An ugly word. Rethinking race in Italy and the United States.

Monday 13 February 2023, 16:30 to 18:00

BIRMM and EDGE warmly invite you to the presentation and discussion of the book ‘An Ugly Word. Rethinking Race in Italy and the United States’ (2021).

BIRMM and EDGE are delighted to welcome Prof. Ann Morning (University of New York), one of the authors of the book and world-renowned sociologist, and Tundé Adefioye, African-American author, artist and intellectual with a long lived experience in Europe, to reflect on the meaning(s) of race and racism in contemporary societies on both sides of the Atlantic.

The relevance of race for analyzing and combating social exclusion and stratification worldwide has been a subject of heated controversy. In An Ugly Word, Ann Morning and Marcello Maneri propose a framework for analyzing concepts of descent-based difference in comparative perspective that provides more flexible, detailed and precise measures of such beliefs than "race" or "ethnicity" offer. The authors build on interviews with young people in an aspiring "color-blind" Italy and a United States that has been called "race-obsessed".


4.30PM-5PM Book Presentation by Ann Morning

5PM-5.20PM Book Discussion by Tundé Adefioye

5.20PM-6PM Speakers in conversation + Q&A with the audience

Coffee, tea and cookies will be provided.



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.

Morning, A., & Maneri, M. (2021). An Ugly Word: Rethinking Race in Italy and the United States. Russell Sage Foundation.

To know more and buy the book:


  • Ann Morning is James Weldon Johson Professor of Sociology at New York University and a member of NYU Abu Dhabi’s Affiliated Faculty. Trained in demography, her research focuses on race, ethnicity, and the sociology of science, especially as they pertain to census classification worldwide and to individuals’ concepts of difference.
  • Tundé Adefioye is a performing arts dramaturg and lecturer. In 2019, he made his directorial debut with Contact Theatre Manchester, with the piece Old Tools > New Masters ≠ New Futures. Additionally, he is a lecturer of Cultural Criticism and US Popular (Black) Visual Culture at St Lucas Antwerp Art college. In 2020 he was co-editor of the VUB Poincaré book Migration, Racism and Equality: 44 Opinons.
  • Moderation by Serena D’Agostino, Vrije Universiteit Brussel.


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This event was organised with the logistical support of the Brussels School of Governance (BSoG).