Contesting Race and Citizenship: Youth Politics in the Black Mediterranean can be described as “an original study of Black politics and varieties of political mobilization in Italy,” yet the book is more than an ethnography of Black activists. Hawthorne, in fact, not only takes seriously the perspective and analytical categories adopted by these activists, but is also clearly engaged in a process of co-theorizing with them. This emerges clearly in the book’s writing style, which moves effortlessly from ethnographic vignettes, to discussions between activists, to scholarly debates about the same issues. Thus, Hawthorne recognizes activist spaces as crucial sites of theory production on a range of themes such as the potential and pitfalls of citizenship as an objective of political mobilization, the possibilities of building new forms of identification and solidarity that transcend the boundaries of the nation, or the best way to develop a language to talk about Blackness in Italy. In essence, the book develops theory that is deeply embedded in the everyday life and the political organizing of Black Italians.

Out of these spaces of theorizing emerge two main conceptual points. The first is an argument about the centrality and embeddedness of racism and racial nationalism in the apparently race-neutral category of citizenship. This is a particularly important contribution in the context of Italy, where discussions of race have been relatively absent from the political, public, and scholarly debate, including discussions on migration. The second is a critique of Italian mobilizations of the Mediterranean that situate Blackness outside of Italy and Europe, but also an attempt to reclaim the Mediterranean as an analytical framework and political project that can expand the boundaries of Italian national belonging, and recenter ties between Italy and the African continent. I will focus the remainder review on the latter point, as it is close to my own area of scholarship and expertise.

Hawthorne’s engagement with the Mediterranean begins from a paradox: how is it possible that a country with a long history of claiming the ‘mixed’ Mediterranean nature of its population persistently expels Blackness outside the boundaries of the nation? The book addresses this by deconstructing the “discursive mobilization of the Mediterranean in Italian racial formation” (Hawthorne, 2022: 96) from national unification to the present, showing how, starting in the late 19th century, invoking the Mediterranean served both as a theory of Italian racial specificity vis-à-vis Northwestern Europe, and as a legitimization of Italian colonialism through the celebration of the peninsula’s long history of entanglement with the African continent – a justification that continued under Fascism. Hawthorne argues that the Mediterranean disappeared from the Italian public debate in the period following World War II and the decolonization of Italian colonies, a disappearance which I suggest was partial, as claims to a Mediterranean specificity remained in certain regions of Southern Italy, and continued to provide the rhetorical foil for Italian foreign and energy policy in North Africa (Ben-Yehoyada, 2014). Indeed, one question that the book leaves open is the ongoing relationship between the Mediterranean as a discourse central to Italian racial formation, and as a rhetoric supporting Italian foreign policy.

Finally, Hawthorne shows how the Mediterranean has re-emerged forcefully in the present: on the right as a “threat” – a vision articulated by politicians such as Matteo Salvini, who see it as a source of encroachment on and contamination of Italy, and on the left as a means of “opening up” Italianness and challenging racism, xenophobia, and border fortification. Hawthorne argues, however, that this progressive mobilization of the Mediterranean, while certainly challenging the bounding of Italy, is devoid of any analysis of power: it celebrates long histories of Italian connections with the Southern Mediterranean, without mentioning histories of Italian colonialism. It situates Italy within the “south,” but assumes that proximity to the Global South inoculates Italians against racism. In other words, it creates a color-blind image of Italy, in which anti-Black racism becomes invisibilized.

Both Hawthorne and her interlocutors, however, believe that the Mediterranean can be reclaimed. Having discussed how discursive mobilizations of the Mediterranean in Italy have represented, at best, a whitewashed celebration of Mediterranean conviviality, the book turns to discuss how Black Italian activists are mobilizing the Mediterranean to challenge the symbolic boundaries of Italianness. They do so to claim space in Italy, highlighting the country’s long history of (violent) entanglement with the African continent, but also to imagine new forms of belonging beyond the nation. In dialogue with these activists and fellow scholars (Di Maio, 2012; Proglio et al, 2021), Hawthorne develops the notion of the Black Mediterranean, which represents simultaneously an analytical framework to understand the specificities of Italian racial formation (particularly its entanglements with colonial histories, bordering, and citizenship), an antidote to whitewashed celebrations of Mediterranean mixing (as it forces us to contend with histories of Italian colonialism and racism), and a political call for diasporic politics – in other words, forms of alliance and solidarity that transcend state-sanctioned categories such as “citizen,” “migrant,” or “refugee.” In essence, the Black Mediterranean analytic provides the tools to reclaim the Mediterranean, and notions of mixing and interconnection more generally, by centering an analysis of uneven power relations, recognizing longstanding legacies of colonial violence and boundary drawing, and reimagining forms of solidarity between differently marginalized subjects within these Mediterranean geographies.

It is precisely this theme of solidarity that leaves the reader of Contesting Race and Citizenship with a few questions. The first concerns the intersection of diasporic politics and the politics of solidarity. The fifth chapter of the book, entitled “Refugees and Citizens-in-Waiting,” defines solidarity movements between people of Eritrean descent in Milano and newly arrived Eritrean refugees as an example of Black Mediterranean politics, specifically a diasporic politics of solidarity. However, similar examples of solidarity exist in other communities in Italy – for instance, people of Tunisian descent offering shelter to recently arrived Tunisians. When do these forms of solidarity transcend a solidarity based on shared national origin, or possible familial ties, and become a specific form of diasporic solidarity? Secondly, and similarly, in the conclusion Hawthorne discusses new forms of solidarity emerging between Black Italians and other Southern Italian social movements – a sort of alliance between “different Souths.” I wonder if this reading of Southern Italy as a possible epicenter of a new politics of solidarity might be somewhat optimistic, since Southern Italy has long been an epicenter of Mediterraneanist politics – specifically the types of whitewashed celebrations of Mediterranean conviviality that ignore colonial histories and ongoing uneven power relations. What specific characteristics of the alliances mentioned in the conclusion make them capable of transcending a whitewashed Mediterraneanist politics? In more strategic terms, what should happen in movements that bring together differently situated subjects to create forms of solidarity that are attentive to and address uneven power relations reproduced by certain types of Mediterraneanist politics?

Finally, the book leaves open the question of whether the Black Mediterranean analytic may provide the conceptual and political tools to bridge the symbolic boundary between North and Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as the divide between populations racialized as black Black and those racialized as Muslim in Italy (a dichotomy which erases the experience of black Muslims). Contesting Race and Citizenship argues that the Italian government has long deemed subjects of perceived Middle Eastern or North African descent to be more proximate to Italianness than those from the rest of the African continent. Under Italian colonialism, this was manifested in the privileged position of Libyan colonial subjects versus those in the Horn of Africa. More recently, this emerged in the easier access to asylum for Syrian nationals in Italy as opposed to sub-Saharan Africans. Beyond the boundaries of Italy, as various North African and Middle Eastern countries are being conscripted into doing Europe’s border work through policies of border externalization, it has become particularly urgent to challenge these new forms of bounding of the Mediterranean. The Black Mediterranean analytic challenges visions of the Mediterranean that erase its connections with the African continent, yet it was developed to address the specificities of Italian racial formation. What conceptual or political challenges might emerge in drawing on this analytic to challenge new forms of material and symbolic bordering in a North African or Middle Eastern context? This and previous questions testify to the richness of the treatment of diasporic politics and politics of solidarity in Contesting Race and Citizenship, which raises crucial questions about how to build relationships of solidarity and co-struggle between differently peripheralized regions and differently racialized populations.


Ben-Yehoyada N (2014) Transnational Political Cosmology: A Central Mediterranean Example. Comparative Studies in Society and History 56(04): 870–901.
Di Maio A (2012) Il mediterraneo nero. Rotte dei migranti nel millennio globale. In de Spuches G (ed) La Città Cosmopolita. Palermo: Palumbo Editore, pp. 143–163.
Hawthorne C (2022) Contesting Race and Citizenship: Youth Politics in the Black Mediterranean. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Proglio G et al. (eds) (2021) The Black Mediterranean: Bodies, Borders and Citizenship. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ilaria Giglioli is assistant professor of International Studies at the University of San Francisco. Her research studies the creation, legitimization and contestation of borders in the central Mediterranean.