White on Arrival Review

Guglielmo, Thomas A. White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.


White on Arrival by Thomas A. Guglielmo uses the concept of whiteness to examine how identity and race is constructed in early twentieth century Italian American communities in Chicago. Each chapter focuses on major national or international events that impacted Italian Americans, such as the Chicago Riot of 1919, the rise of Italian organized crime, growth of industrial unionism, rise of fascism, and the Italian-Ethiopian War of 1935. Guglielmo’s use of primary sources and major events of Chicago immigrant history adds strength to his argument in depicting how racial classification impacted how Italian immigrants adapted to American society. His focus on the “whiteness” of American society shows the challenges that impacted how Italian Americans adapted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Guglielmo starts his book by exploring from a general aspect Italian Americans experience in Chicago from 1880 to World War 1. The focus within the beginning is the migration of Italian Americans into Italian communities within Chicago and the role race had on Italian Americans. This is where Guglielmo begins to argue that Italians arrived white, but society did not see them as white immigrants until they adapted to societies ideal “whiteness”. The beginning of the book sets up the challenges “whiteness” created for Italian Americans and it is explored through the major national and international events that impacted Italian Americans. Guglielmo challenging the concept of “whiteness” is a common theme that reflects on the differentiation of color and race.

Guglielmo begins chapter two by discussing the Chicago Color Riot of 1919 in how it forced Italian immigrants to stop immigrating through restrictive laws and create stable communities or neighborhoods for Italian Americans. Guglielmo uses this event to show how within Chicago, Italian Americans felt that it was important to create their own social identity with neighborhoods that didn’t identify them as “Caucasian” and “white”. Chapter three then examines the restriction of “new” immigration in the early 1920’s. Chapter four looks into the rise of Italian organized crime that is represented by Al Capone in which creates a stereotype for Italian Americans. This stereotype created by Italian gangsters creates challenges for Italian Americans to overcome when forming their own identity in society. Chapter five focuses on the rise of fascism and the Italian-Ethiopian War of 1935-1936. This focuses shows how international influences impacts how Italians identity in America. However, all of these chapters look at the aspect of social identity in how it was shaped and challenged within American society.

In the second half of the book begins in chapter 6 by examining the industrial unionism and politics during the Depression and World War II. Guglielmo shows how a majority of Italian Americans was working class and during the Depression political movements in Chicago helped change how color affected Italian Americans. Chapter seven also looks into mayoral politics in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. The mayoral politics in Chicago force Italian Americans to be seen as racial outsiders and used as the embodiment of crime within Chicago that many political candidates used as a target for their campaign. Chapter eight explores the public housing in Chicago’s Italian neighborhoods during the late 1930’s through World War II when African-American migration to Chicago created problems. Public housing changes allowed for Italians to explore their rights as whites. The migration from known Italian neighborhoods to Americanized areas shows the rise of “whiteness” as well as how Italian Americans were developing their own identity.

Guglielmo concludes by focusing on the changes of Italian American’s identity in terms of color from late nineteenth century to early twentieth century. He shows how Italian Americans didn’t want to identity as “white” upon arrival in America because they saw themselves racially as Italian. The distinction between race and color is another common theme that Guglielmo differentiates that Italians are the color white and are racially Italian. However, Italian Americans were racialized upon arrival and Guglielmo shows the challenges they faced when developing their own identity than the “whiteness” society wanted Italians to become. He also concludes by explaining how Italian identity shifted from undesirable immigrants to an ethnic group of whites after World War II. Furthermore, Guglielmo shows how Italians were always white, but by not identifying as “white” they were prone to racial challenges. These challenges affected how Italian Americans lived until the shift in post World War II American society.

White on Arrival provides an in depth understanding of how “whiteness” affected how Italians developed their identity in America, however there are a two shortcomings. This first is that Guglielmo focuses solely on comparing Italian immigrants to African American’s as being inferior to whites. He should have included a comparison of Italian immigrants to other white immigrants such as the Irish or Germans. The second shortcoming is how Guglielmo does not mention whether or not Italian immigrants felt the need to abandon their Italian identity once Italy became the enemy during World War II. Guglielmo focuses on this shift of identity after World War II, but lacks focus on the challenges Italian immigrants faced during World War II due to their homeland being the enemy.

Furthermore, Guglielmo’s main goal is to show the racial barriers Italian Americans went through within Chicago to depict the hardships they overcame. The overarching themes of “whiteness” and distinction between color and race provides an understanding how Italian immigrants were challenged in shaping their identity. The focus on major national and international events added strength to his argument in depicting how racial classification impacted how Italian immigrants adapted to American society. Overall Guglielmo provides a well in depth understanding of the challenges that impacted how Italian Americans adapted to the “whiteness” of American society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.