Kyenge has by now become a lightning rod for racist remarks bringing out the worst from the racists and sometimes forcing condemnation from people who otherwise might have remained silent. Yesterday’s remark came from a Northern League (LN) councillor and brought immediate condemnation from LN leaders as well as of course the rest of the political world. The incident serves as a good introduction to the observations that were put to me:
I saw you quoted last week in ESPN.com's exhaustive analysis on racism in Italian soccer. The whole racism scene in Italy deeply disturbs me. As you pointed out, so much has changed in the last 10 years. I left Rome in 2003 and have been trying to get back ever since. Now I'm wondering. Racism is spreading across Italy like typhoid. Even a Roman friend tried justifying the monkey sounds at Balotelli, saying they weren't making fun of his race. They were taunting him for being a jerk. Huh? Whatever happened to whistling? I told my friend he should ask Boateng if he thought they were only heckling Balotelli.John makes two important points. One is the distinction between being racist and being anti-immigrant and the other is the role of sport – the suggestion that it’s just a few extremist football fans who are racist.
I had a very disturbing discussion about it with my Italian instructor here in the US. Yes, I've been keeping up with my Italian, which isn't easy in the Rockies. Our Italian neighborhood consists of a guy named Guido living off Lincoln Street. My Italian instructor, is from Campania. She said making monkey sounds at giocatori isn't racist in "a soccer context." I said, "But racists think blacks look like monkeys." You know what she said?
"Many blacks do look like monkeys."
How the hell am I supposed to react to that? She said, "John, if you can't handle racism, don't move to Italy?" James, is it that bad now? I can't handle racism. It's my number one deal breaker. Will every one of my new friendships break down when we discuss race relations? Is the "N" word becoming part of the Italian vocabulary? I understand the immigration issue. Italians are upset that immigrants come in and take jobs. I get it. But how many are actually hating them for their skin color?
But how uncomfortable are attitudes about race now? I have a Roman instructor who teaches me via Skype. He says it isn't that bad. It's just the ultras who give the city a bad name. What say you?
On the first distinction, for the moment at any rate there is almost no contrast since there is a near perfect coincidence between “immigrant” and “other race” (whatever that might mean) so it’s an easy excuse to say “I’m not racist, I just don’t like immigrants coming in and taking our jobs”. Except that it is a non-excuse – how many Italian citizens would be happy picking fruit or olives for €40 a day? There are immigrants in skilled jobs, a minority and normally well-qualified but certainly there are not enough of them for some complaining.
In any case, the near-perfect coincidence is changing; we are close to having enough sometime immigrants who are Italian citizens and then there is no excuse. The abuse then becomes explicit “there can be no black Italians” (first heard of à propos of Leone Jacovacci, champion middle weight boxer in the ‘30s ) and now against Balotelli. It’s tough for racist football fans when Balotelli wins games for Italy but many of them manage…
But as the number of Italian citizens with funny sounding names or different features or skin colour grows, there will be tensions between “new” and “old” Italians but probably less than in other European countries. There’s a scene in the “Deerhunter”, I think, where a doctor examines a dying soldier and says by way of banal introduction “Ivanovsky? That’s a Russian name isn’t it?” “No”, growls the dying man, it’s an American name”. Though it’ll be a long time before someone can say that Abdullah or Ionescu are Italian names (even if the second most common surname in Milan is Hu – after Rossi – and three out of the top ten are Chinese. The quintessential Milanese name, Brambilla is 30th). Of course surnames betray origins and accents, especially in Italy betray the place of upbringing; both can change with passing generations; skin colour does not. But the big migrations to the northwest in the ‘50s did integrate those from the south and the northeast so that today their children and grandchildren are almost indistinguishable from the “old” Lombards or Piedmontese. The same is likely and I think is already happening with immigrants from further afield.
On the question of whether racist language is limited to the football (or basketball) pitch, the answer, sadly, has to be no as yesterday’s incident showed. There are parts of the north where explicitly racist talk is part of political rhetoric. The loudest and most famous is Giancarlo Gentilini, mayor and deputy mayor of Treviso from 1994 until last week. The fact that he was roundly defeated and the fact that a “new Italian” (of Moroccan origin) was elected as city councillor is obviously positive but as long as senior figures and role models are able to use thinly veiled racist language (Berlusconi’s reference to a “suntanned” Obama or Milan as an “African” city), it will be difficult to keep more violent language out of the stadiums and the bars.
But it is happening albeit slowly. The much reviled politically correct movement is first of all good manners but it also a normative process which does actually change the way people think and act. By not using the N word, John, people are reducing the dehumanising effect of language. The firm position taken by the likes of minister Kyenge and football player Boateng (who stopped a match in January after racist chants) and the increasing support from their white colleagues are slowly changing Italy. The reaction to yesterday’s offensive remark might even bring something postive.
In another incident, a month ago, a LN city councillor for Prato managed to be racist and homophobic on his Facebook page but instead of being praised, he was roundly upbraided and removed the post .
There are parts of Italy where language is extremely offensive and sounds much more like Britain and the US in the early ‘60s but it coexists with an Italy which either welcomes or at least accepts the new found multiculturalism. So, John, you can and should come back to Italy – there will be moments especially in the stadium when you’ll be angry but you will witness a developing society and be able to contribute to that change.
Comments either to me for posting on the blog and/or directly to John email@example.com
http://www.italiarazzismo.it has excellent press review
http://www.cronachediordinariorazzismo.org reports some of the more unpleasant goings on and proposes countermeasures.
and look at The American University of Rome’s Center for the Study of Migration and Racism in Italy