The election of Italy’s first ever black government minister has brought the country face to face with its racist demons.
Cecile Kyenge, an eye surgeon who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, was made the new minister for integration this week when Italy finally cobbled together a government after weeks of backstabbing and brinkmanship in the wake of inconclusive elections in February.
Her appointment has exposed the deeply held prejudices of many Italians, who insist that a person with black or brown skin can ever be considered Italian, no matter how long they have lived in the country.
In the few days since she was sworn in on Sunday, the 48-year-old Ms. Kyenge, who moved to Italy three decades ago and is a member of the center-left Democratic Party, has been subjected to a shocking tirade of racist abuse. Much of it has circulated on the internet, with the minister called “a Congolese monkey” and a “Zulu” on websites, some of them with links to neo-Fascist groups.
The online vitriol by anonymous bigots was bad enough, but the race hate has been dealt out by prominent politicians too.
The most extreme remarks were made by Mario Borghezio, an Italian member of the European Parliament who has made incendiary remarks about immigrants in the past. In an interview with a radio station, Borghezio, from the anti-immigration Northern League, accused Kyenge of wanting to “impose her tribal traditions from the Congo” on Italy.
He was referring to the new minister’s support for a change to laws which currently restrict the children of immigrants from applying for Italian citizenship until they reach the age of 18. Borghezio said the inclusion of Kyenge in the new administration of prime minister Enrico Letta made it a “a bonga bonga government” – an off-color quip which referenced the so-called “bunga bunga” antics of ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi.
"You can't say the word 'nigger' in Italy, only think it," Borghezio added. "Pretty soon you won't even be able to say illegal immigrant – you'll have to say 'your excellence'.”
He said Kyenge would make “a great housekeeper, but not a government minister." He added: "Africans are different. They belong to an ethnicity much different from ours. They haven't produced great genes.”
The racism directed towards Kyenge is by no means an isolated incident. One of Italy’s most talented soccer players, Mario Balotelli, who was born in Sicily to Ghanaian parents, has endured years of racial abuse both on and off the pitch.
Hostile fans have made monkey noises at him during games and thrown bananas onto the pitch. At one match, fans once shouted: "There are no black Italians." In February he was called a “little black boy” by Paolo Berlusconi, the vice-president of AC Milan soccer club and the brother of Silvio Berlusconi.
"And now let's go and watch the little black boy of the family, the crazy head," Paolo Berlusconi said at a political meeting, after Balotelli transferred from Manchester City to become one of AC Milan’s star players.
The racial prejudices held by many Italians are in part a result of the country’s history, analysts say.
It had a short-lived overseas empire in North and East Africa and did not receive the waves of immigrants from former colonies that Britain, France, and the Netherlands did after the Second World War.
Immigrants from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East only began arriving in the 1990s, meaning that Italians have had much less time to get used to the idea of a multi-ethnic society. Since then, numbers have risen sharply – in 1990 foreigners made up around 2 percent of Italy’s population, a figure that has now jumped to more than 7 percent.
“Immigration came very late to Italy,” says Tana de Zulueta, a journalist, human rights campaigner, and former center-left MP. “It has taken a while for Italy to accept the fact that it used to be a country of emigration but is now a country that receives immigrants – that the tables have turned. The country hasn’t adjusted to the changed landscape in terms of the color of people’s faces. I think any black footballer will tell you that Italy is one of the worst countries in which to play, in terms of racial abuse.”
At a press conference on Friday, Kyenge generously insisted that Italy was not a racist nation, but conceded that it did lack a "consciousness of others." While Italy had “a well-rooted culture of hospitality...(it) does not see diversity as a resource," she said. She added: "I am black. This is important to say. I emphasize it proudly."
A revolt over the racism directed against Kyenge has already begun. An online petition has been launched calling for Borghezio, the MEP, to be expelled from the European Parliament or at least disciplined.
The petition has been organized by Articolo 21, a freedom of information advocacy group. By Friday it had been signed by nearly 63,000 people.
“Mario Borghezio’s remarks, as well as being gravely offensive towards the new minister, should also be considered an insult towards the European Parliament, of which he is a member,” the group said on its website.
The Italian government launched an investigation on Wednesday into the racial abuse towards Kyenge, one of seven women in the Italian cabinet. The inquiry was ordered by another foreign-born female member of the new government, Josefa Idem.
A former kayaking champion who won five Olympic medals, Ms. Idem was born in Germany, but like Kyenge married an Italian and took Italian citizenship.
Blonde-haired and blue-eyed, she has been subject to none of the abuse suffered by her Congolese-born Cabinet colleague. The steep rise in immigration to Italy in the last two decades means that society will have to change its attitudes to non-whites.
“If you look at a classroom now, you see that the demographic landscape has changed very rapidly,” says De Zulueta, the former MP. “Immigrant children consider themselves Italian and are considered Italian by the other kids. So maybe things will change for the better. But in the meantime, for the pathbreakers, it is very hard.”