ITALY — As the news is filled with reports of outrageous racist and sexist behavior toward Italy’s Minister of Integration Cecile Kyenge — including a recent incident where someone threw bananas at her at a political rally — I have been reflecting on how Italians have historically viewed people who have come here from other countries.
Italy did not have an ‘immigration problem’ before the 1980s. The word then was used by Italians to more commonly describe other Italians from out of town. Definitions changed in the 1990s when African immigrants started flowing in. Central and Eastern Europeans followed. The movement of Asians and Latin Americans, in the latter part of the decade, coincided with another wave of African immigrants.
In the 2001 census, foreign residents were asked to give reasons for their move. Among the 1,175,800 questioned, 46.6 per cent declared ‘work’ as the main reason followed by 36.5 per cent who said that the presence of family members was the principal reason. Some 3.1 per cent came to Italy to study and 13.8 per cent declared other motives.
Historically, immigrants have been valued here because they are often willing to take on jobs that native-born Italians detest. Work such as fruit-picking, old age caring and home help are almost exclusively carried out by immigrants. But resentment, catalyzed by the current economic crisis, is rife.
But by 2007, according to a 47-Nation Immigration Survey, 94% of Italians considered immigration to be a big problem in their country, including 64% who said it was a very big problem. Italy was the only country in Europe surveyed where a majority viewed the impact of immigrants negatively.
In 2010, authorities removed immigrants out of the southern Italian town of Rosarno after locals attacked them. The UK Guardian reported that a junior minister in the previous, center-left government, Luigi Manconi, commented, ironically, that Rosarno was now, “The only wholly white town in the world. Not even South African apartheid obtained such a result.” He asked: “Who now will pick the oranges?”
No Italian is at a loss when asked, ‘Where do you come from?’ A man who left his hometown decades ago will still maintain his links with it all his life. Thus, when Dr. Cecile Kyenge, Italy’s first black minister, is told to ‘Go back to Congo’- where she was born-some people do not see this Italian manner of speech as an insult.
But since she took office this April, as Italy’s Minister for Integration, Kyenge has endured more pointed and not-so-subtle racist and sexist slurs, mostly coming from members of the country’s anti-immigration Lega Nord (Northern League) party. She was once again on the receiving end of their callous comments when Vice President Roberto Calderoli told a rally, “I love animals – bears and wolves, as is known – but when I see the pictures of Kyenge I cannot but think of the features of an orangutan, even if I’m not saying she is one.”
Responding to the insults, Kyenge said, “I do not take Calderoli’s words as a personal insult but they sadden me because of the image they give of Italy.”
Generally, Italians do their best to avoid confrontation- ‘Adesso basta!’ (now stop) said Balotelli once. But, comparing your fellow country woman to an orangutan is unacceptable. These sentiments fuel disputes that cannot be quenched by compromise or appeasement-qualities that Italy is well known for.
Annex Achieng was born not so long ago -she’d like to believe-but it’s been decades. She started work as a journalist one day in 1997. Newsrooms then were smoking dens and typewriters were in vogue. The job was interesting but sometimes repetitive. To escape, temporarily, she applied for the much coveted Commonwealth Broadcasting Association (CBA) scholarship and won. She flew to England almost immediately via Israel. Annex recently moved to Italy where she writes and works as a foreign correspondent for the East African Newspaper. She considers herself rather fortunate to have met The Queen!