Since Italian PM Enrico Letta appointed Congolese-born Cecile Kyenge as Minister for Integration, the 49 year old eye doctor who moved to Italy in her teens, has studied here and holds Italian citizenship, has been a bull’s eye for discriminative, narrow-minded and racist comments about her origins. Having immigrated to Italy herself, for study purposes, she knows what it’s like to go to anew country in search of better opportunities (the same opportunities Italians saw in Argentina, Brazil and the U.S. for example, when they started immigrating there in the 19th century. Apparently, the New York Times apparently called the Sicilians “sneaky and descendants of bandits and assassins who have transported to this country the lawless passion, cut-throat practices, and oath bound societies.”) has backed legislation that would allow automatic citizenship for Italian-born children with immigrant parents, in a country where blood matters more than birth as a criterion for nationality.
The Washington Post published a translation of a comment by Roberto Calderoli (a member of Italy’s Senate from the anti-immigration Northern League party) made at the minister’s expense at a political rally: “I love animals — bears and wolves, as everyone knows — but when I see the pictures of Kyenge I cannot but think of, even if I’m not saying she is one, the features of an orangutan.”
And in another case of racial discrimination against the minister, Dolores Valandro, a local councilor for the regionalist Northern League party, wrote the following Facebook post, wishing rape on Kyenge: “Why doesn’t anyone rape her, that way she will understand the experience of the victim of this bloody crime? Shame!” The comment appeared alongside a photo of Kyenge and an article from an anti-immigrant website about an attempted rape by an African in Italy.
A cheap shot at populism?
Even more worrying is the fact that Italian law will likely let Valandro off the hook for her offence, in the sense that she probably won’t end up doing time (this brings a certain Mr. Berlusconi to mind). Reuters explained that “the public office ban does not come into effect until two appeals allowed by Italian law are exhausted, while the one-year-one-month sentence – towards the minimum for a crime that carries a penalty of between one and four years – means Valandro will not go to jail unless she re-offends.”
As Naomi O’Leary said in her article for Reuters “Pride in a set definition of tradition is neither excuse nor explanation.” But things are slowly changing in Italy. Walking down the street in the daytime I sometimes see groups of schoolkids on class trips and I’m happy to see that not only are they ethnically mixed but that all children are happily mixing together. Of course this is only a brief snapshot of real school life but it is an indication that this second generation of immigrants will help change perceptions and find common points.
Link to the Italian Ministry of Interior (English version)