“Non ci sono italiani neri!” The struggle to be black in the Bel Paese

(Wikipedia Commons)

The last few months have seen both Italian and international press roaring with reports of racism in the, apparently not so, Bel Paese[i]. Much of the reported abuse has focused on two of Italy’s most high-profile black Italians: Cecile Kyenge and Mario Balotelli. Both Kyenge and Balotelli are Italian citizens, both are black and both have been repeatedly subjected to racial abuse and accusations that they are not true Italians. The reaction of society to these individuals highlights the difficulty of being black and Italian and also reveals a racial element to Italian national identity.

Uncomfortably Italian

The fragility of Italian identity for those who are black is made abundantly clear to A.C. Milan striker Mario Balotelli during countless Serie A and Italian international fixtures. He has been the subject of shockingly racist chants from fans, most recently those of A.S. Roma. As well as the monkey noises and inflatable bananas thrown at him Balotelli has been frequently taunted with chants that “Non ci sono italiani neri!” [“There are no black Italians!”]. He has been depicted as King Kong in the national press and Milan’s vice president refers to him as “the little black boy of the family”.

The world of Italian football has long been a difficult place for black players, but according to Mark Doidge the abuse faced by Mario Balotelli is different from that faced by other black players in Italy. The son of Ghanaian immigrants, Balotelli was raised by an Italian family in Brescia and speaks with a local Breciano accent. Unlike Marco Zoro, Samuel Eto’o, Kevin-Prince Boateng and others who have been targeted on the Italian pitch, Balotelli is Italian. Not only is he Italian but he is a star of the Italian national squad, an Italian icon.

Doidge suggests that the mere fact that Balotelli is Italian and black makes him particularly vulnerable to abuse and explains why the abuse he has received has dwarfed that directed towards other black players in Italy[ii]. Balotelli’s high profile position within the Italian national team (the azzurri) makes him a threat to more traditional images of a white catholic Italian nation. During his second international appearance for the azzurri fans made it clear how they felt about the teams changing demographic with a banner saying “No alla nazionale multietnica” [“No to a Multi-Ethnic National Team”]. Balotelli symbolises a multi-ethnic Italy, which is simply not the Italy that all Italians want to see.

Mario Balotelli playing for Italy
football.ua (Wikipedia Commons)

While Balotelli continues to represent Italy’s multi-ethnicity on the pitch, politician Cecile Kyenge brought it into the very white and male world of Italian politics. Kyenge’s election as Ministro della Cooperazione Internazionale e Integrazione in February 2013 made her the first black minister in Italian political history. Her appointment was hailed as an important step towards the acceptance of Italy’s oft-denied multi-ethnic face. However, the controversy that followed Kyenge’s election to Enrico Letta’s coalition government left hopes that Italy had turned a corner on multi-ethnic acceptance in tatters.

The politician, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1964 and moved to Italy in 1983, has suffered a barrage of racist abuse since her appointment, mostly strongly from the Lega Nord. Kyenge has been referred to as “Congolese monkey” and “Zulu” and Mario Borghezio (a prominent Lega Nord politician) accused her of wanting to “impose tribal traditions” in Italy while claiming that Africans have “not produced great genes“.

The abuse directed at Kyenge and Balotelli emphasises their links to Africa and attempts to construct them as Africans while simultaneously distancing them from their Italian-ness. For example, even though Balotelli has been a Balotelli for most of his life, some groups call him Signore Barwuah. By connecting Balotelli to his non-Italian roots, they attempt to show that he is not really an Italian.

Immigration and second generation in Italy

The treatment of both Kyenge and Balotelli has demonstrated the challenges of being Italian if you are an immigrant, or even the child of an immigrant in Italy. However, their acceptance is clearly made even more challenging because they are black[iii]. If a highly educated doctor and politician and a rich and famous footballer who was born in Italy cannot be accepted into the fold as Italians it certainly questions the ability of other immigrants to integrate into the nation.

Immigration is a relatively new phenomenon in Italy, which was a country of emigration until the early 1970s. For a long time the majority of immigrants were returning Italian emigrants and it was not until the 1980s that foreign immigration became significant. Today there are more than 4.5 million foreigners living in Italy and the proportion of foreigners resident in Italy continues to grow year on year. As immigration continues to spark controversy, what is becoming increasing apparent is the existence of a new type of Italian: the “Balotelli generation”, Italian, but born to immigrant parents.

Importantly, the Italian born children of immigrants are included within the reported 4.5 million foreigners as they are classified as “stranieri” (literally “strangers”) in their country of birth. In fact, more than 13.3% of “foreigners” are Italian-born. Even after naturalisation as an Italian citizen it is usual for a person to be referred to as, for example, a “Finn with Italian citizenship” rather than an Italian in their own right. The importance of blood to Italian national identity is deeply ingrained in society and in Italian citizenship law, which preferences descent over residence in line with jus sanguinis traditions.

Unlike in the UK or US, where an individual usually becomes a citizen at birth, individuals born in Italy to immigrant parents take on the nationality of their parents and are only able to apply for Italian citizenship at age 18. As a result, it is actually quicker and easier for the grandchild of an Italian emigrant who does not speak Italian and lives thousands of miles away to become an Italian citizen than someone who was born in Italy to immigrant parents.

The Italian-born children of immigrants are routinely described as ‘foreigners’ and ‘immigrants’ in their place of birth and even when they obtain citizenship their Italian-ness is qualified by their non-Italian origins. Many have only ever lived in Italy and speak only Italian. Their exclusion from legal citizenship risks alienating a whole new generation of Italians. The distress of being a foreigner in your own country is well summed up by Roman rapper Amir in his song Non sono un immigratowhich is translated in Thomassen’s 2010 article:

La gente mi ha confuso con un immigrate/ People have confused me with an immigrant
con la faccia da straniero nella mia nazione/ with the face of a foreigner in my nation
se il futuro qui è la mia seconda generazione/ if the future here is my second generation
non mi devo integrare/ I don’t have to integrate
io qua ci sono nato/ I was born here
io non sono mio padre/ I am not my father
non sono un immigrato/ I am not an immigrant
non sono un terrorista/ I am not a terrorist
non sono un rifuggiato/ I am not a refugee
mangio pasta e pizza/ I eat pasta and pizza
io sono un italiano/ I am an Italian

Adapting to Black Italia

The treatment of Cecile Kyenge and Mario Balotelli has shown that blood and race continue to be central elements of Italian national identity. It is not easy to be both black and Italian, and the existence of black-Italians goes against the traditional image of the Italian nation[iv]. Public figures like Balotelli and Kyenge are challenging people’s perceptions of Italian-ness but it will take time for the culture to change. The facts are simple. There are black Italians and they need to be allowed to be Italian. The modification of Italy’s citizenship laws is firmly on Cecile Kyenge’s to-do-list and there is a great deal of support for the proposed reforms. However, there are many who will stand against any attempt to include the second generation who they consider to be “foreigners”. Whether or not Italian society will be able to get their head around a black Italia remains to be seen.


Further Reading

Doidge, M. (2013) ‘If you jump up and down, Balotelli dies’: Racism and player abuse in Italian football in International Review for the Sociology of Sport.

Marchetti, C. (2010) ‘Trees Without Roots’: The Reform of Citizenship Challenged by the Children of Immigrants in Italy in Bulletin of Italian Politics 2(1) pp: 45-67

Thomassen, B. (2010) Second Generations Immigrants or ‘Italians with Immigrant Parents’? Italian and European Perspectives on Immigrants and their Children in Bulletin of Italian Politics 2(1) pp: 21-44

Clough Marinaro, I. and Walston, J. (2010) Italy’s ‘Second Generations’: The Sons and Daughters of Migrants in Bulletin of Italian Politics 2(1) pp: 5-19


[i] Bel Paese is an Italian phrase, literally meaning Beautiful Country, to refer to Italy. The phrase was first used by the famous Italian poet Dante.

[ii] Angelo Ogbonna is another black Italian football player who has played for the azzurri. He has not, however, suffered the same abuse or reached the same level of notoriety as Balotelli.

[iii] Notably the election of another naturalised Italian minister, Olympic medal winning and German-born Josefa Idem, has not created caused the same controversy as Cecile Kyenge.

[iv] Race is a relative and contextual concept. Italians were not always considered white in the United States and Southern Italians who migrated internally to the North of the country were often distinguished from Northerners by their darker complexion and called terroni.

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5 comments

  1. […] “Non ci sono italiani neri!” The struggle to be black in the Bel Paese (themigrationist.net) […]

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  2. Wow I just stumbled upon your blog and I have to tell you that I love it. I never had a chance to live in Italy, but over the years I visited many times, and most of my friends live there. I studied in a “liceo scientifico statale” outside of Italy (yes these do exist) for my junior high and high school years, so it was like I went to Italy for school every day over 8 years. So I have this fascination with la Dolce Vita and will definately follow your future posts, while I’m catching up on older ones…

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  3. Hi Carter, thanks so much for your positive feedback. It’s always nice to hear what people think!

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  4. […] I have written elsewhere, it is not always easy being black in the ‘Bel Paese’[i] as ‘race’ continues to shape […]

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  5. Great article. Very interesting to gain insight into how immigration and identity and barriers play out in different countries. Thank you.

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