Ladri di Denti by Djarah Kan and E poi Basta: Manifesto di una Donna Nera Italiana by Espérance Hakuzwimana Ripanti
Any discussion of feminist theory in both academic and activist feminist circles cannot exist without recognizing women’s differences. However, Italian corporate mainstream feminism assumes feminist theory without any input from Black, transgender, immigrant, lesbian, disabled, and working-class Italian women. When I was reading Ladri di denti (transl. Teeth thieves) by Djarah Kan and, E poi basta. Manifesto di una donna nera italiana by Espérance Hakuzwimana Ripanti (transl. Enough, already! Manifesto of a Black Italian woman)[i], I kept in mind that Kan and Ripanti don’t write theory. “These are novelists,” some people argue, and indeed, Kan’s and Ripanti’s cachet as novelists is undeniable. However, there can be no uncertainty that books such as these are central to the advancement of contemporary Italian intersectional feminist theory, as both of the activist writers –Black Italian women– write from the margins about marginalization in Italy. They deepen and expand our understanding of what activism and feminist theory can be in the modern Italian/capitalist/colonial system. What they write and how they write engages us both theoretically and emotionally. These books would thus make excellent texts in women’s studies, ethnic and racial studies, and Italian literature studies courses.
Kan’s book is a captivating short story collection that provides rich and accessible description about the relationship between Black immigrants, and Black and white Italians. It is filled with the wisdom of a passionate sage as Kan creates material from the particulars of who she is: a Black working-class woman living in the south of Italy, the daughter of immigrants, and an activist. Ripanti’s book, in turn, is a memoir about her upbringing in Italy as a transracial adoptee from Rwanda and her battle against racism, stereotyping, and prejudice. Her prose is lyrical, reflecting the struggles of childhood, teenage years, and adulthood, but ultimately offering messages of hope.
In the academic context, many white Italian feminists, often coming from institutionalized bourgeoisie circles, refuse to recognize different problems women experience and continue to invite white people as key speakers within workshops, conferences, or political debates about racism. Ripanti’s words offer a clear statement against this “performative antiracist practice.” As she puts it: “rather than making you antiracist, inviting middle-class Caucasian people to talk turns you into professionals without any credibility” (transl.) (Ripanti 2019, 164). As a cisgender able-bodied white Italian woman, who grew up in a working-class heterosexual world and yet precariat, I am aware of my own white privilege in Italy. Here, my attempt to reflect on these two books is not a static point at which I have arrived. It stems from a constant process of study to engage in dialogues on the intersection of gender, race, ethnicity, class, and sexual orientation that could lead to critique of the use of power in Italy.
In Ladri di denti, Kan subverts the role assigned to non-white and Black people in a racist country and becomes the affirmation of difference who openly challenges the white Italian institutional practices. By “seeing” beneath the surface how racist ethnocentrism and misogyny share a foundation in a rational system of oppression and domination, the book connects themes such as the quest for dignity, colonial immigrants, class oppression, gendered racism, and homophobia. It challenges readers politically while addressing the ideology of “colorblindness,” which it sees as a form of racism that silences all sorts of explanations related to race and renders them raceless (Bonilla-Silva 2015). Italian people are taught that they do not need to think about themselves as white or black. Indeed, a “color-evasive” racial ideology shapes Italian education policies, practices, and educational settings (Migliarini 2017). Nevertheless, one of the book’s main lessons is that Italians need to focus on more supple ways to understand the enduring power of institutional racism in their country. Kan’s literary reflection echoes Kyeremeh’s work (2019) that demonstrates how Black, foreign-origin, and mixed heritage Italian women continue to be positioned as if they were “foreign” within Italian national sporting fields that are ingrained with structural racism.
Kan writes to break the silence about Black Italian women who are mistaken for Black immigrant sexual workers, harassed by white Italian men on the streets of Castel Volturno, a town outside Naples, and about the politicization of African “bodies.” Black women’s bodies are, therefore, racialized and stereotyped in ways similar to the colonial subjects during colonization. Pesarini (2020) reminds us of how the idea of Blackness in contemporary Italy is not associated with Italianness, as it still appears “an impossible semantic match.” Thus, the Italian imagined community remains filled with colonial memory and racism (Giuliani 2019). Kan, however, brings her self-knowledge while embracing with deep understanding the incorporation of a decolonial lens through reading symbols of colonialism engrained within the Italian patriarchal Catholic state. Kan’s book also presents an important contribution to the understanding of the hypocrisy of volunteerism in Italy, described as a new instrument of colonial governability. Where Kan’s prose takes a stand against an inhospitable world that refuses to see Black people as human, Ripanti’s writing advocates for action and provides excellent guidance for those who accept the challenge of working towards social justice.
In E poi basta. Manifesto di una donna nera italiana, Ripanti extends existing debates about second generation immigrants, interracial adoption, racial hate, racial and sexual harassment, and performative antiracism in Italy. In her vigorous storytelling, we find the most effective forms of activism as she writes about her engagement in a way that inspires others towards learning in action. Ripanti’s voice is ground-breaking and offers access to her inner-most thoughts. She reflects, engages, and creates meaning. The value of her autoethnographic book does not come from her hiding her ethical position, but from expressing herself as a Black Italian woman, writer, and activist holding on to a commitment towards seeking social justice. I thus see Ripanti’s work as a transformative active autoethnography. According to Romm (2018), transformative autoethnographers are characterized by an attempt to develop a strategy for exercizing transformation. Readers are invited to engage with her storying and use it to imagine and seek opportunities for what Ripanti calls “a transformative wonder” (transl.) (Ripanti 2019, 195). By foregrounding transformation in her prose, the author articulates a new and diversified direction for Italian literature while drawing on a transformative paradigm.
By responding to racism through her landmark writing, the author pushes back racist attitudes and unquestioned Italian privilege, complicit silence, and white fictional defensiveness. Her memoir is the story of a young Black Italian woman engaging with Italian society in order to spell out a narrative, as she puts it “from the right side: ours” (transl.) (Ripanti 2019, 12). A position which requires not only contemplation, but action. Her pen becomes a sword to speak up in the service of her future and for those “who don’t have a voice” (transl.) (Ripanti 2019, 22). The book advocates for transformational social power brokers to step outside their comfort zone and re-examine their artificial antiracist practices. She calls herself an “activist by accident” who does not have the privilege of staying silent in the teeth of white aggression. Her narrative burns with a bright light while moving beyond the place she once stood. By doing tedious work to forge a coalition through her transformational autobiography, Ripanti creates the future. While recognizing the despair of oppression, her story is a response to the actions that arise out of racist practices.
Djarah Kan’s and Espérance H. Ripanti’s work does not stand alone in Italy. Hawthorne (2017) reminds us that a growing number of Black Italians, including “children of African immigrants who were born or raised in Italy” (158), express black cultures through different forms of cultural production. In the past, a variety of non-white and Black Italian authors such as Igiaba Scego, Cristina Ali Farah, Gabriella Kuruvilla, and others have shaped and somehow questioned the boundaries of white Italian literature. In a recent anthology, Future il domani narrato dalle voci di oggi, edited by Scego (2019), to which both Kan and Ripanti have contributed chapters, represents one of the first books written only by Black and non-white Italian female writers of African heritage. However, as urged by Scego (2019), for more than a decade there has not been enough space for non-white and Black Italian writers since, as she puts it, “our school, our university, our literature, our politics are white” (transl.) (Scego 2019, 5).
Different Italian feminist circles, especially those that are neoliberal, corporate, institutionalized, white, and middle-class, ignore differences between women and leave many women behind. Italian mainstream feminism defines what a woman is in terms of its own concept of womanhood. Nevertheless, it is vital for white Italian women in general to begin examining in depth their relationship to Black Italian women. Yet, Kan’s and Ripanti’s transformative voices do not exist in the service of people’s learning. But their work is vital to those not only in Italy but also across the whole European Union who are truly interested in recognizing that racism perpetuates aspects of our colonial past that have never truly ended. Indeed, borders are continually reconfigured (Dines, Montagna, and Ruggiero 2015) and “entitlement racism”―a term coined by Essed (2013) to describe the “right” (and social acceptance) of using any discourse as freedom of expression even if it is racially offensive (Essed and Muhur 2018)―sustains forms of structural marginalization through the process of dehumanization (Essed 2020).
Scego (2019) asks that people pay attention to those voices that we have been taught to ignore. Kan’s and Ripanti’s books offer an impressive literary toolbox to meet this intellectual challenge. These works are illuminating – acutely painful at times, but necessary. Indeed, Italian literature is amplified by their prose. This is the type of literature we were never taught in school, but that we all need to learn to understand and fight sexist and racist practices.
Vassilissa Carangio is an adjunct lecturer at the American University of Rome, Italy. Her research studies intersect with critical management studies, sociology of work, race, gender and class in both schools of sociology and business.
Ladri di Denti
By Djarah Kan
Harcover/ 119 pages/ 2020
E Poi Basta. Manifesto di una Donna Nera Italiana
By Espérance Hakuzwimana Ripanti
Harcover/ 232 pages/ 2019
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2015. “The structure of racism in color-blind, “post racial” America.” American Behavioral Scientist 19, no. 11: 1-19.
Dines, Nick, Nicola Montagna, and Vincenzo, Ruggiero. 2015. “Thinking Lampedusa: border construction, the spectacle of bare life and the productivity of migrants.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 38, no. 3: 430-445.
Essed, Philomena. 2020. “Humiliation, dehumanization and the quest for dignity: researching beyond racism.” In Routledge international handbook of contemporary racism, edited by John Solomos, 442-455. London: Routledge.
Essed, Philomena. 2013. “Entitlement racism: license to humiliate.” In Recycling hatred: racism(s) in Europe today, edited by ENAR, 62-76. Brussels: ENAR.
Essed, Philomena, and Sara L. Muhr. 2018. “Entitlement racism and its intersections: an interview with Philomena Essed, social justice scholar.” Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organization 18, no. 1: 183–201.
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Hawthorne, Camilla. 2017. “In search of Black Italia: notes on race, belonging, and activism in the black Mediterranean.” Transition 123, no. 0: 152-174.
Kyeremeh, Sandra. 2019. “Whitening Italian sport: the construction of ‘Italianness’ in national sporting fields.” International Review for the Sociology of Sport 55, no. 8: 1-16.
Migliarini, Valentina. 2017. “’Colour-evasiveness’ and racism without race: the disablement of asylum-seeking children at the edge of fortress Europe.” Race Ethnicity and Education 21, no. 4: 438-457.
Pesarini, Angelica. 2017. “’Blood is thicker than water:’ the materialization of the racial fascist body in East Africa.” Zapruder World: An International Journal for the History of Social Conflict 4, doi:10.21431/Z33S32
Ripanti, Espérance H. 2019. E poi basta. Manifesto di una donna nera italiana. Gallarate (VA): People s.r.l.
Romm, Norma. 2018. Responsible research practice. Revisiting transformative paradigm in social research. Switzerland: Springer.
Scego, Igiaba. 2019. Future. Il domani raccontato dalle voci di oggi. Lavis (TN): effequ.
 These English titles do not represent the official translation of the books as they have not been translated into English yet. The translation of the two Italian titles into English represents only my attempt to let the books be known to an international audience.