Racism in Italy has finally become a subject of debate – slow and limited and usually provoked by foreigners or Italians living abroad. This is one of two blogs which addressing some of the issues and trying to answer some of the questions.
Last month I wrote a piece on racism in Italy for a CNN blog – this is the full version with comment and response.
Italy has its first black cabinet minister, Cécile Kyenge who was insulted by the xenophobic Northern League within hours of her appointment. Last month, Roma soccer fans shouted racist insults at Milan’s Mario Balotelli, black but also one of the national squad’s top strikers. Kyenge has asked Balotelli to be the celebrity endorsement for a bill to give citizenship to the children of regular immigrants born in Italy. At the moment, they have to wait until they’re 18 and then apply for citizenship unlike the US where the 14th amendment gives citizenship to all those born in America.
Italy is having to come to terms with racism.
One of Italy’s old self-images was italiani brava gente – Italians are decent folk. Still, in 1938, Mussolini passed the Racial Laws (Leggi razziali an explicit endorsement of “scientific” racism) and the Italian authorities applied them. These discriminated against Italian Jews but in World War II, whatever crimes the Italian Fascists committed, they were small compared to the Nazis and many Italians worked heroically to save Jews so any Italians who thought about the issue acquitted themselves and the country. After the war, Italians looked at Mississippi and Alabama or Watts later, and then Brixton in London and complimented themselves on not being racist “like the Anglo-Saxons”.
That wasn’t quite true as southern Italians who moved to the north in the Fifties were treated every bit as badly as the Irish or West Indians in London over the same period; they were even referred to as “immigrants” even though they were as “Italian” as the Turinese or Milanese.
But it is true that there were no race riots or lynchings… but there were (almost) no non-whites in Italy. A surname, an accent, a slightly lighter or darker complexion proclaimed a person’s origin but all were Italians. The only non-whites were diplomats, actors or priests in Rome and the occasional businessman in Milan – all privileged people.
Then in the Eighties, Italy changed from being a country of emigration to having immigrants; a trickle at first, mostly from eastern Europe at first. In the Nineties the trickle became a flow, from neighbouring countries like Albania and Romania in Europe, from Morocco in North Africa. The overall numbers were low and the tolerance still fairly high. When a black woman was insulted on a bus in the ‘90s with a “get off the bus and go home!” (it turned out she was Italian), the mayor made a public apology. Carlton Myers, a basketball champion with an Anglo-Caribbean father and Italian mother was the Italian flagbearer at the Sydney Olympics.
There seemed to be very little racial tension, at worst an insulting insensitivity, like the Turin daily La Stampa referring to Japanese cars as “yellow” – they didn’t mean cabs. New terms were invented – extracomunitario, literally non-EU citizen was not used for a Swiss banker, a Norwegian or Texan oilman or a Japanese executive, it was a euphemism for non-white. Vu’ cumpra, the imitation of a street hawker’s “vuoi comprare?” “do you want buy?”, came to mean almost any black person while colf, short for collaboratore familiare or cleaner, usually meant Philippino. These were some of the politer terms used then and discarded by the 2000s.
Over the last decade or so, the number of immigrants rose dramatically, from just over a million in 2000 to just under 5 million of about 8% of the population today. Over half a million are the Italian born children of immigrants who cannot become citizens until they are 18 even though their first language is Italian (or more often Neapolitan or Bergamo or Bologna dialects). This influx was not so bad in an expanding economy (though even then there was the common refrain “wretched foreigners – why can’t they stay at home” followed by, often from the same individual, “why can’t I find someone to work in my factory/field”). The tensions started with two changes.
Since 2008, the economy has been in recession and jobs for all, especially the young, have become rarer and rarer. At the same time, many immigrants have integrated, set up businesses, become citizens and come to expect equal treatment. These two factors are threatening for those Italians who feel insecure either in their jobs or their social position, or, worse, those who like the Northern League politicans who want to exploit that fear.
To these people, a woman like Cécile Kyenge would be acceptable if she was a docile house servant on the lines of the Thirties Hollywood stereotype. The fact that she is a successful eye surgeon and now a self-assured cabinet minister is threatening for them. Even in the US, with decades of efforts to overcome racism, there were many who still found the idea of a black president very disturbing. They could not use overtly racist language so used substitute words like “socialist” while in Italy, the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi referred to Obama as “suntanned” and complained that Milan now looks like an “African” city. His language gives a licence to others.
But the changes in the US and the rest of Europe over the last 40 or 50 years mean that the licence is not unconditional. Most of the rest of Europe puts a brake on some of the worst instincts and there is a part of Italy which is indeed brava gente but there is still a long way to go before a black cabinet minister is “normal”.
A colleague from the University of Aberdeen, Andrea Teti picked me up on a few points;
Andrea wrote: "James, my evidence is only anecdotal and personal, but I have to say I disagree about (anti-immigrant) racism emerging only in the last decade or so. As we know, Italy has always been deeply divided, and there has always been plenty of north/south racism (racism, not 'dislike' or good-natured name-calling: stuff like "entry prohibited to dogs and 'terroni'" (derog. for southerners). This racism is not news: southern football teams, for example, would be regularly subjected to deeply racist abuse and their fans assaulted - Neapolitans were regularly greeted to chants like "terroni," "Benvenuti in Italia" or "Tornate in Africa" (to this day, I know well-educated, and otherwise progressive northeners who don't see how insulting the term is and use it as a 'descriptor'). Racism towards immigrants in the North drew on this very well-established register (the 'tune' Balotelli is exposed to has literally not changed since the 1980s, when it was directed at southerners - monkey chants, for example). But since Italy became a country of net immigration (late 1980s/early 1990s), that racism has turned onto new Italians as well: it's no coincidence this is the phase the Lega Nord emerges in. Personally, I consider this particularly shameful for Italy because racism *towards* Italians abroad was/is such a recent historical memory. We complained (rightly) about being treated like dirt abroad, only to then turn around and virtually in the same (historical) breath do the same - and worse – to immigrants, to new citizens. It is shameful and hypocritical, a deep stain on Italy. Ironically, last year's data makes Italy a country of net migration once again, with young Italians leaving in droves again for Europe and the Americas."
Andrea. I think we agree in principle that there has always been a racist undercurrent in Italy – and CNN cut some of my remarks about north on south racism and I have added a little to answer your criticism. The point that more people are leaving Italy than arriving is well taken. But overall, I fear that you (and I) might be being too optimistic.
If you are interested in these issues, look at The American University of Rome’s Center for the Study of Migration and Racism in Italy.