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The racist attacks against Cécile Kyenge and the enduring myth of the ‘nice’ Italian

Italy still lacks a collective reflection on the way it has dealt with the relationship between race, gender, nation, identity and immigration, both in the present and in the past. But Cécile Kyenge, Italy's first black minister, is beginning to show the way.

‘Look a Negro!’ It was a passing sting. I attempted a smile. ‘Look! A Negro!’ Absolutely. I was beginning to enjoy myself. ‘Look a Negro!’ The circle was gradually getting smaller. I really enjoyed myself. ‘Maman, look, a Negro; I’m scared!’ Scared! Scared! Now they were beginning to be scared of me. I wanted to kill myself laughing, but laughter had become out of the question.

- Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks

Perhaps Cécile Kyenge, Italy's first black Minister, has come to think about these words in Black Skin, White Masks, where Fanon so intensely describes his lived experience with racism in France, revealing how it feels to be constantly reminded about your body and skin, your blackness and ethnic features.

We mention this because the several and escalating cases of racism, the personal attacks, offenses and verbal abuses that have been addressed to Cécile Kyenge since her appointment as cabinet minister of integration last April well demonstrate what Fanon means and lucidly explains in referring to the ‘epidermial racial schema’, over-determined from outside by white men, imprisoning the black body into racialising categories that deny him any other recognition and identity.

The colored prejudice of the white-gaze stares at blackness repeatedly, constantly reminding everyone concerned about an evident bodily outward manifestation, and categorizing it. No matter what, continues Fanon, ‘When they like me, they tell me my color has nothing to do with it. When they hate me, they add that it’s not because of my color. Either way I am a prisoner of a vicious circle’.

Since Cécile Kyenge’s appointment, both the Italian and international press have regularly reported outrageous racist speeches against her coming from influential members of the parliament, elected politicians, pundits and more and less known members of local constituencies and city councils. Notably, and somehow predictably, the most extreme reactions come from the populist radical right anti-immigration party, Lega Nord.

The number of reported racist speeches of Lega Nord politicians against Kyenge is by now so high, that it would be impossible to mention them all. The list includes present Senate vice-president Roberto Calderoli, who at a public meeting compared the black minister to an orang-utan. Former long-term (and now disgraced) Lega Nord party leader Umberto Bossi soon followed, saying Kyenge was ‘differently white’ and ‘also a woman’, while attempting to put together an apology to the minister. Lega Nord MEP Mario Borghezio, was the first to articulate racist remarks, calling Kyenge’s nomination ‘a shitty choice’ by a ‘bunga-bunga’ government, adding that she is ‘totally incompetent’ and has ‘the face of a housewife’.

For these remarks, Borghezio was permanently expelled from his political group in the European Parliament, perhaps ironically by Nigel Farage, leader of the populist anti-immigration British Independence Party (UKIP), who did so, declaring: ‘We are against all forms of racism and are happy that the matter has been resolved’. For once, there were proportional consequences to Borghezio’s words.

But for quite some time now, lesser known Lega Nord politicians in the regional and local branches of the party have been getting away with increasingly outrageous remarks, to the point there now seems to be a ‘who’s the most racist’ competition within the party.

Regular and equally outrageous are the comments posted on social media, such as a Facebook post by formerly unknown Dolores Valandro, a member of the Lega's Padua section, asking why nobody had raped Cécile Kyenge yet, so that she would finally understand what it means to be raped by a (black) immigrant. And it's not only the populist right that's been guilty of such statements, as a local councillor from SEL, a radical left party, deployed exactly the same discursive frames in a defence of Kyenge in which he invited her to “abandon Dolores Valandro to 20 negroes". This list of racist speeches is, sadly, still growing as we write.

Lega Nord politicians are undoubtedly the ‘bad guys’, as reported by the media. But it would be disingenuous to maintain that these examples come as a surprise. The Lega Nord politicians' reactions, together with the reluctance of the party leadership to condemn and take action against these obvious cases of racism, are unacceptable, but in a way also ‘foreseeable’, when considered in the context of this party history, ideology and political strategies.

Since the 1980s at least, the Lega Nord has frequently campaigned against immigration and immigrants by taking a clear cultural differentialist position, similar to other radical right-wing populist parties in Europe. The Lega Nord has often used slogans like ‘being masters in our own house’ (padroni a casa propria) and ads that for instance portray an American Indian with the following caption: ‘They were exposed to immigration and now they live in the reserves’.

Lega Nord is also the party which launched slogans and organized rallies against Islam and the construction of mosques. Who could forget Roberto Calderoli's past exploits, as when he wore a t-shirt with a print of a Mohammed cartoon during a live program on national television, triggering violent reactions in Libya (a former Italian colony), or his walks with a ‘pissing' pig on a lead to avoid the construction of a mosque, or his culinary experiments with pork soups for the same purpose?

In last February's parliamentary election, the Lega Nord only gathered 4 percent of the votes (compared to 8 percent in 2008), faring badly also in some of the party electoral bastions in Northern Italy, e.g. in Lombardia and Veneto. These poor results left the party in a critical position: the orphan of a charismatic leadership, outside government and fighting for survival.

This critical phase led to a radicalisation of the party's positions to maintain a political identity and remain a visible political actor in the mainstream media. The racist regurgitations against Kyenge are therefore not just about the minister, but an element inherent in the history and ideology of this party. These attacks also need to be interpreted as an informal part of the party's political strategy, which today attempts to revive racist and nativist discourses about national identity, belonging, cultural and religious incompatibilities.             

Italiani brava gente? 

Cécile Kyenge. Demotix/Marcello Fauci. All rights reserved.Cécile Kyenge. Demotix/Marcello Fauci. All rights reserved.

But the common story has it that Italians are a nice people, so we ought to omit the racist, yes, but also unrepresentative cracks by the bad guys of the Lega Nord. Indeed, most of the articles about Kyenge frame things that way. For example, the image of the good Italians has recently been endorsed by the widely reported story of asylum seekers from Syria and Egypt, initially rejected by Malta but then accepted by Italy. True; but the other side of the story is that Italian authorities also tried to push-back the migrants, ordering the cargo ship to sail back to Libya. 

Additionally, the frequent associations between Cécile Kyenge’s blackness and her gender attest to what bell hooks and other postcolonial feminist scholars consider as the tight intersection between racism and sexism. Question: what ghosts does a black woman with access to power evoke in a social and cultural context that has never come to terms with its own colonial past, and where women are struggling with a persistent patriarchal society? Answers given: She is unable to assume political power for gendered reasons (read: ‘she is a housewife’) or, precisely because in power she is disloyal to her gender and her national identity, and supportive of black ‘rapist’ males because of her ethnic background (read: ‘she deserves to be raped by them’).

The fact is that Italy still lacks a collective reflection on the way it has dealt with the relationship between race, gender, nation, identity and immigration, both in the present and in the past. The equivalence between white skin and Italian identity is still strong, as the Kyenge case demonstrates. The words of Cécile Kyenge at her first press conference were enlightening in this sense: replying to mainstream media which kept on calling her ‘the first colored minister’, she replied: ‘I am not colored, I am black and proud of being that', urging also that, ‘we need indeed to use the right words, starting from those we employ to define diversity, which is a resource’.

As the first black Italian to achieve a position of cabinet minister, her appointment was in itself a positive note, particularly in a cross-party government coalition with a very uncertain future and that has not had any alternative to offer to the continuation of draconian austerity politics.

In this regard, Kyenge was welcomed as a political signal of change, or at least as the occasion to reflect on decades of unsuccessful Italian immigration and integration policies. These have been characterized by a permanent state of emergency, by unreceptive asylum rules, restrictive labor migration policies and by a citizenship law among the toughest in Europe.

Cécile Kyenge gave us reason to hope for a change. In particular, she advocated a major reform in the Italian citizenship law, introducing the criteria of the ius soli, which would grant citizenship to foreign children born on Italian soil. This would end the many cases of people born, going to school, working and living their whole lives in Italy, while not enjoying the same civic rights as 'proper' Italians. Ius soli would also challenge the construction of blackness and diversity as exemptions from the imagined white ‘Italianess’.

So far, Kyenge's reforms have found very little support among the same parties which participate in her government coalition. Clearly, the integration minister cannot change the present Italian citizenship and immigration politics into alternative and better models of reception and integration all by herself. But something needs to be done, other than raising the voice at any new arrival of a boat with migrants on Italian shores, to remind Europe that Italy cannot be left alone to face what alarmist and apocalyptic voices routinely define as the ‘invasion’, the new ‘flood’ of immigrants into Europe. Particularly, the left wing parties that chose Cécile Kyenge as a new minister need to show more concrete engagement, or everything will be reduced to symbolic politics, including Cécile’s negritude.   

Concrete examples of solidarity and cooperation exist. Take, for example, the bathers in Pachino, a little village on the Sicilian East coast, who recently formed a human chain from beach to boat to help bring immigrants ashore. These represent a case where the ius vitae prevailed over the logics of politics. Notable cases also include that of fishermen who help immigrants at sea, in the numerous occurrences in the open waters outside Sicily and Calabria. There are also examples of collective activism taking place in local municipalities, which have developed their own models to promote inclusion and co-existence, despite the lack of support from the state. It happened in Riace, a fishing town in Calabria originally famous for its Greek bronze statues, but where families of refugees and asylum seekers are welcomed by the community and become an integral part of it.

The work done by NGOs, social centers, local organisations and volunteers also strongly testifies to the absenteeism of the Italian state and authorities when it comes to integration and fighting discrimination. Many networks of second generation migrant women shape and embody new approaches to citizenship, where gender and race become powerful tools to question patriarchal and racist cultural and societal structures, in solidarity with Italian women. Kyenge has well understood the importance of these local and regional realities - she recently launched a programmatic plan to counter discrimination and racism, where the experience gathered at the local level by the many associations, communities and groups is taken as a key point of departure.

We see it as a bottom-up strategy, signalling a new approach to these issues and which, perhaps, will concretely contribute, after all, to make all of us Italians for real a little ‘nicer’ people.

About the authors

Susi Meret is associate professor at the department of Culture and Global Studies, Aalborg University. She is affiliated with the COMID (Centre for the Studies of Migration and Diversity) research group.

Elisabetta Della Corte is senior researcher in sociology at the department of Sociology and Political Science, University of Calabria.

Maria Sangiuliano is PhD candidate in Cognitive and Educational Sciences at Università Ca’ Foscari Venezia, a gender expert and project manager working with several NGOs at the EU level.


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