Racism in Three Dimensions – An Inventory of Racism in South-Tyrol by the Example of Cècile Kyenge.

by Michael Anranter

Bolzano, the capital city of South-Tyrol had been vacant of migration for several years. While in Germany, the Netherlands, France and more southern parts of Italy, migration had been enforced by the national politics already in the 1950’s and 70´s, it was already the year 1994 when the first people from southeastern countries (mostly people from ex-Yugoslavia) migrated to the region of South-Tyrol. In 2009 South-Tyrol had become home to more than 39.152 European, and non-European migrants from merely north-African, central-European and Balkan regions. (Girardi, 2010 :34) As more or less latent racism had been wide-spread in Italy and South-Tyrol already before, Cècile Kyenge became the star of an entirely new debate in spring 2013 and took over the role of the personalized threat of migration. “First of all, racism is just one element combined with other elements as far as the constructions of genders, classes, nations, races or cultures are concerned. Furthermore they have been developed under historically specific conditions so that racist discrimination using the modern concept of races, for example, is not congruent with the racist discrimination of barbarians. In addition, it is necessary and possible to describe racisms in classist discriminations of caste societies, estate societies and class societies in their respective peculiarities.” (Hund, 2003: 7) Although there exists no universally accepted definition on racism, I’ll embed the approach by Hund into a cultural framework and an essentialist perception of the very same.

The debate itself was made out of verbal and banana-throwing insults of some right-winged politicians and regular citizens but also by the defending of the Italian ministry of integration by politicians, newspapers, national and supra-national institutions and also singular citizens. According to those recent happenings in this paper it’s my aim to research some potentially racist Facebook postings and shares, official statements and bar talks towards the ministry for migration published by residents in the province of Bolzano with a German mother tongue. Although Facebook postings which are shared by several users are not a direct speech, due to the publicity in this paper I consider them as statements or utterances which match the desires of the interacting (sharing) people.

Cècile Kyenge is the recent ministry concerning migration issues and party members of the Partito Democratico, PD in the government Enrico Letta. As the first ‚black‘ (she calls herself black) ministry, Kyenge is a target for daily racist attacks from politicians, but also in the web and at bar-talks. Surely we’re at this mostly talking about statements of a minority but also need to recognize that racism as a topic haven’t been discussed in public that much before, in such a conflictive way. In my research I’ll concentrate on statements which have been published by residents of the Province of Bolzano on on-line newspapers and Facebook. I’ll concentrate on those two sources because they often have the quality of low-level discussions but still emphasize the intentions and believes of single persons without any demand for representativity.

In order to legitimate the statements brought into discussion as racist out-comings it is first necessary to point out a minimum consensus regarding the understanding of culture and the disdain of other cultures. Ulf Hannerz therefore supposes a pragmatic concept which is open for discussion: “I do find it practical to use ‚culture‘ and ‚cultural‘ to refer to the fact, that human beings are learning animals, using meanings to which they have access through their interactions with other humans. Such a usage can be processional in its attention to stability as well as change, and does not assume internal uniformity or sharply bounded units.” (Hannerz, 2010: 53) Although scientists in the field of anthropology are aware on the difficulties of defining ‚culture‘ or ‚cultural‘ we further agree on racism as a manifestation of both last assumptions: internal uniformity and sharply bounded units.

Beside this possible explanation for the comprehension of racism it is also necessary to work on the interrelations of two or more differing cultures or cultural habits getting in touch with each other. Arjun Appadurai therefore explains, “[…] that the elements of a cultural system make sense only in relation to one another, […] (and) the idea of dissensus of some sort is part and parcel of culture and that a shared culture is no more a guarantee for a shared platform on the democratic convention.” (Appadurai, 2004:61) At this Appadurai takes a democratic society for given in a western context but also admits that people out of other cultures may not share the very same sympathies for the distribution of power. ‚We‘, ‚Us‘, ‚Me‘ and ‚I‘ are therefore related to culturally defined moral assumptions on the one hand, on the other he abolishes the concept of a single multicultural society. We can summarize that Appadurai calls on western societies to respect their own moral standards and warns them to apply their perspectives on people which have a diverse cultural background.

The Region

In order to identify racism we’re request to understand both variables: contact and concept. As I’ve already stated in the introduction migration is a quite new issue in South-Tyrol. The German-speaking minority in South-Tyrol had already be endangered by migration once earlier in the 20th century when Mussolini tried to assimilate the German-speaking citizens. These undertakings from parts of the fascist regime led to intervention of the United Nations which ensured a political and partly fiscal autonomy for the region and installed Austria as a protective power. “Under the Paris Agreement of 1946 (also known as the Gruber – Degasperi Agreement) and the South Tyrol Package of 1969, Austria is mandated with exercising a protective function vis-à-vis Italy for the Austrian and Ladin minorities in South Tyrol. The goal is to secure the continued ethnic, cultural, social and economic existence of the German and Ladin-speaking population of South Tyrol. Besides, much importance is attached to the peaceful co-habitation of the different linguistic groups in the Province of Bolzano. After the First World War, South Tyrol, which as an integral part of Tyrol had belonged to Austria for centuries, was ceded to Italy under the Treaty of Saint-Germain (1919)“. (Austrian Foreign Ministry, URL)

By time, the reworking of the partly violent contentions lead to the acceptance by both, Italian and German-speaking citizens within the region, but also emphasized essentialist concepts of culture. Since 1969 hundreds of institutions had been established in order to safe language, traditions and cultural habits. It is important to acknowledge this first incisive contact in the recent history of German-speaking South-Tyroleans with societies experienced as different from the own. Therefore it is hardly surprising that right-winged political parties in South-Tyrol since the 1990’s tend to apply an essentialist concepts and draw connections between the forced migration in the early 20th century and todays migration from non-EU citizens. For example the claim for a fully autonomous country within the European Union and therefore the separation from Italy is quite likely to be used as an immediate consequence for a loose migration policy in bar talks but also political debate.

The Nation State

We also have to acknowledge that an essentialist concept of culture is not a peculiarity for the region, but also used in a broader context. In order to give you a more concrete idea on the interventions taking place in spring 2013, I’ll first come up with distinguished elements of an open letter written by Lorella Presotto just after Cècile Kyenge declared in an Interview, that she does not feel solely Italian but also Congolese. The content of the very same letter circulated on Facebook and had been shared also by several Italian and German-speaking residents of South-Tyrol. Mainly the letter pointed a lack of confidence towards the dark-skinned ministry due to an essentialist concept of culture: “Io sono da generazioni italiana, nel mio albero genealogico ci sono persone che hanno dato la vita per questo paese, ho una cultura, la mia, quella del mio popolo, che amo e che non voglio cambiare con nessun altra. […] Io e il mio paese siamo tutt’uno. […] Lei non mi rappresenta e non mi rappresenterà mai. Io non l’ho votata signora Kyenge; io amo la mia cultura, le mie tradizioni e non mi interessa che vengano integrate da altre, […]”. (Presotto, 2013: URL) In her letter Lorella Presotto talks about genealogy and historical determinations, and a culture which can’t be adopted by people which are not Italians on their own and which can’t be shaped towards any direction. The traditions she’s talking about refer to national ideas and concepts and therefore need to be rooted and enclosed in a certain framework.

In a similar context Benedict Anderson remembers that national conceptualizations roots aren’t simply fear and hatress: „(I)t is useful to remind ourselves that nations inspire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love. The cultural products of nationalism – poetry, prose fiction, music, plastic arts – show this love very clearly in thousands of different forms and styles.“ (Anderson, 2006: 141) We we should guard against condemning national ideas as the evil per se. Further we can see that racism does not necessarily address people from altering nation states, but are linked to eternal inferiorities or contamination. Anderson defines racism as an ideology of class, rather than nationality and states: „[…] Racism (and antisemitism) manifest themselve, not across national boundaries, but within them. In other words they justify not so much foreign wars as domestic repression and domination.“ (Anderson, 2006, 150) We can therefore argue that the correlation between migration and racism is an issue which affects people at the moment of direct affectedness within the idea of nationality but not because the very same idea.

The International Dimension

Dealing with comments and shares on Facebook and News Home-page’s as a communication method with anthropological significance we’re also restricted to take a glimpse at the international notion of racism. The compression of time and place as a crucial element of all efforts in the last decades is accounted for by the intensive use of new communication technologies.

Shortly after the first Banana-Attacks towards Cècile Kyenge most of the Italian parliamentarians and senators of all parties excoriated the racist interactions. The South-Tyrolean senators shared the displeasure on the attacks and raised their voice against racism. A German-speaking user (statement written with accent)on a independent home-page südtirolnews.it comments: “I cant stand out those SVP (Südtiroler Volkspartei) ‚ass-hamsters‘, they continue doing nothing than acquiring a lucrative salary and than have strong feelings on such peanuts.” (SüdtirolNews, 2013a: URL) Out of this statement we might extract two main contents which first shows the shrinking trust of people regarding the representative of the people and skepticism regarding the own democratic standards. This development should be accomplished more exact in further discussions within the European, or even international context and the subsequent influence on single persons albeit the importance of this posting regarding the topic of this paper is due to the belittlement of racist interactions and the obvious unimportance.

However both of the above mentioned aspects might be combined in a further statement again formulated by a German-speaking user (statement written with accent) on südtirolnews.it: “We just demand her (Kyenge) demission of office. Quite without any racist utterances.” (SüdtirolNews, 2013b: URL) From this statement we can figure out several dimensions of Cècile Kyenge’s nomination as an Italian ministry for migration issues. First of all the user seemed to be used to getting connoted with racist insults by other people and therefore underlines the apparently non-racist character of his statement. We can therefore argue that the user is aware on the polarization due to his claim for demission of office. Although the user does not want himself to get recognized as a person which may follows racist assertions, he accepts the existence of a correspondent decline. Second we need to focus on the date of publication. At the time the government led by prime minister Enrico Letta had been ruling Italy for not even 100 days and although some (quite polarizing) proposals had been made by various members of the government, any drastic measures have been passed by other leading institutions so far but became part of the public debate. At this I’m referring to central parts of the migration law (especially regarding 2nd generation migrants) which is in itself very much dominated by essentialist conceptions of culture on a global level. The only scandal of the recent government so far had been ended by the demission of Josefa Idem, a member of the government who evaded paying taxes. We can therefore argue that there are simply no reasons for a claim of demission towards Cècile Kyenge at this time, rather than a racist one.

Both of the statements articulated by users of SüdtirolNews do firstly not represent the society, but still gained proportional high accordance by other users. We should therefore question the levels where the statements and comments interact. I’ll therefor differentiated three levels of explanation: The international level, a macro social discourse and in a micro common sense.

The question of levels

In this paper I tried to point out different levels of influence. We can admit that all three dimensions shape a singles persons perspective and interact with each other. On the one hand newspapers and broadcasting companies in the last decade focused on reportages of migration, islamification, raising crime-rates and corrupt politicians. Those headlines and arguments ensure and revive former threads and memories in an alike context. On the other hand statements and comments posted on websites make it easier to share the own opinions and ideologies. According to this I’d like to introduce Clifford Geertz‘ thoughts on ideas and perceived reality. “Ideas are weapons and an excellent way to institutionalize a particular view of reality – that of one’s group, class or party – is to capture political power and to enforce it. (Geertz, 1973: 202) Therefore ideologies, but also racist annotations are a method to deal with the reality experienced by people. It turns out that ideologies and common cogitations bring together people and forms groups, although this does not explain a disproportional high appearance in postings and comments on the web. An explanation for this question might be once more found in the research of ideologies “[…] by providing legitimate objects of hostility (or, for that matter, of love) ideology may ease somewhat the pain of being a pretty bureaucrat, a day laborer, or a small-town storekeeper, is undeniable.” (Geertz, 1973: 205) Such postings are likely to be simple, although simplified, explanations but call for a common identity and is therefore able to constitute a ‚we‘. The ‚We‘ is the counterpart towards the ‚Other‘ which can be situated in the very same society, but also outside the society. This reaction can be proofed also by the above cited statement which already forebodes the charge for xenophobia or racism. Herein we can identify more than one enemy, but at least two.


In this paper I’ve shown that racism as a social relation is rooted and practiced on all three levels. Within this levels of debate (regional, national, international) diverging historic realms clash and get mixed up with each other and compress essentialist concepts and ideologies. The situation were people are afraid to be excluded in future helps people to acquire deterministic statements and is also linked to what has been articulated in the “Clash of Civilizations” by Samuel P. Huntington. As all of these interactions I’ve considered as my bar-talks are interrelated in a global network I may raise the question whether we still need the research of a micro-space regarding ideologies and general assumptions. In before mentioned statements questions of racism have been discussed in a national, rather than a regional surrounding and also the socialization of racist acting structures depend on national and international statements rather than local experiences. Those local and personal experiences merely justify the ideologies which come from a superior level of debate and just seem to explain why racism is a question in the local surrounding as well. I think this is a very interesting point for those of us which try to fight racism, and also for those which still deny visibility and presence to the ‚Others‘ which actively take part and shape our society.


Anderson, Benedict (2006, 1983 – 1st edit.): „Imagined Communities“, Verso, London (UK).

Appadurai, Arjun (2004): “The Capacity to Aspire: Culture and the Terms of Recognition”, in: Rao, Vijayendra; Walton, Michael (2004): “Culture and Public Action”, Stanford University Press, Stanford (CA).

Austrian Foreign Ministry (ns): „South Tyrol“, Vienna (A), URL: http://goo.gl/qCCdWO, last file call-up: 01.09.2013

Girardi, Rainer (2010): „Jahresbericht der Einwanderung in Südtirol 2010“, European Academy of Bolzano, Bolzano (I), URL: http://goo.gl/Misj04, last file call-up: 26.08.2013

Geertz, Clifford (1973): „The Interpretation of Culture“, Basic Books, New York (US).

Hannerz, Ulf (2010): „Anthropology’s World – Life in a Twenty-First-Century Discipline“, Pluto Press, London (UK).

Hund, Wulf D (2003): „Inclusion and Exclusion: Dimensions of Racism“, in: Wiener Zeitschrift zur Geschichte der Neuzeit, Issue1/6 – No. 19, Vienna (AUT).

Presotto, Lorella (2013): „Lettera aperta alla signora Kyenge“, in: SenzaPeliSullaLingua, URL: http://goo.gl/q5VMcc, last file call-up: 26.08.2013

SüdtirolNews (2013a): „Südtiroler Senatoren stellen sich hinter Kyenge“, SüdtirolNews GmbH, Bolzano (I), URL: http://goo.gl/WlBVWq, last file call-up: 27.08.2013

SüdtirolNews (2013b): „Kyenge verlangt Ende der rassistischen Angriffe“, SüdtirolNews GmbH, Bolzano (I), URL: http://goo.gl/VqnRbT, last file call-up: 28.08.2013


  1. 13deSetembro; http://www.flickr.com/photos/13desetembro/3046776202/sizes/z/in/photostream/
  2. PalazzoChigi; http://www.flickr.com/photos/palazzochigi/9708640385/sizes/m/in/photostream/
  3. PalazzoChigi; http://www.flickr.com/photos/palazzochigi/9912768316/sizes/n/in/photostream/

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