman. Once he did, he not only had the rights of a Roman; he seems to have had the significant opportunities for advancement in the imperial hierarchy. In practice, this often worked; many of the known senior imperial administrators in Britain were Gauls. The system wasn’t perfectly equitable, and our information about it is necessarily incomplete; but Roman imperial hierarchies may have been more permeable in practice than modern ones. Maybe.

    Said [and Achebe] and Heart of Darkness. This has always struck me as a sad bit of blindness. Neither Said nor Achebe, I think, fully understood the depth and wisdom of Conrad’s sceptical conservatism. Conrad’s interest was not in the cultural or moral barbarism of the African; it was in the cultural and moral corruption of the imperialist. To him, African cultures were unknowable. Imperial power could destroy them; it could not understand them or judge them fairly. Western imperialists could only barbarize themselves in their eagerness to exploit and civilize simultaneously. The anarchy he describes in the Congo is an anarchy imposed from the outside — Kurtz may adopt African imagery, but his nightmare regime is not authentically African. And all Africans in the story have been completely decultured by imperialism; readers have and can have no understanding of their indigenous culture.

    Maybe I’m wrong, of course. Achebe and Said are much more learned and insightful than I am — but in this case, I think they underrated a great, wise, troubling text.

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    • Hi Beatris,

      Of course you may use some of my ideas, provided you state that they came from this blog and put a link to it please.

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      -Giulio Caperchi

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