“Time to Turn the Tide of Italian Racism”

If you listen to the right-wing groups in Italy, —or anywhere in Europe for that matter,  who vehemently oppose immigration , what you will really hear is that they are opposed to anyone who is not like them.  More accurately, those that do not look like them.   Immigration is rarely mentioned when  those entering the country are white.

The so-called “Emergency” of immigration most notably during the interestingly named “Arab Spring” was , really, no “emergency,” at all, but rather Italy’s failure to put in place any kind of measures that would be able to handle those coming to their shores.  How is Italian society culturally interpreting immigration?  We know that the hegemonic structures in place call the shots by naming things as they see fit. And those names are not good.  So in no time at all, waves of (not unexpected ) immigration become ” a human tsunami” and those vulnerable are “clandestino’s”  (yes, by all means, let us keep them in the shadows) and those selling their wares become the “vu cumpra,”  not simply men and women trying to survive by their wits like so many others.  This his how the discourse amongst the “gente” shape reality.  Difference creates fear, doesn’t it?  And where do Italians get the   idea that they are  and have been some mono-cultural entity?  So much so that the culture must be “protected”against the modern “African” invader?  I have yet to get a satisfactory answer to that question.

Is this a "human tsunami"?

Is this a “human tsunami”?

When my Italian ancestors came from Italy they were bowed but not bloody. They worked hard despite the insults , degradation and exclusionary practices that were so firm in place, they could live no where but the margins of the town in which I still live.   Italians and African-Americans lived side by side , most notably in the south of the town that I grew up in .   They banded together, cared for one another , looked out for one another because the enemy was a common one:  anyone who was against them.  And if anyone thinks that this was easy because they still were able to make a living and raise their families, think again.  There was no shortage of misery.   In an attempt to blend they stifled their language—-the most plausible reason I know of why so many Italian-Americans do not speak Italian, and why my grandparents  and so many others spoke of the “old” country—they  tried, some quite reluctantly,  to put Italy behind them. Their children would scorn the old , traditional ways, because the pressure to assimilate, to be a “real” American was very real.  It would not be until one or two generations later where Italian-Americans could feel comfortable with their ethnicity, with their dual mindset.  “Home”, the United States, though, was a  place where one often felt they were not really accepted.

Italian comic

People begin to act in ways that are expected of them.  So of course, Italians banded together.  No one but your family and your paesani could understand who you really were, what was in your heart.  I read a long time ago that when Mario Puzo received an advance for his infamously successful novel “The Godfather” his mother,  unable to conceive of such a large amount cautioned him: “Don’t tell nobody.” Italians were not supposed to make that kind of money. They were not capable.   That kind of money not only put them on equal footing with “real” Americans, it did something worse: it put them above some of them.

Puzo's Godfather

The media in Italy is an amazing machine—and often one of great distortion.  My friend Ramzi has expressed great irritation over the fact that I often post on those who have made the perilous journey to Italian shores in rickety little boats, often being rewarded with death for their efforts.  He once told me that these voyages , horrific as they are, are such as small percentage of immigration.   “The Italian media at work,” he said to me one day.  Then:  “Don’t be fooled.”  And , in fact, he is right.  I know a fair amount of immigrants in Sicily.  None of them are treated as outsiders.  All of them have jobs.  None of them have encountered any kind of racism.  All of them are white.  And so , the  media is not immune from an inherent or expected kind of prejudice—in fact, they keep it alive.  It is sensational.  It feeds the fear.  It sells the papers.  Fear is  influential.  It perhaps pleases certain politicians.


The media helps to construct the identity or the perception of the identity of the invaders, the enemies, by implying that any number of social ills (and Italy has many) are caused not by any inherent flaw in the national character, but instead those who have come uninvited and unwelcome.  What has happened to the Italian imagination?  Can they not imagine an new society, a multicultural place in which diversity strengthens society?  Italians are not even reproducing themselves, they need the newcomers!  They have never been non-multiethnic–why pretend they can be now?  The prevailing opinion is that immigrants created a vortex of fear—that impression can actually “create” the kind of violence and crime Italians fear. How?  Because despite evidence to the contrary, any crime, no matter how small , will be reported widely in the media, complete with photos and details if the crime was committed by an immigrant—most notably those from Africa.  Crimes committed by ordinary Italians will often omit names.  The exception to this is, perhaps, crimes committed by the Mafia—from the highest capo to the most insignificant foot soldier.   Clandestini come out of the shadows only to be shamed, it seems.

There is so much work to do, but how to change a culture?  How to change perception? The growing racism in Italy is not going to go away any time soon because of fear, because of increased immigration that shows no sign of letting up, because of the fairy tale of a mono-ethnic society, which is being invaded by the unwanted , who should really just “go back to where they came from.”   Can we not see how rich immigration has the potential to make Italian society?  White, Christian and European is on its way out in Italy, there can be no denying the fact.  It is time to embrace a new culture, which should start with institutions and education.

YEAH it does.

YEAH it does.

The only thing that should be kept in the shadows is the old way of thinking and the old way of being:  racist and narrow-minded.  Time to change the atmosphere of aggression and potential violence into one of acceptance , change and education.  To do otherwise is just to stave off the inevitable and compound misery. And God knows, the world  already has more than its share.

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2 thoughts on ““Time to Turn the Tide of Italian Racism”

  1. Interesting article Michelle, as always!
    I do agree racism is a terribly widespread problem in Italy, though personally I don’t percieve it exactly the same way you do.
    Whilst the Italian media and politicians (mainly of the Lega Nord) complain shockingly and very personally about immigrants (and don’t forget their racism is equaly directed against Sicilians), the real problem they have is with the fact that people of African origin are entering mainstream society at last.
    The brunt of this flood of racism is directed against top sportsmen and women, and latterly against Italy’s first female black cabinet minister, Cecile Kyenge. It seems as if many Italians can tolerate foreigners in their country, till they see one who is richer or more successful than themselves.

  2. Exactly! Just like my point about Mario Puzo—his mother was smart—she knew the envy he might receive for suddenly making it big, even though, by that time, there were so many prominent Italian-Americans, most notably, of course, in the entertainment business. It had been her experiences that once an Italian stepped out of his role as uneducated subservient, envy and racism were not far behind. One point though, Veronica: all perceptions aside, Italian racism is well documented, both now and throughout Italy’s history. It has always been there, though it’s virulence is very targeted these days and fed, by the media and others , quite well.

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