PUBLI : Ann Morning & Marcello Maneri, An Ugly Word. Rethinking Race in Italy and the United States, Russell Sage Foundation, 2022, 320 p.


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.

ANN MORNING is professor of socio­logy at New York University

MARCELLO MANERI is asso­ciate professor of socio­logy at the Univer­sity of Milan-Bicocca

Refe­rence page