My Italian love affair has endured for almost half my life. From studying the language at school, to dating (too many) Italian men and then living and working in the country it would be fair to say that I’m a fully paid up member of the Italophile crew. Yet when people ask my ‘but aren’t’ they a bit racist’, I’m always stumped for words.
If you’d asked me ten years ago my answer would most likely have been ‘no’. Yes, some Italians were without a doubt ignorant and even prejudiced, but to define their stance as racism, on my part, would have been too extreme. Any population that all of a sudden comes into contact with foreigners is likely to have a reaction that’s based on fear, even more so Italians who, despite their history of great migrations, tend towards the insular.
Yet there has definitely been a shift in the mood surrounding immigration; it’s not just Bossi and his cronies ranting about immigration and the flood of foreigners taking over Italy. In May, Amnesty International said it was concerned about the growing “climate of discrimination” in the country, in particular towards increasing attacks on the Roma community. Last month Abdul Salam Guibre, an Italian citizen originally from Burkina Faso was beaten to death in Milan after allegedly stealing a packet of biscuits. The death of Guibre was preceded by an attack on an Angolan student in Genoa in August and another on a 15-year-old boy from Sri Lanka in Milan in July.
From the reports I see in the Italian papers the country is beginning to seem remarkably similar to Russia where immigrants are beaten and even killed on a far too regular basis simply due to the colour of their skin.
Give immigrants a kick on the arse
So it’s interesting to see Daniela Santanche, former journalist and speaker for Francesco Storace’s La Destra party, is today moaning in a Corriere article about accusations that she represents the side of politics that throws petrol on the flames of intolerance. This, after all, is the woman who said illegal immigrants should “chucked out and given a kick on the arse”.
Last night in a special edition of the programme Anno Zero entitled “Italians, bad people”, politicians and journalists discussed the growing tide of violence against immigrants that is currently gripping the country.
Santanche claims in the Corriere article that during a break in filming, “two blacks insulted me with unjustifiable violence”. I’d never be one to excuse violence of any kind towards any human being but if these two unnamed “blacks” did insult her (Corriere appears to have made no to attempt to stand up Santanche’s assertions) maybe she now knows how the tens of thousands of immigrants who are verbally abused by Italians on a daily basis feel.
It is a deeply unsettling experience to see swastikas and neo-nazi crosses daubed on walls in pretty much every city centre. The last time I was in Bologna with a white French guy I was dating at the time a group of skin-headed neo-fascists tried to hand him a leaflet calling for the expulsion of immigrants from the country. Worse while on holiday near lake Garda a few years ago I had a young kid on a school trip point his fingers at me while imitating the sound of bullets flying towards my head.
Enduring love for il Duce
Still I try to question rather than to judge. For my final year dissertation I took the time to explore something that had always puzzled me about the Italian experience – the long held celebration of Benito Mussolini – whose face popped up all too frequently on lighters, tea towels, calendars and even bottles of wine in respectable restaurants.
I travelled to Predappio, the birthplace of Il Duce and place of pilgrimage for neo-fascist sympathisers from all over Italy. Walking into his tomb, accompanied by a British author who had penned about the fascist leader and coming face to face with a caped black shirt standing the guard of honour was a heart-stopping experiences (although the look on his face was probably more horrified than the look on mine).
I say all this to explain that I’m not some bleeding-heart lefty who’s quick to label Italians as racist but the current situation is disturbing and it would be remiss of me to downplay a trend in behaviour that is undeniably racist.
Maybe it’s the increasingly tense financial situation that’s making Italians turn in a violent manner against outsiders. I remember when I was living in Milan back in 2005, the rise in Chinese manufacturing and the ensuing pressure it placed upon the traditional Italian artisan was a constant topic of fear mongering in the media. Pejorative jokes commoplace, the Chinese were regarded as untrustworthy, almost inhuman; all in all it was like being in California in the 19th century.
I do love Italy. I feel incredibly privileged to have been given an insight into a deeply fascinating and complex country. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t been welcomed into the lives and homes of some of the most beautiful and loving people I have ever met. So why do I now have second thoughts about travelling to Italy on my own?