Race Talk is about racism and multilingual communication. The book draws on original, ethnographic research conducted on heterogeneous and multiethnic street markets in Napoli, southern Italy, in 2012. Here, Neapolitan street vendors worked alongside migrants from Senegal, Nigeria, Bangladesh and China as part of an ambivalent, cooperative and unequal quest to survive and prosper. A heteroglossia of different kinds of talk revealed the relations of domination and subordination between people. It showed how racialised hierarchies were enforced, as well as how ambivalent and novel transcultural solidarities emerged in everyday interaction. Street markets in Napoli provided important economic possibilities for both those born in the city, and those who had arrived more recently. However, anti-immigration politics, austerity and urban regeneration projects increasingly limited people’s ability to make a living in this way. In response, the street vendors organised politically. Their collective action was underpinned by an antihegemonic, multilingual talk through which they spoke back to power. Since that time, racism has surged in Napoli, and across the world, whilst human movement has continued unabated, because of worsening political, economic and environmental conditions. The book suggests that the edginess of multilingual talk – amongst people diversified in terms of race, legal status, religion and language, but united by an understanding of their potential disposability – offers useful insights into the kinds of imaginaries that will be needed to overcome the politics of borders and nationalism.
encountering an ever-increasing complexity of human movement, global heterogeneity and attendant racist responses. In order to examine this more closely, the chapter connects histories of culture and communication in the city to the contemporary, multilingual dynamics of the ever-evolving streetmarkets where I did my fieldwork. This is, of necessity, a selective account that considers social and political histories of the city as they relate to the question of talk and language use.
Unification and colonialism: forging an Italian language and people
the postwar period connected scientific racism and fascist ideologies to the forms of cultural racism that, particularly, black migrants experienced when they started arriving in Italy ( 2013 : 274). My fieldwork was replete with obsessive talk, sometimes directed at women and sometimes emerging in discussions between Neapolitan and migrant men, about women who spent too much time in public spaces such as streetmarkets, where their presence was not respectable and was potentially threatening to their honour. The status of women in public spaces was connected to
good relationships with other people using the spaces around which streetmarkets were set up, also revealed the defensive formation of a consciousness about the stigmatised nature of the profession (Hall et al . 1978 : 351–391). Given that skill as a talker was key to the economic success of the street hustler (Bourgois and Schonberg 2009 : 8; Wacquant 1998 ), the attention this chapter pays to market cries – the talk of the hustle – allows an examination of the oppositional class-consciousness through which negative ideas about street vending and street vendors
closing down streetmarkets and taking away vendors’ livelihoods in 2012. The vendors’ actions drew upon a strong tradition of creative proletarian political organisation in the city: for example, the ‘Gruppo Operaio “’E Zezi”’ (Zezi Workers Group), formed in 1974 from a group of factory workers at the Alfasud car factory in Pomigliano d’Arco. This area, formerly a village to the east of Napoli where people survived through agriculture and artisanship, was suddenly plunged into industrialisation with the arrival of a number of manufacturing plants from the late 1950s
making a living. Until the 2000s people were scared to visit Napoli because of violence associated with organised crime and rubbish mismanagement. But, whilst I was doing the research, huge amounts of money were invested to transform the city into a popular tourist location. By the time I finished writing, nearly a decade after I had first started working there, the streetmarkets around the main railway station no longer existed, or had significantly shrunk as a result of these processes of urban transformation.
This book is based on ethnographic research that I
question, on returning to Napoli as a researcher, was about what these fraught maps of culture and communication looked like for people speaking from a much more vulnerable, precarious and urgent position than I was. In the introduction and Chapter 1 I described the wider context of migration and austerity that had an impact upon the streetmarkets where I did the research for this book. I started to depict the multilingual babel that was the soundscape of everyday life as I moved around Napoli. I argued that edgy multilingual talk in the heterogeneous and multiethnic
completely empty and ‘clean’: there was no rubbish on the streets, very few street vendors were still attempting to set up stalls alongside the big spider and there was a visible presence of police. I had also heard that vigilante groups had been going around with baseball bats and threatening vendors in unlicensed streetmarkets, in particular the Roma markets of scavenged goods. Vicious attacks against black people, in parlicular against black street vendors, had taken place in Napoli, as in the rest of the country, despite the city’s reputation for being more welcoming
around belonging and entitlement to be transformed into a sort of social commentary that could be worked through relatively safely. Nevertheless, these humorous negotiations took place almost exclusively between men, whereas women in streetmarkets, as I explored in Chapter 4 , were subjected to forms of violence that were more difficult to speak back against. This ritualised, ludic and competitive talk relied on an understanding of a local form of the masculinity of the guappo – a man of the people who was hardworking but also knew how to protect his own dignity
act of talking in Napoli to the power-laden, ambivalent and pragmatic verbal dynamics of transcultural interaction in the city’s streetmarkets.
In the streetmarkets where I did ethnographic research, talk about talk shaped communication in a number of ways: as a way of reflecting melancholically on what Napoli was, as well as what it was in the process of becoming; as a practical necessity whereby migrants and Neapolitans had learnt from each other through socialisation and working together; and as a means of making claims about belonging or expressing