Recently, a story broke involving a black Italian minister of immigration and a senior senator representing the anti-immigration Northern League party. Senator Robert Calderoli had this to say of minister Cecile Kyenge: ‘I love animals... but when I see pictures of Kyenge, I cannot but think of – even if I’m not saying she is one – the features of an orangutan.’ He later issued an apology but, tellingly, didn’t resign.
I must confess that when I first read about this story, I had to re-read that sentence. Would somebody in a modern Western society – and not just anybody, but a senior politician – really publicly compare a government minister to a great ape? Sadly, such statements are far from uncommon in contemporary Italy, and Kyenge has been on the receiving end of a litany of racist abuse.
Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Cecile Kyenge emigrated to Italy in 1983. There, she qualified as an ophthalmologist and became a political activist, with a specific interest in promoting the rights of migrants in Italy. She was also the founder of an inter-cultural association designed to encourage greater co-operation and awareness of relations between Italy and the DRC.
Earlier this year, Kyenge, who belongs to the Democratic Party in Emilia-Romagna, was elected to the Italian Chamber of Deputies. In April, she was appointed minister for integration, in the process becoming the first black cabinet minister in Italy’s history.
Both during her time as a minister and also when she was an apolitical figure, she has been particularly vocal about the need for Italy to embrace a change in the legislation that grants citizenship to the children of immigrants born in Italy. Such children can apply for citizenship at 18 years old, but the process is extremely difficult to navigate and is mired in bureaucracy.
Her appointment has not been without controversy. Political parties on the right, such as the Northern League and the New Force Party, have been especially critical. She has been accused of encouraging illegal immigration to Italy and of being unsuitable to hold office on the basis of her race and gender.
The wider context is one in which Italy’s absorption of immigrant communities has generated widespread racism and xenophobia. Last year, about eight per cent of the country’s 60 million population was born outside Italy. And in the midst of a socio-economic downturn, it has been easy for right-wing political figures, including the disgraced former prime minister Silvo Berlusconi, to exploit fears of a changing Italian society.
While some saw Kyenge’s appointment as a positive step, others, such as the Northern League, have used it as an opportunity to warn about immigrants and their influx. This story of casual racist abuse is indicative of a broader problem, whereby a series of ‘internal others’ – including, at various times, black people, Roma and asylum seekers – are being blamed by right-wing political parties for a wide variety of social and economic ills affecting the country. Kyenge is just the tip of a large iceberg.
But this was never just a discursive matter – name calling, in other words. It has a visceral everyday quality that many attendees of football matches in Italy (and elsewhere) would recognise, as black football players are likened to monkeys and apes. The AC Milan football team actually left the field in support of one of its black members, Kevin Prince-Boateng, after he was abused by spectators. Incredibly, FIFA president Sepp Blatter criticised the decision to walk off and described racism in football as a ‘touchy subject’. The experiences of the well-known footballer Mario Balotelli (who is of Ghanaian parentage) reveal further evidence of the relationship between Italian football and racism.
There are, of course, other spaces in Italian public life that are inter-connected with the football pitch. On buses and trains, in schools and public spaces, it’s possible to detect a growing intolerance towards immigrant communities, especially those of African origin. Ignoring the fact that many of these immigrants now occupy a crucial role in Italy’s formal and informal economies, working in the poorly paid service sector (in the process taking on jobs that many Italians don’t want to do) they are often stereotyped as thieves, scroungers and opportunists.
The senator, as I noted, apologised for his remark, but only after being criticised by both the Italian president and prime minister. What is noteworthy is that some Italian political figures clearly didn’t regard the description of a black woman as an ‘orangutan’ to be racist. It was just a ‘joke’ apparently, but such ‘jokes’ often reveal a great deal about us, and those around us.