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An Ugly Word: Rethinking Race in Italy and the United States (Paperback)
Scholars and politicians often assume a significant gap between the ways that Americans and Europeans think about race. According to this template, in the U.S. race is associated with physical characteristics, while in Western Europe race has disappeared, and discrimination is based on insurmountable cultural differences. However, little research has addressed how average Americans and Europeans actually think and talk about race. In An Ugly Word, sociologists Ann Morning and Marcello Maneri examine American and Italian understandings of group difference in order to determine if and how they may differ.
Morning and Maneri interviewed over 150 people across the two countries about differences among what they refer to as “descent-based groups.” Using this concept allowed them to sidestep the language of “race” and “ethnicity,” which can be unnecessarily narrow, poorly defined, or even offensive to some. Drawing on these interviews, the authors find that while ways of speaking about group difference vary considerably across the Atlantic, underlying beliefs about it do not. The similarity in American and Italian understandings of difference was particularly evident when discussing sports. Both groups relied heavily on traditional stereotypes of Black physicality to explain Black athletes’ overrepresentation in sports like U.S. football and their underrepresentation in sports like swimming – contradicting the claims that a biological notion of race is a distinctly American phenomenon.
While American and Italian concepts of difference may overlap extensively, they are not identical. Interviews in Italy were more likely to reveal beliefs about groups’ innate, unchangeable temperaments, such as friendly Senegalese and dishonest Roma. And where physical difference was seen by Italians as superficial and unimportant, cultural difference was perceived as deeply meaningful and consequential. In contrast, U.S. interviewees saw cultural difference as supremely malleable—and often ascribed the same fluidity to racial identity, which they believed stemmed from culture as well as biology. In light of their findings, Morning and Maneri propose a new approach to understanding cross-cultural beliefs about descent-based difference that includes identifying the traits people believe differentiate groups, how they believe those traits are acquired, and whether they believe these traits can change.
An Ugly Word is an illuminating, cross-national examination of the ways in which people around the world make sense of race and difference.
About the Author
ANN MORNING is professor of sociology at New York University.
MARCELLO MANERI is associate professor of sociology at the University of Milan-Bicocca.
“An Ugly Word is a terrific book that will make a major contribution to several areas of scholarship. First, it addresses a very important question in comparative race studies—whether the United States and Western Europe have different concepts of race, rooted in biological notions in the Unites States and cultural notions in Europe. Second, the book is a very careful and nuanced empirical study of how Italians think of and talk about descent-based differences. Third, the book revisits Morning’s important groundbreaking earlier work on concepts of descent-based difference in the United States and extends it by putting it in dialogue with the Italian case, bringing new light to understanding the ways in which Americans think and talk about racial and ethnic differences. Fourth, the book provides a new conceptual apparatus and theoretical tools for researching the conceptual underpinnings of descent-based difference. This is difficult work because it involves unpacking taken-for-granted terms such as race, ethnicity, biology, primordialism, culture, and the like, while also using these terms to understand how ordinary people make sense of the diversity they encounter. An Ugly Word is a great example of using empirical social science to advance theory on an incredibly important social and public policy issue. It is a terrific example of the interplay of evidence and theory.”
—MARY C. WATERS, PVK Professor of Arts and Sciences and the John L. Loeb Professor of Sociology, Harvard University
“By bringing Italian and American ways of thinking and talking (or not talking) about race into fruitful conversation with one another, Ann Morning and Marcello Maneri make a valuable contribution, at once conceptual and empirical, to the comparative study of understandings of descent-based difference.”
—ROGERS BRUBAKER, professor of sociology and UCLA Foundation Chair, University of California, Los Angeles
“An Ugly Word invites us to think more deeply about descent based difference. Ann Morning and Marcello Maneri interrogate in quite fined-grained detail the meanings and nuances to perceived group boundaries and categories in the United States and Italy. In so doing, they advance the cultural sociology and comparative analyses of race as a social phenomena. In an age of global population flows and enduring challenges of inequality, this work will surely engage and prove useful to serious students of racism, identity, and culture.”
—LAWRENCE D. BOBO, Dean of Social Science and W. E. B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences, Harvard University