Are Italians white? Here’s why the question is misleading

Are Italians white? There is some confusion about the topic. Let’s try to explain why.
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The short answer is: yes, most Italian people are white.

But there is still much confusion about the topic due to several reasons.

“Italian” is not an ethnic group but rather a nationality. So, being Italian doesn’t directly mean that you are white.

So, why this question?

Are Italians white? The history behind the question

Perhaps, the question has its roots in the United States in the early 20th century, when many Italian immigrants landed in the US to escape misery and find fortune.

But they had to fight for inclusion and social acceptance.

Discrimination against immigrants was common in the United States, and those Europeans who didn’t belong to the so-called “Anglo-Saxon group” had fewer privileges.

Some of these groups were Irish, Italians, Hungarians, Greeks, and others. Most of the time, being an Italian American meant facing a series of discriminations and racism as well.

The social debate about how to define these immigrants was long and complex. Some of these discussions included also race and skin color. Were those immigrants white?

In the first part of the 20th century, being a white person in the US meant being socially accepted and trustworthy.

All those people who didn’t fulfill that requirement would be excluded by social life and also political life. In some cases, they couldn’t even get American citizenship.

The long-lasting debate about the whiteness of Italian immigrants (as well as immigrants from other countries) very often led to racism.

The racial identity concept was very strong at the time, and skin color was relevant for racial classification.

Today, many historians agree that skin color doesn’t have to influence someone’s social life and civil rights; however, the question about Italian people’s skin color has remained.

Even if today the question seems pointless, there is still too much confusion around the topic. Let’s try to understand more about it.

Why are Italian people white?

First of all, each person carries a singular genetic expression, which also regulates skin color. This means that human skin color differs in each individual and depends on genetics.

Environmental factors also play a major role in someone’s skin color, which changes according to the amount of melanin (a pigment that our bodies synthesize to protect from the sunlight).

The genetics of Italians (and Europeans in general) comes from migrations in ancient times, and it is a very complex topic to unravel in a post.

To make it short, genetic expression in Italy is very variegated, and that’s because the country has experienced a vast number of invasions and colonizations since the prehistoric age.

Italy has always attracted colonizations from nearby countries due to its strategic position in the Mediterranean Sea and the favorable climate conditions.

Many populations have settled in Italy throughout history: Phoenicians, Etruscans, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Normans, Arabs, French, Spanish, and many more.

As a result, Italian people’s genetic expression contains a mix of influences from very different populations. Italians have one of the largest genetic diversity among all European countries.

The different invasions caused significant differences among Northern and Southern Italy.

People from the Northern regions are more similar to the Italic tribes that inhabited the peninsula at the beginning of the Iron Age.

People from the South have more similarities with Eastern Mediterranean populations (like Cyprus, Crete, and Greece). This difference is mainly due to the Greek colonization of Southern Italy.

An interesting fact is that Sardinian people may carry the country’s most ancient genomic heredity due to the island’s isolation. Ancient populations migrated to Sardinia and left a footprint on Sardinians’ genomic background.

Another point to make is the adaptation to different climate conditions. Italian peninsula spans from the Alps in the North to the Mediterranean Sea in the South, and there is a great difference in environment and climate.

The climate variations along the Italian peninsula have contributed to creating even more differences among Italians, who have had to adapt to different environmental conditions.

That’s why during the centuries, the genomic background of Italians has become very variegated.

For example, a person from the South of Italy generally has darker skin than someone from the North because of the higher percentage of melanin.

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It seems that Italian history influenced the country in many ways.

Learn more about Italian history in our dedicated section.

What about other European countries?

Europe is a relatively small continent, and there are many similarities among people from different European countries.

For example, an Italian person can look Greek and a Greek person can look Spanish, etc.

However, people from Northern Europe show relevant differences compared to Southern Europeans – that’s why someone from Finland or Norway is very different from a Spanish or an Italian person.

Such differences also concern skin color.

In general, European from Southern countries can look white in the winter, while in summer, they get tan because the sun in Southern Europe is more intense than in Northern Europe.

So their bodies produce more melanin as a way to protect themselves from sunlight.

Italians seem to have darker skins than other European populations (like British or Germans). That’s because Italy is in the South of Europe and gets more sunlight.

That’s why it is common to see, during summer, English people with red skin and Italian people with brown, olive skin.

They simply have more melanin in their skin, so they get tan without getting burned.

Ti sei abbronzato quest’estate!

You got tan this summer!

A complex answer to a misleading question

Do Italians have white skin? It is complex to explain why the question has aroused, the history behind the debate, and its implications.

In conclusion, asking whether Italians are white is considered a bit strange, and that’s probably because in Europe discussions about skin color are unpopular and can be considered a bit racist.

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2 Responses

  1. Very interesting article. I’m from the USA, and my grandparents never spoke Italian to their children (my parents), so consequently I never learned . They even changed their names while applying for jobs to avoid discrimination. During the early to mid 1900s, this was very common. Yet, despite this , and the so-called ‘robber baron’ era, their opportunities in the US far outweighed anything they had at home, so they endured extremely poor conditions on a three week overseas journey and then wrote back home encouraging their families to do the same. Millions of others followed suit. Nonetheless, my family, and hundreds of thousands of other Italian-American families, do not speak Italian – but I am so grateful to now have such great tools available and aim to rectify this by learning the language now! Ciao….

    1. Thank you Lindsay for sharing your story!
      Migration for better opportunities has always existed and immigrants are rarely welcome by the locals. Sadly, we tend to dislike strangers who look different from us. By the way, the Italian word for foreigner is “straniero” (false friend of “stranger” but actually makes sense).

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