While in Venice a few weeks ago, I attended the afternoon session of the symposium The Ghetto as Global Metaphor.
Though it was about 100 degrees in the Ca’ Dolfin, I could still enjoy the frescoed walls and elaborate chandeliers, a rather strange juxtaposition as we learned about ghettos.
Here are a few highlights from the speakers, introduced by Shaul Bassi:
Princeton’s Mitchell Duneier reminded us that the Venetians, in instituting the first ghetto 500 years ago, didn’t intend the term “ghetto” to refer to all such segregations of Jews, but that it was meant to solve a particular issue at a particular time. The Venetian State had no grand plan, like Hitler later did. In 1555, Rome issued a papal bull “as a cognitive category” that legitimized the idea of a ghetto as a segregated community. The Frankfurt ghetto, which came later, shows a time when “Jews put invisible walls around themselves,” Duneier said. This self-segregation, he believes, led to easier persecution by outsiders.
As a very interesting comparison, African Americans began using the term “ghetto” in the U.S. more intentionally after veterans returned from WWII. They had seen the Nazi concentration camps, in fact had helped to liberate them, and then applied the term to American segregated neighborhoods to highlight the hypocrisy they saw in the U.S. They had fought in Europe to free Jews and then returned home to be discriminated against. There was no intention to say that a black ghetto was similar to Nazi ghettos or camps in specific details, but it was more about being a place where people have lost rights to their freedoms that are usually protected by their government. Interesting, no?
Next, Elijah Anderson from Yale spoke about an “iconic ghetto” as a “moment of acute disrespect based on one’s particularity,” be it skin color, religion, etc. This image or stereotype began after the end of slavery in the U.S. when blacks moved into cities but remained segregated from the white community. This segregation became institutionalized and accepted as a norm. See how we got to where we are today?
George Chauncey, also from Yale, next applied the term “ghetto” to the LGBTQ community. He spoke of gay men moving to San Francisco as “refugees” fleeing unsafe places and forming their own “ghetto” for self-preservation, safety, and development of culture. Some saw this use of the term “ghetto” as offensive since the LGBTQ community didn’t suffer the same experiences as Jews or African Americans, but the philosophy of oppression was similar. He described it as a “ghetto rather than a free space because it is theirs” by choice, though it is still policed by a heteronormative government. A ghetto, he contends, is a “spatial relationship or concentration coupled with a social expectation.”
Igiaba Scego then applied the term “ghetto” to the migrant community, that the “body of migrants is a new ghetto in Europe.” She went so far as to say the migrant issue is almost akin to a new form of genocide, with the systematic killing off of a group of people but in a subtle way that will not be noticed by onlookers, an idea which she supported with examples from the current crisis.
A late addition speaker was Saskia Sassen, who spoke of “othering” and the “question of the outsider.” “What creates this distancing of the outsider?” she asked. She brought in examples of land grabs, economic development, and climate change consequences that lead to the displacement of local peoples.
The closing speaker was Homi Bhabha from Harvard. He spoke of philosophical issues, such as the “self-protective xenophobia” many people adopt against those perceived as outsiders. “American exceptionalism is an illusion,” he continued. The reality is “American exclusionism,” and our guilt is the easy way out of the emotional distress resulting from learning about others’ suffering. How does one acknowledge and respect the past while not being mired in inactivity? How does one move towards a new and brighter future? This was particularly interesting to me since I can apply these concepts to the high school course I teach on witness literature.
Lots of heady stuff this day, while I mopped my brow and neck in the heat. I’m sorry to have missed the morning speakers, though I’m not sorry for the reason–my friend was in town from Rome, and I wanted to spend the time with him. Still, cool topics on a hot day to spark a new fire in my mind. I bet the Venetians of 1516 would be surprised to know that their term “ghetto” and their edict to segregate the Jewish community would have such far-reaching consequences 500 years later.