The events of the last few weeks have proved, beyond doubt, that Italy has a serious problem with racism. Bananas have been thrown at Cécile Kyenge, Italy’s first black government minister. A (female) councillor for the Northern League has said she should be raped. A Northern League senator has likened her to an orangutan. Last week the AC Milan footballer, Kevin Constant, walked off the pitch after a barrage of abuse, just as Kevin-Prince Boateng did earlier this year.
The Northern League is, admittedly, a minority party, usually gaining only between five and 10% of the national vote. And other political parties have expressed solidarity with Kyenge. But anyone who has listened to Italian political debate, or worse, stood in an Italian football stadium, knows that Italy simply isn’t a tolerant place. This is a country where a recent prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, thought it hilarious to joke that Obama had a decent suntan. The racism isn’t restricted to right or left, old or young, rural or urban: it is noticeable everywhere.
The reasons are pretty obvious. As Italians will constantly tell you, theirs is an incredibly provincial country. Campanilismo – the attachment to one’s local belltower – is one of the reasons the place is so charming: people often stay put, they’re rooted rather than rootless. All over the country, even in a tiny village, you’ll see caput mundi graffitied on walls, suggesting that this sleepy place is considered the capital of the world. The downside is that outsiders are treated as aliens, if not enemies.
Through the centuries Italy has been, not a colonial power, but a colony, a plaything of the superpowers. So with the exception of small parts of Somalia, no other country speaks Italian. Unlike France, Britain, Portugal or Spain, there’s no large diaspora of Italian speakers who can immediately integrate into the “mother country”, knowing already its literature and history. So the peninsula remains insular, an astonishingly monocultural, monoconfessional place.
There are other reasons for the racism: the legacy of fascism and the continuing adulation of Benito Mussolini; the tangible insecurity, even sense of inferiority, of many Italians; widespread economic misery for at least the last decade; and a political class that is absurdly ignorant. But perhaps the most interesting explanation for racism comes from an Italian mate of mine who’s an armchair anthropologist. He maintains that in a country that is famously lawless, in which rules are often wilfully ignored, everyone is oddly very conformist in other ways: all wearing the same fashionable colour, or eating the same food at the same festivals. Italy simply isn’t a country of eccentricity, or a place where difference or diversity are accepted, let alone cherished. I once tried to experiment by putting an unorthodox topping on my pizza and was harangued by irate mates as if I’d committed a terrible crime.
The conundrum of Italian racism is that Italy, ever a country of contradictions, is also a place of remarkable generosity and hospitality. I know it’s easy for a white Englishman to say that, but centuries of visitors have noted Italians’ esterofilia, their love of all things foreign. The dignity and intelligence of Kyenge in the face of recent attacks may yet remind Italians that they have a reputation for loving, rather than fearing, those from afar.
Source – The Guardian – Tobias Jones’s Italian novel, Death of a Showgirl, has just been published by Faber