RSF Authors Ann Morning & Marcello Maneri Discuss Their New Book: An Ugly Word

June 22, 2022

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Ann Morning and Marcello Maneri are the authors of the RSF book An Ugly Word: Rethinking Race in Italy and the United States. Morning and Maneri draw on interviews with residents of Italy and the United States to better understand how average Americans and Europeans think and talk about race, how their understandings of group difference are similar, as well as how they vary. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ann Morning is Professor of Sociology at New York University. She was an RSF visiting scholar during the 2014-2015 academic year.

Marcello Maneri is Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Milan-Bicocca.

Q. What motivated you to write An Ugly Word? Why is it important to conduct a cross-national comparison on understandings of race? And why did you choose to examine the U.S. and Italy, in particular?

Morning: I had long been doing research on how people think about difference, and how they think about racial difference in particular. I discovered in talking about this work with colleagues in different places that it often seemed like U.S. and European social scientists had difficulty understanding each other and difficulty communicating with each other when it came to the topic of race. And, so, I was curious about this. I applied for and won a Fulbright fellowship and spent a year at the University of Milan-Bicocca. Marcello teaches there and I had the good fortune of meeting him and in him finding an Italian counterpart who is also quite interested in questions of race and racism. That was the seed that led to this collaboration.

Cross-national comparisons are always useful in the social sciences because they help us understand how the outcomes that we're interested in are really shaped by particular cultural and structural circumstances. That's true for social science in general, but I would say that when it comes to race and similar concepts of descent-based difference in particular, it's especially important to get that cross-national perspective. We often think about race as some kind of universal concept. We think that everybody sees it in the same way and that everyone works with the same categories; that they’re obvious. We also tend to have certain moral stances on race that we assume are universally shared. So, when it comes to race, looking across national boundaries to see what concepts are in place and how they vary forces us to reckon with our presumptions. That’s really important for us as social scientists. 

When it comes to the question of why we compared Italy to the U.S.: we were working with a literature that kept suggesting that there was some fundamental difference between the ways in which Western Europeans and Americans thought about race. So we knew that the U.S. was going to be one of the comparison points. But the choice of Italy reflected a couple of things. There was my own familiarity with the country and the language, as well as my good fortune of meeting and having the opportunity to partner with Marcello at the University of Milan-Bicocca. More fundamentally and the reason I went to Italy in the first place, was because Italy is a super interesting country to study when it comes to thinking about descent-based difference. It has such demographic heterogeneity. You have this very diverse foreign-born population, with roots in places from Eastern Europe to North Africa, to West Africa, to South Asia, to East Asia and so forth. You also have this traditional internal regional divide between northerners and southerners that has historically been characterized as a racial difference. You also have these other very stigmatized groups, like Muslims and Roma. Because of this, we believed conversations in Italy around difference could be very rich. And finally, Italy is a case that often has been overlooked in transatlantic English language research on concepts of difference. So, we really thought it was high time to help bring Italy more fully into that conversation.

Q. In the book, you use the term “descent-based groups” as opposed to race or ethnicity. Can you talk about why that is?

Maneri: We used the term “descent-based groups” because “race” and “ethnicity” don't have clear meanings to people and often get used interchangeably. Moreover, race is a negatively charged word in Italy as well as in many places in Western Europe. For a comparative study, we weren't sure that what Italians meant by ‘razza’ – race or ethnicity – would be the same as what Americans meant by race. We also didn't want to exclude some particular groups. The Roma population is a case in point because there might not be an agreement on whether they were considered a race or an ethnic group. So, as analytic concepts, these terms seemed to be lacking.

We also didn't want to impose our own categories to force people to talk about race or ethnicity. We came up with the term “descent-based groups,” which is drawn from historian David Hollinger's “communities of descent,” as a more neutral label that could be inclusive. Though no label is neutral, we believed it would allow us to study Italian and American reflections on a wide range of groups, without excluding anyone. We could then analyze that broad sweep of data to explore the distinctions in thinking about these groups that might not be captured in a simple race-biology versus ethnicity-culture framework.

Q. Contrary to conventional belief, you found that while Italians and Americans may talk about descent-based difference differently, their underlying beliefs were actually quite similar. What was most similar about their underlying beliefs? How did discussions about sports highlight these similarities?

Morning: Despite some really marked differences in the ways in which our American and our Italian interviewees chose to talk about race, we found that when we sort of scratched beneath the surface, there were a lot of similarities in their actual understandings or conceptualizations of race. First and foremost, in both cases, they shared a tendency to think about race, and to define race, as a matter of biological difference. That's something that we saw in about half of the samples in both countries. We also saw that in both places, our interviewees had the sense that making claims about race and biology was a morally sensitive matter. So that kind of delicacy of the linkage they were making between race and biology was perceived somewhat similarly in both places.

They were also similar in what they omitted and what they didn’t talk about. In both places, the idea of race as socially constructed, that is, the idea that racial groups are things that human beings have invented, as opposed to natural clusters that exist in our species, was, honestly, pretty limited in both countries. So, in neither place did we find our interviewees really take that to heart, really embrace, or master the belief that race was a social construction.

I would say that the most striking similarities that we saw between our Italian and American interviewees, though, really came when we steered them to the topic of sports. When we got them talking about sports, we saw that Italians, just like Americans, were overwhelmingly likely to depict African-descent athletes as possessing special racial traits. They would talk about muscles and body fat and all kinds of stuff like that, the idea being that Black athletes had these special physical characteristics that allowed them to excel in certain sports. This was something that our Italian interviewees were, frankly, even more likely to embrace than the Americans.

But here again, it was just as important what our interviewees didn't say. We found that interviewees in both countries were similar in that neither Italians nor Americans seemed to be able to conceive of such biological reasoning as applying to European-descent athletes. So, when they talked about sports that White athletes have dominated, like ice hockey or swimming, it really never occurred to anybody on either side of the Atlantic to apply a biological argument to explain those outcomes. It was always about the hard work of European athletes, their devotion to certain sports, their cultural preferences, and so forth and so on. So, in short, we found that what I termed “Black biological exceptionalism,” in my first book based on interviews in the United States, was just as widespread among our Italian interviewees.

Q. Italian and American understandings of group difference are similar, but not identical. What are some ways that their understandings differ from one another?

Maneri: First, Italians differ from Americans in their embarrassment and open hostility to the word “race.” They said, “It's an ugly word.” “I don't use this word.” “You’re embarrassing me.” “It makes me cringe.” There was an underlying conviction that it was a word that had no contemporary relevance. That race was something from the past - from World War II.

Second, American interviewees, perhaps surprisingly, were much more likely to add culture to the definitions of race than Italians were. So, Americans’ “race” was like Italian “ethnicity,” because Italians tended to attribute biological meaning to the concept of ethnicity. In contrast, Italian razza, race, was more purely biological. And in fact, we suspect that in the U.S., ethnicity would be more purely cultural. So there is this kind of overlapping of and blending in Americans’ notions of race that is true for the ethnicity concept in Italy.

Americans were also more likely to invoke the idea of social construction. They did it rarely, but Italians never did. This is probably because social constructionism is known just by some students in sociology, and not outside of sociology in Italy. But still, that was a difference.

Additionally, race seemed to have greater determinism and importance in the States, while cultural difference had much greater permanence and importance for Italians. In fact, Italians rely heavily on a cultural vocabulary to explain behavior, any sort of behavior – it is used in casual phrases. And some Italians resist the idea that cultures can be malleable and a matter of choice. I say some because others accept the idea. So, there was this culturalism in Italy, which did not exclude racialism in biological terms and there was this racialism in United States, which didn't exclude the idea of culturalism.

Q. Scholars have often portrayed underlying beliefs about race and difference as either biological or cultural in nature. However, in your study, you found that there are additional lenses that people use to understand group differences. Can you talk about these other lenses?

Maneri: This is something we didn't expect, at least in part. One thing that was very prominent with our Italian interviewees and not with our U.S. interviewees, were claims about temperamental or psychological difference. We gave Italians a long list of groups and asked them to share their feelings about them. In the case of some of these groups, Moroccans, Chinese, Roma, and Muslims, they would often attribute particular dispositions to them, such as being warm and friendly, closed and cold, or violent and criminal. And their ideas about these groups would be charged with strong, often negative emotions. In fact, the lowest ranked groups in term of likeability were associated with these negative temperamental dispositions.

We also identified a lens that people didn't use very often, which was the structural or societal lens. That means that group differences were only seldomly attributed to the roles, institutions, and hierarchies in a given society. They preferred to adopt cultural explanations about different social group roles or their positions.

Q. You propose a new approach to studying understandings of descent-based difference. Can you briefly explain this approach?

Morning: We can think about this new approach is having two parts. First of all, we're advocating that social analysts put aside labels like race, ethnicity, tribe, or caste, when we set out on our research. So, not worrying about what those words might or might not immediately mean to the people we're speaking with or to other researchers. But first, just inquiring of people, which are the descent-based groups that are salient or meaningful to them? Regardless of whether we as analysts might be tempted to call them racial groups or ethnic groups or something else. In Italy, for example, that would mean taking into account a wide range of groups like Moroccans, or southern Italians, or Roma, or Muslims. So, different kinds of groups, but all groups that help us understand something about the ways in which Italians think of descent-based difference. And then that gives us a “mental map,” to use a term from Michèle Lamont’s work, which we draw on. It gives us a mental map that people are walking around with in their heads of the landscape of descent-based difference in their society.

We argue, then, that once we have a sense of these mental maps, the second step should be to try to analyze them by breaking them down into specific components. And we argue specifically based on our findings in the U.S. and Italy, that there are six particularly important elements or dimensions of concepts of difference that we as researchers should be paying attention to. I won't go through the whole list now, but I'll draw on two as examples that we think are particularly important. First, we think it's important to clearly identify what the traits or characteristics are that people believe demarcate different descent-based groups. Do they believe that the descent-based groups in question are differentiated in terms of their blood, their DNA, their religion, their language, or something else? And we also think a second, very important, dimension of these concepts is to understand how people believe that these defining traits are acquired. So, do they believe that the descent-based groups in question have these defining characteristics because they inherit them through their parents, through physical reproduction across generations? Or do they believe that groups acquire these characteristics because their members are socialized into them from a very early age? Or, perhaps, they might believe that there are certain group characteristics that can simply be acquired, that adults can acquire through some deliberate process of setting out to develop the cultural references, the physical appearance, whatever it might be.

Those are just two examples of the ways in which we think that our approach can help analysts more precisely define the sorts of concepts that they're encountering in the field. It allows them to do their research without worrying about whether those concepts fit neatly into what, in one society, we would normally label the race concept, which then may be called ethnicity or tribe in another society. We're hoping by, in a sense, getting to this more precise description of concepts of difference that we can offer researchers a more precise and more exact conceptual tool to work with. And that will then facilitate the conversations across the Atlantic or other geographic regions that have been so problematic for researchers in the past.

Q. How does this approach help facilitate more accurate cross-cultural and cross-national understandings on the underlying beliefs about descent-based difference?

Maneri: First of all, if we identify the traits that demarcate a certain set of groups as well as the mechanism or processes that supposedly give rise to these traits, then we have already gotten to a much more precise description of the concepts of differences at work. When we simply label them as race or ethnicity, we don't state precisely what race is and what ethnicity is. So, we again, our approach helps in terms of procedure.

Second, it will also identify the beliefs about hierarchy, permanence, and determinism that are attached to these concepts or models of difference. We also have helped scholars to move beyond their assumptions about what cultural or biological differences supposedly entail. So, there is a replacing of presumptions with the empirical data and understanding the consequences that particular ideas about difference can have.

And finally, by moving beyond the terms “ethnicity” and especially “race,” and finding more precise analytical descriptions, we are also sidestepping the moral baggage that such words have acquired, which have made it difficult to actually have a productive dialogue. There’s a difficulty in cross-Atlantic conversations about race and ethnicity. So, by doing this, we gain a clearer channel of cross-cultural communication.

Q. What are some policy implications of your approach and the findings from your study?

Morning: It's really interesting to think about the policy implications of our research in this moment, because right now, on both sides of the Atlantic, we're seeing these vociferous movements to regulate and even eliminate certain words or ideas from public discourse, particularly in schools. In Europe, for example, including in Italy, you see calls and efforts to remove the term “race” from national laws, including constitutions, or to combat what the French are calling “le wokisme” or woke-ism (we might say “political correctness” in English). They see this as an unacceptable, illicit, and divisive attention to social identities like race and gender. And, of course, in the United States, right now, we're seeing laws that are targeting what lawmakers believe is critical race theory, which they seem to mainly be interpreting as mention of race, racism, or slavery. Again, they're particularly focused on eliminating discussion of those topics in educational settings.

Where our research comes in is that these political debates are taking place in a context where we know very little about what everyday people actually think or believe about race. So, there are these political claims about the dangers of speaking about race or other social identities, and then laws are being promulgated in the wake of these ideas. All of this is happening in a setting that is entirely divorced from any reckoning with how people are actually using these concepts in real life. So, for example, in Italy, a word like race may be considered problematic and people may not want to use it at all. Nonetheless, our research suggests that the fundamental ideas attached to the word race remain in place. So, these political efforts to ban a word or a discussion related to race is very unlikely to do away with the underlying concepts. And that finding should absolutely be informing those debates. This is really a call to collect empirical data that can inform these sorts of debates.

I also want to signal that the importance of clarifying people's concepts of difference also has relevance in other settings, and not just in the strictly legal or political setting. For example, in the realm of biomedical science. There's a movement afoot now to develop guidelines for whether and how racial or ethnic data should be incorporated in biomedical research, whether clinical or in research on human genetics. But issuing that kind of guidance is stymied, if we don't have very clear conceptions of how people are using terms, like race or ethnicity, or for that matter, ancestry.

And then finally, I'll just point out that in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in 2020, there's been a rise in institutional attention to matters of diversity, equity, and inclusion. While this is especially true in the United States, it's not limited to the United States. Those kinds of measures and efforts also will require greater clarity in terms of what are the forms of difference that people think need to be included in institutional efforts. So, this also translates into questions about how we measure diversity, which are fundamentally linked to how we conceive of these notions. I'd argue that the kind of analytical approach to sort of decomposing--to trying to take apart--what these notions of difference actually entail is one that has multiple applications, in policy and outside the academy.


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