“Who Am I? Who Are You?” When We Speak of Nationality, What Do We Mean?

“Who Am I? Who Are You?”

“When We Speak of Nationality, What Do We Mean?”

Turning Point: European Parliament is rocked by anti-Europe vote.

In the course of a week at the end of the summer, I attended two festivals in Italy. The first was held on Pantelleria, the largest of Sicily’s satellite islands, 100 miles from mainland Italy, 40 from Tunisia. The second took place in the village of Lana, a mountainside “commune” some 50 miles from Austria in bucolic South Tyrol. On Sunday, leaving Pantelleria, I was wearing flip-flops. That night, eating dinner in Lana, I was wearing gloves. In hours, I’d gone from bikinis and beaches to mufflers and mountains without leaving Italy — and, more impressively, without encountering any Italians.

When I asked my hosts in Lana whether they considered themselves Italian, they laughed. “No. We’re South Tyrolean,” they said. When I asked my hosts on Pantelleria the same, they laughed harder. “No. We’re Pantesco.” Somehow, despite having lived in Rome on and off since 2011, I’d never questioned that towns facing Tunisia and Austria belonged to one Italy. Now I wondered: If neither my Sicilian nor South Tyrolean hosts were convinced of their Italian-ness, then who was Italian? What was Italy?

In Lana the answer was complicated by language. Until its annexation by Italy in 1919, South Tyrol belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ninety-five percent of Lana still speaks German as a first language. That 100 percent carry Italian passports felt almost incidental. On Pantelleria the complication was colorism. On learning that I was headed to Lana, men with skin tanned darker than mine lamented the racismo they’d experienced in the north. I was reminded of a friend from Naples who once said of northern Italians, “They say all we do is sing, dance, steal and eat watermelon.” Raised myself in Boston, a city rife with racial tension, I found the trope dishearteningly familiar: the dark-skinned Other rendered identically, from Southie to South Tyrol.

But what troubled me most, and not for the first time, was the question of nation. There was nothing, it seemed, in the idea of Italy — in the notion of the nation — capable of overriding the realities of language, class and color. Returning to Berlin, my latest home, I couldn’t shake the thought: When we speak of nationality, then, what do we actually mean?

On an intellectual level I’d long since struggled with the concept. I’ll never forget, at the beginning of my graduate studies in international relations, discovering that the nation-state had not been with us always. It was 2002. The United States was waging a second war with Iraq. I’d come to England for graduate work in large part to learn why. Newspapers and textbooks referred to these entities — Afghanistan, America, England, Iraq — as naturally occurring, singular, almost anthropomorphized things.

I was unconvinced. On a personal level I didn’t quite believe in nations. In my lifetime they had disappeared (Czechoslovakia), appeared (Timor-Leste), failed (Somalia). My own nationality was largely an accident of history; born in London and raised in Boston, I held U.K. and U.S. passports on the basis of laws long overturned by 2002. My Ghanaian father lived in Saudi Arabia, my Nigerian mother in Ghana, both citizens of countries that hadn’t existed when they were born. That we were all somehow meant to derive our most basic sense of self from nations — these expandable, collapsible, invent-able things — struck me as absurd.

Then, one day at the University of Oxford, I discovered statehood. Before beginning grad school, I used the words “nation,” “state” and “country” interchangeably, e.g., the United Nations is comprised of member states, with countries elected to councils. The terms, I learned now, were discrete. A nation was a cultural and linguistic entity, a state a political and geopolitical one. The idea of the modern nation-state — a sovereign state governing a cultural nation — was just that: an idea, 350 years old and showing its age.

There was nothing eternal about nations, nothing biological about nationality. In a precious few states, one ethnic group still comprised more than 95 percent of the population (Iceland, Japan and Malta, to name a few). In the rest, the “nation” of nation-state fame had to be invented. To arrive at this imagined singularity in the face of the complexities of history — civil wars, shifting borders, myriad languages, varying complexions — required the privileging of the culture of certain nationals over others’.

In a way, I’d always understood this. From an early age it was clear to me that, despite the passports I held, no one using the terms “British lass” or “all-American girl” had me in mind. If history created nations, power created national cultures. In 2002 the revelation was this: People, not passports, dictated belonging.

Some 10 years later, leaving Lana, I viewed the matter anew. My original question (who is Italian?) pointed to a more important one: Who belongs in Italy? What my Sicilian hosts were lamenting was the lie of national belonging: An Italian passport offers no guarantee of equal treatment in Italy. The same holds true worldwide. The day I traveled from Pantelleria to Lana, riots broke out in Missouri, where hundreds were protesting the killing of American teenagers by American police. Darren Wilson, the 28-year-old officer who killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, may not have perceived his victim as “a fellow American.” That we don’t hear of American-on-American violence as we hear of black-on-black crime suggests that the identity “American” does not, as advertised, imply a single community. Very simply, Michael Brown was not a member of the culture that is said to define American-ness. He was a national (and victim) of the state, but never fully viewed as “an American.”

As I listened to Italians describing their mistreatment by fellow Italians, the distinction came clear. The citizen enjoys a sense of belonging and the personal security that comes with it; the national gets only the passport. Ironically, for those who are already personally secure, citizenship needn’t mean much at all. In South Tyrol, one of the wealthiest regions in the European Union, the idea of being a citizen (Austrian, Italian or otherwise) is largely meaningless. On Pantelleria, as in Ferguson, that meaninglessness comes with a cost.

Too often, those who pay that cost consent to levy it. As we ate lunch on Pantelleria, planes scoured the tranquil sea, “looking for African refugees,” I was told. No one at the table seemed to see, or to wish to discuss, the obvious: that the discrimination experienced by dark-skinned refugees migrating to the West and dark-skinned Italians migrating north is the same. The word “Italian” functioned in our conversation not to define national identity but to delimit it. One was Pantesco when the alternative was Italian. One was Italian when the alternative was Nigerian.

There’s the rub. My aforementioned friend from Naples has never lived outside of Italy. She speaks Italian and Napolitano fluently. Her parents were born in Nigeria. That few people in Italy can accept her as Italian is at best ironic given that no one in Italy can agree on what Italian-ness means. Nationality, however slippery a concept in the context of personal identity, persists in public discourse to justify barriers to citizenship. In the very places where history demands that nationality be taken as flexible, nationality is most strenuously defended as biological.

For shame. The states that I’ve called home as an adult — the United States, France, Italy, now Germany — all have the sort of history that exposes national identity as the product of narrative. One would think that the South Tyrolean, his own citizenship the arbitrary product of geopolitics, would understand this. Who better than the German-speaking Italian to object to the purported unnaturalness of the Turkish-speaking German, the Somali-speaking Italian, the Spanish-speaking American? Who better than the Italian citizen, the all-American, the East Berliner, to understand that a country that has perpetually expanded to include new complexions, inflections and politics might (lo, must) expand once more?

In theory these countries should have the easiest time reconstructing nationality to accommodate migration. If the words themselves — American, Italian, German — have meant such different things throughout history, and continue to mean such differing things to and for different citizens now, then surely they can accommodate the human beings presently arriving on American, Italian and German soil.

To accept, as history obliges us, the constructed nature of nationality — to accept that the Italian-ness of a sailor from Sicily, a farmer from Lana and a migrant from Somalia are equally imaginary — is to accept that anyone can be a citizen. These are questions of power, perception and politics, not of possibility. For the possibility has always been there. Italy, like any modern nation, and any modern nation, like Italy, having been imagined, can be re-imagined now.

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