Today on a walk I saw a billboard asking “are you a victim of racism? if so, call this number toll-free”. Also on the advertisement the faces of two women: one black and one white. Each of them had half their face painted another color. The black woman had half her face painted white, and vice versa. The advertisement struck me as at once silly and dishonest. Prejudice in Italy has little to do with skin color.
First, a few distinctions. I believe there is a huge difference between a person who is culturally Italian but ethnically (if that’s the right word) non-Italian and a person who is both culturally and ethnically non-Italian (i.e. recent immigrants). Without statistics I can’t really make an accurate judgement, but from my own observations there is not a large group of the former group. I’ve seen a few Asian- or African-looking kids and adults who seem thoroughly Italian, but in this respect Italy is a lot like Nebraska or Vermont–seeing an assimilated non Italian is a bit rare. Indeed, to my American eyes, Italy is incredibly homogenous.
But this homogeneity is largely an illusion–it’s what you see if you focus on skin color. What the world sees as ‘Italy’ is only a recent establishment. It has been just under 100 years since Italy became one nation. Before that, there were distinct provinces, with distinct cultures and languages. On TV and radio and in schools Standard Italian is spoken, but when Italians speak to one another they mostly speak in dialect. Which dialect you speak depends on your town, so that the towns of Prato and Lucca (about 40 kms apart) have distinct dialects. Without Standard Italian, Venetians and Florentines would have a hard time communicating, and Venetians and Neapolitans might find it impossible. I know a girl from southern Italy whose father, and the other older inhabitants of her hometown, speak the local dialect, which is in fact a dialect of Greek. The language is a holdover from when the town was a Greek settlement, a time so long ago that my American brain gets headaches just thinking about it.
This is all to say that there is a lot of prejudice and what might be called bigotry flying around this country, and none of it has to do with skin color or ‘race’. Because I’m American I’m supposed to be boorish, loud, and lacking in good taste (I assure you, I have excellent taste). The French are arrogant, the Germans don’t know how to smile and are always on time. Southern Italians are ignorant and lacking in class or culture. Florentines are uppity. Romans are rude. You shouldn’t trust Neapolitans, or Albanians.
There is a lot of strife between cultures–Italy has an enormous immigration problem. Desperate Albanians have flooded the gates, in their escape from genocide. North Africans and Pakistanis are also here in great numbers, seeking better opportunities. If Italy offers better economic possibilities to these immigrants, it is awful to imagine what it must be like in their home countries. To be honest, Italians’ distrust and hostility to these groups makes sense to me. They speak different languages, eat different foods, have vastly different societal norms and customs. Furthermore, in Italy’s struggling economy, these immigrants are in a difficult position when they are holding jobs that an Italian might have. It seems very natural that such distinct groups are wary of each other.
Another cultural difference that is very relevant is how immigrants treat women. The feminist movement had a profound effect on Italian culture. In many ways, women’s place in society, in public life anyway, is comparable to that in America. There is a lot of complaint about mamma’s boys, and wives being burdened with more housework than their husbands. This report establishes that in terms of workload (paid and non-paid) shared between the sexes, Italy might be the greatest country on earth if you’re a guy. Yet the vast majority of immigrants to Italy come from truly patriarchal societies. Where women are controlled beyond what we in the West really understand. Honor killings have started to make news in Italy. See my post below, The Ol’ Dead Arm to read more about my sense of violence against women here.
My point here it to say that culture, rather than race, is relevant when we talk about discrimination. Skin color is not a factor in the kinds of cultural clashes taking place in Italy. I think that billboard was motivated by what Americans call white guilt, not a honest reaction to actual social issues. I also wonder if this ‘white guilt’ and victimology language is not an Anglo import.