“Silence is the most spoken dialect in Sardinia” says the Italian novelist Michela Murgia in the episode about the Brontë sisters of the podcast Morgana (available only in Italian, sadly), which narrates the biographies of many extraordinary women (from the past and the present).
Michela Murgia’s words hit me while I’m having my daily run or, in this case, walk. In the episode, Murgia is talking to another Italian author, Chiara Valerio. The two are discussing the lack of Gothic fiction novels in the Italian literary tradition. They wonder whether this has anything to do with the sunny Italian climate. In fact, Gothic fiction novels have been extremely popular in those countries where the short dark days and the foggy weather offered the optimal setting for creepy stories of ghosts, murders and the like.
However, novels from Sardinia, one of the sunniest regions in Italy, are exceptionally rich of Gothic themes and topics to the point that, Murgia argues, they might constitute the only example of Italian Gothic literature. According to Murgia, the exposure to the sun is – in a way – the condition of ghosts in that it is a violent condition. To put things “alla luce del sole” – “in sunlight,” if we translate it literally, similar to when we say, in English, that things are “out in the open” – is a violent act. It is a form of violence towards other people, who are denied the possibility of finding out things for themselves, but also towards reality in itself, which by being clearly defined and spelled out loses its fluidity, complexity and multi-faceted nature. That is why, in Sardinia, people speak Silence, or so Murgia says.
To be honest, it was so easy to decide the topic of the themanummer, a topic that ties together this issue and the yearly symposium. If we look at the events of the past year, their violent nature stands out. Just to mention some examples, in May 2020 George Floyd was murdered, then in January 2021 the American Capitol was attacked, in March 2021 Sarah Everard was kidnapped, raped and killed by the police officer Wayne Couzens, and we have sadly witnessed the recent developments of the situation between Israel and Palestine. Yet, it would be a mistake to think that violence “doesn’t belong here,” and that it’s something we read about on the news or see in videos that circulate on social media. We are, in fact, well aware of the fact that our own small and “close-knit” faculty has been involved in cases of misconduct and sexual harassment.
Violent acts do not just happen elsewhere. They happen everywhere.
As you will see from the content list of the present issue and from the program of the symposium – which we decided to title “Splijtstof strikes back!” to highlight that this is our way, albeit not the only one, of addressing and replying to the widespread violence we see around us – we tried to cover as many forms of violence as possible. The issue contains an interview about the investigation that was carried out at our faculty, pieces about violence against the environment and animals, a column about catcalls, and much more.
Yet, there is one form of violence that I want to highlight in this editorial. Once again, a podcast – the one I mentioned at the beginning of this introduction – gave me some food for thought. The form of violent act I want to reflect upon is the one expressed by words – or the lack of them.
One episode in particular instilled in me the firm belief that there was still something to be said about the violence of words. On Monday, April 12, Michelle Hunziker and Gerry Scotti – the two hosts of an Italian satirical television program – introduced a segment on Italian national broadcasting company RAI’s headquarters in Beijing. They did so while pulling the corners of their eyes up and while pronouncing the sound “l” instead of “r” to caricaturize Asian facial features and pronunciation. Needless to say, this introduction did not go unnoticed. The Instagram account Diet Prada immediately exposed the television program and the two hosts by accusing them of racism, and rightly so. Soon after that, Hunziker published a video on her Instagram profile that was supposed to convey her apologies but, actually, just made it worse. In fact, at some point in the video, Hunziker said: “we live in a time in which people are sensitive about their rights, and I have been naive not taking that into consideration.”
The debate just got more heated with hundreds of users leaving angry comments under the video, which has now been removed from Hunziker’s profile. At this point, the two hosts decided to give an interview to one of the biggest Italian newspapers in order to apologize, finally. However, the interview, which has been published on April 15, is still full of problematic aspects. I am just going to translate some quotes from the interview to give you an idea.
“I have been fighting discrimination and injustice for 25 years. I founded an organization [which fights violence against women] that I try to support on a daily basis, […] Then something like this happens and everything I’ve done seems forgotten.”
“There are specialized groups who want to spread hate in the world and they use these debates to increase their exposure.”
“People are wasting their time talking about me and Gerry pulling the corners of our eyes up while horrible things are happening in China, and we should focus on those things if we really care about human rights.”
“The ‘politically correct’ requirement […] looks like a form of dictatorship and fascism.”
“It was clear that it was a joke and a completely innocent thing. Moreover, me and my daughter Aurora have almond eyes too.”
“The world is beautiful because it has many colors, although the ‘politically correct’ prefers the monochrome.”
“Saying the N-word is totally different from caricaturizing the almond eyes. The first is an insult, while the second is a way of joking about a facial feature.”
Honestly, I don’t know where to begin. There would be a million of things to say about every and each of these sentences. Clearly, these two people should not be allowed to talk on national television. Yet, this is just a signal of a much more widespread problem. After all, they were allowed to say these things on national TV, someone put them there and let them keep their jobs, and on other channels too hosts use the N-word without consequences. Clearly, Hunziker and Scotti are part of the problem but are they the problem? If this were the case, removing them from their positions would be enough. Unfortunately, I am quite sure that would not be enough. Quite the opposite, really. They would probably just be replaced by other hosts who say the same things using other words, basically.
So what is the real problem? Again, there would be so many things to say, things to which I cannot do justice here. Instead, I will briefly discuss two (interrelated) aspects, which I have talked about in much more details together with Anya Topolski in a recent interview for the blog of the APA (American Philosophical Association) – forgive me for some self-advertising here.
The first aspect I want to touch upon is the displacement of racism and racist practices and the focus on big genocidal events. As Gloria Wekker (Emeritus Professor of Gender and Ethnicity at Utrecht University) stated in her book White Innocence (2016), when Europeans think of race and racism, they tend to place it either somewhere else, mainly in the U.S. or in South Africa, or in the past (World War II). We seem to be blind to the fact that racism is here too, and that it does not have to manifest itself through the murder of thousands of people. This is definitely something we can see in the quotes from the interview I have reported above. The two hosts talk about “the horrible things” happening in China as to say that that is problematic, that is what we should focus on, we are just fooling around, innocent stuff here.
People are willing to talk about racism only when it involves huge, genocidal events (Shoah, apartheid…) but not when it involves their everyday practices. Especially not everyday practices of our societies. Why is it easier to call racism the use of the N-word than to admit that pulling your eyes up to imitate Asian people is a form of racism too? Could it be because we tend to associate the use of the N-word with the American context, so something that does not happen here? The geographical dimension intertwines here with the gravity of the event. We are more likely to acknowledge the racist nature of an event when people lose their lives than when an everyday practice is involved. And we are more likely to call an everyday practice racist when it happens far from us than when it happens near.
One of the merits of the works of Philomena Essed (Understanding Everyday Racism, 1991) and Gloria Wekker is that they show that the dehumanizing practices that characterize racism affect the everyday lives of certain groups of people, and that these practices build upon each other. What people fail to acknowledge is not only that racism manifests itself in ordinary situations but also that a buildup of ordinary forms of racial discriminations can have serious and lethal consequences too.
Only five days ago, Seid Visin, a twenty-year-old Italian (and I want to stress this, he was Italian) man, committed suicide because of the racist discrimination he had been experiencing for a long time and that he could not bear any longer. Despite being Italian (he was adopted by an Italian family when he was a child), his skin’s color did not match the “typical” Italian one (if such a thing even exists). He was working in a restaurant, a job he had to quit because people refused to get served by him and kept on accusing him of “stealing the job away from other young Italians.” Besides the fact that an (Italian) citizenship does not give you the right of having a job (non-Italians need food and clothes and a home as much as Italians do), Seid was Italian. Yet, he experienced lots of racist discrimination, which was not manifested in any big genocidal event. Racism manifested itself in Seid’s daily life. Racism was in the behavior of the old man who did not want to be served by Seid at the restaurant, in the woman who accused him of stealing the job away from her son, and in many other similar behaviors. But can you imagine how it feels to hear this day after day? Chances are, that if you are white like me, you cannot imagine it. Still, we can see the extent to which everyday racism is dehumanizing even if not genocidal.
The second aspect I want to discuss – very briefly – is related to the many forms racism can take. We have to acknowledge differences in how racism manifests itself in different parts of the world. European colonial history is indeed different from the American one. The culture is different, the society is different, so many things are different. We cannot expect to see the same manifestations of racism. Contrary to what Hunziker and Scotti claimed, there is no difference between using the N-word and caricaturizing almond eyes. It is unacceptable to claim that the first is an insult while the second is a joke. They are two different forms of racism but this doesn’t make the almond eyes’ imitation any less racist.
To acknowledge that racism is not something that happens elsewhere, that it manifests itself in ordinary practices, and that it takes many forms and shapes is extremely important. It is also crucial to acknowledge that being a feminist or being supportive of the LGBTQIA+ community does not automatically make you immune from being a racist, as being a feminist does not make you immune from being transphobic, as the J.K. Rowling case has famously and sadly shown. Issues of class, race and sex/gender are indeed intertwined but there is still a distinction among the different social justice projects, as Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang have claimed in their paper ‘Decolonization is not a metaphor’ (2012). These are important elements to be aware of. We are not innocent.
How is this related to violence and, more specifically, to the kind of violence I have mentioned at the beginning of this introduction, the one expressed by our words or the lack of them? I think that what I have said relates to violence in two ways. First (and in an obvious way), the episode I referred to revolved around an interview, mainly. The words Hunziker and Scotti uttered were even more relevant for our analysis of racism than the caricature itself. Don’t get me wrong, the gesture was extremely wrong too. Yet, the words they used to explain themselves (or “apologize” as they called it, although I have not seen much of an apology there) made even more clear how our societies are blind to racism. The words that Seid has heard around him for such a long time hurt him to the point that his own life became unbearable to him. Words can hurt. They can be violent. And racist.
Second, the lack of words can be violent too. Silence is violence, or it can be. The day after the interview came out, I emailed a journalist in Italy asking if he had any intention of writing a piece about what happened. He did not even know about the episode. I haven’t seen any article that, inspired by this event, tackled the much more general and widespread problem of racism in our societies. People talked about Hunziker and Scotti for a couple of weeks and then, as it is often the case, everyone forgot about it. I cannot even begin to imagine how hurtful this must have been for those people who experience racism every single day in their lives. When finally something “big” happens, something that puts it out in the open (or in the sunlight, to say it in an Italian way) that racism is here and among us, people are silent about it. Sometimes the lack of words can be as violent (or even more) as the presence of them.
Before concluding, let me be clear about one thing. If you were thinking that I had been talking about an Italian example because this problem is limited to Italy, you could not be more wrong. In a way, I wish it were the case. At least we would know where to act. We could explain a thing or two about racism to Italians and get it over with. But that’s really not the case. I have been talking about Italy because, being an Italian myself, that’s the context I know best. Yet, examples of everyday racist practices can be found in the Netherlands too, as the works of Philomena Essed and Gloria Wekker show. So, once again, we are not innocent.
Now, really one last thing before concluding this introduction. I have been editor-in-chief of Splijtstof for almost three years now and it has been a great journey. But my time has come to say goodbye. I do remember when I joined Splijtstof. I was about to start my Research Master’s, most of the friends I made during my Erasmus had left, and I was really looking for something that could give me the feeling of belonging to something and to somewhere. Splijtstof gave me this. Thanks to Splijtstof, I started to find “my place” here, I met most of my closest friends, I had the chance of interviewing great people, of organizing cool events, of writing pieces I really cared or was enthusiastic about. And I got to do all of this with two of the most amazing co-editors I could have asked for, Gaia Klabbers at the beginning and Janneke Toonders later on. In the meantime, I saw Splijtstof changing. Many of the people with whom I started this journey left, we welcomed new editors, new board members, new subscribers. In particular, I want to mention our last two additions to the team, Dani Lensen (BA student of Law and Philosophy at RU) and Mireille Kouevi (BA student of Philosophy, Politics and Society at RU).
To the rest of the editors, board members, Splijtstof fans, thank you all for these three years! I wish you a future filled of Splijtstof plants, fun philosophical talks, and thought-provoking events at the end of which, hopefully, you will be able to enjoy a beer, in person, all together.
Editor-in-chief of Splijtstof