Long life

How can you be racist and Italian? Quite easily, it seems

17 August 2013

9:00 AM

17 August 2013

9:00 AM

The Italian shop assistant accused by Oprah Winfrey of showing racial prejudice towards her in a shop in Zurich has hotly denied the charge, but with a curious twist. ‘I am Italian,’ she said in an interview with a Swiss magazine. ‘Why should I discriminate against anybody because of their origin?’ She seemed to be suggesting that no Italian could ever possibly harbour any racial prejudice against anyone. It is a claim that seems especially implausible at the moment when Italy’s first-ever black cabinet minister, the Congolese-born doctor Cecile Kyenge, has been reeling from a number of crude racist attacks.

Kyenge, Italy’s recently appointed Integration Minister, has been pelted with bananas and subjected to death threats. She has also been described by a right-wing senator, Roberto Calderoli, as looking like an orangutan; while another member of Calderoli’s party, the anti-immigration Northern League, has been expelled from it for saying that Kyenge ought to be raped so that she might ‘understand what it felt like to be the victim of such an atrocious crime’ (a crime, it is implied, that is a speciality of Africans).

If nothing else, the coarseness of these comments shows how aloof Italy is from the consensus in most developed countries, even among racist groups, about the need for restraint and good manners in discussing race. (Silvio Berlusconi earlier set the tone by congratulating Barack Obama on his ‘tan’.) But it also suggests a nation fresh to the experience of racial antagonism, which is the case with Italy. Immigration to Italy didn’t take off until the end of the 1970s. Until then Italy had been best known as a source of migrants to other countries, it being estimated that some 24 million Italians emigrated abroad between 1876 and 1976. But in 2011 there were more than 4.5 million foreign nationals registered as resident in Italy — mainly Asians, Africans and east Europeans — as against 1.5 million only eight years earlier.

When I was a correspondent in Rome in the early 1970s, you hardly ever saw a black or Asian person on the street (except for Japanese tourists queuing outside Gucci), which explains why you also saw no signs of racial prejudice. The main antagonisms Italians showed were towards each other. Being fiercely provincial and proud of their own regions, they tended to look down on other Italians, especially those to the south of them, Thus, the Milanese called the Florentines ‘Africans’, as did the Florentines the Romans, the Romans the Neapolitans, and the Neapolitans the Sicilians (after whom the people to the south actually were Africans).

By contrast, Italians tended to look up to foreigners from northern Europe, whom they regarded in certain respects as more advanced than themselves. It has only been the recent flood of unassimilated immigrants from the south and the east, coming at a time of growing economic hardship and fierce competition for jobs, that has caused an upsurge of racial prejudice for the first time since the later years of Mussolini’s dictatorship. Black footballers have also been subject to crowd abuse at soccer matches.

So the Italian shop assistant’s belief in unfailing Italian benevolence towards other races seems to belong to another era. But was she herself being racist towards Oprah Winfrey? Winfrey, in Zurich to attend Tina Turner’s wedding last month, dropped into the smart Trois Pommes boutique to look at handbags and asked to see one high up on a shelf behind glass. According to her, the assistant said, ‘No, it’s too expensive. No, no, no…that one will cost too much. You won’t be able to afford that one.’ This, said Oprah, a billionairess who can afford anything, was racist.

The assistant, sheltering behind a pseudonym and refusing to be photographed, fearful of reprisals for her alleged condescension towards the celebrated television host, told a different story. ‘I was showing her these Jennifer Aniston bags,’ she said, ‘and I was explaining to her that they came in various sizes and materials. She looked at a shelf behind me. Very high up there was a handbag in crocodile skin costing 28,400 euros. I told her that it was exactly the same model as the one I was holding, only much more expensive. And I said I was very happy to show her other kinds of bag.’

The shop and the Swiss Tourist Board have apologised to Oprah Winfrey, whose version of what happened has been almost universally accepted in the media. But the shop assistant’s story has to me the ring of truth, while Oprah’s sounds as if it’s from someone whose real grievance is not about racial discrimination but about not being recognised for her fame and wealth. I’m glad to say that the assistant, after three years’ successfully selling overpriced handbags to the international jet set, has been confirmed in her job. But she is wounded. ‘She is so powerful; I am only a shop girl,’ she said. ‘I don’t understand why she made such a thing of it on television.’ Who, one wonders, is the victim here?

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  • “…suggesting that no Italian could ever possibly harbour any racial prejudice against anyone…”

    No. Her remark must be understood as her saying that she was a ‘foreigner’ and therefore would not be insulting someone because of her being a ‘foreigner’ as well. The fact that she ignored completely the colour of Winfrey as something noteworthy should be considered: she considered only the ‘foreignness’ of Winfrey.

    The comments on the Lega Nord rabble-rousing politicians must be considered alongside similar comments coming from the mouths of right-wing politicians in the UK – notably those from the BNP and Ukip (need I remind you of “bongo-bongo land?). The Lega have a mere 3% support in Italy currently; considerably less support that the British political parties I mentions earlier.

    Silvio Berlusconi, the disgraced right-wing political leader, must also be seen in the context of his comments bing only for the sake of the people that were actually keeping his political domination on track – again, the Lega Nord, who at the time he made the comments were enjoying almost 8% support in Italy – again, less than the similarly xenophobic Ukip and BNP parties in the UK.

    The underlying motive in this article is clearly to encourage British nationalism and to make the comments from the UK MEP, Bloom, more acceptable to British readers.

    Racist, homophobic and sexist comments are on the rise throughout the world currently as we seem, en masse, to be driving ourselves back into the 16th century, whilst blaming every other nation for the fact of our own actions.

    In short, we really are all in this together and must strive to get our own houses in order before we start condemning others for our own misunderstanding of them.

    • Lewis Thomas

      This “I’m also a foreigner” thing is exactly what I read in it. I wonder how Eck feels about writing a completely irrelevent article. Nice effort though Alex.

      • samuelfoto

        the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.

        • samuelfoto

          Lots of the confusion we have around the concept expressed is based on how it is defined. So first let’s agree what racism is before we say if a behavior is racist or not.

          A second important defense that, if you really examine it with a cold heart, …..,makes very little sense. is to justify a behavior by saying that “OTHER’S DO IT TOO” implying that it is OK. Recently a young Italian man was brutally murdered in the UK. If the same thing also happens in Africa, it is not acceptable for an African Minister to justify it by saying, “well it also happened in the UK and in America not even 200 ears ago, they hanged Italians as they did with Black people. This is again where we have to remember the words of Martin Luther King Jr., ‘INJUSTICE FOR ONE IS INJUSTICE FOR ALL’.

          The enemy should never be a people or a class of people. The enemy MUST always be the behavior. Wherever RACISM is founded it must be rooted out. The 92% of Italy that does not agree with the Lega Nord must understand that the behavior of the LEGA, puts EVERY Italian at risk when they are outside Italy. And it is logical. On the TV News when you see behavior of the Lega Nord discribed in the ghettos of East Los Angeles, the South Bronx, South London and Ghana. Those people are not aware that the Lega Nord is a small party with a specific and unpopular agenda. The message that remains in their minds is Racist Italians. That message then fuels retaliation. SO what I am trying to demonstrate, is that’ as Einstein pointed out in his E= MC(2)… in racist behavior in Italy does not start and end in Italy, but may have a backlash somewhere else around the world.

          So this is the point I am trying to make, the immigrant in Italy is the first level victim here, but then the Italian becomes the second level victim, somewhere in the world when some foolish person retaliates. I hope I am making myself clear.

  • Treebrain

    Do not single out Italy when discussing the “consensus in most developed countries” with regard to immigration, Australia and Ireland are also notorious for their rejection of outsiders.

    Here is a radical thought Alexander Chancellor, perhaps ordinary people in ‘developed countries’, the ones who have to live alongside the immigrants, compete with them not only for jobs but also access to social housing, medical/dental care and education and the like, are, dare I say it, not actually in favour of ‘multiculturalism and mass immigration, legal or illegal?

    Even Angela Merkel has been obliged to state that multiculturalsim is dead!

    Perhaps ordinary, indigenous people in Italy or in other developed nations actually reject the ‘cultural values’ of these immigrants such as homophobia, multiple wives, female (and male) genital mutilation, meat obtained by ritual slaughter that causes the animals to die a slow and agonising death, forced marriages, ‘honour’ killings and the like?

    As for claiming the threat to rape a female minister in Italy who happened to be black may involve racism, you appear to be somewhat behind the times.

    Sexual violence against women is rarely based on race but rather power, as recent experiences in the UK involving Mary Beard and several female politicians bare witness?

    • StephanieJCW

      “Australia and Ireland are also notorious for their rejection of outsiders.”

      The same Australia where approximately 1 in 4 of the populace was born outside of Australia?

      • Treebrain

        Yes indeed, and look how the incomers treated the Aboriginal people!

        They were considered to be ‘outside’ the European society and were treated accordingly!

  • TowerOfBabble

    Sounds like Oprah didn’t understand what the shop assistant was saying. Well, you know how it is with these foreigners trying to speak English…

    • samuelfoto

      Of course Oprah did not understand. That is always the excuse. The other excuse is, stavo scherzando, I was joking. You people really need to all take race relations classes because the level of racism in Italy is pathetic.

      • Mark Cooper

        ‘you people’ sounds a bit racist to me.

    • samuelfoto

      You see when you deal with very foolish and ignorant racism constantly especially in institutions like the legal system and you come face to face with Court Consultants asking people over and over if they are sure my father was an engineer, or being singled out at the airport one time too many, or having your mother practically stripped searched at the airport, etc., and you are faced with the fact that it is not really because of real racism but extreme ignorance, you begin, also very wrongfully, painting the nation with a large brush. But we are talking about a country where the ex premiere Belusconi referred to Obama as a nice tanned boy. In a recent divorce sentence, the Judge wrote that I do not have the social and cultural extraction to be a father. So hen the persons occupying the highest oles in a society behave this way, what can you expect of the average citizens?

  • Chris Holmes

    yes, oprah did seem more miffed not to have been recognised and bowed n scraped to than racism which she unconvincingly plugged away at. v good observation.

  • Barb Searle

    God what an attitude – wouldn’t it be ironic if the country became Muslim… LOL God’s judgement!

    • Chloe A. Carl

      Sicily was ruled by Moors and Arabs for centuries. I don’t get your ‘joke’.

      • kennsy

        Hello Chloe,
        Let me ask you some few questions
        1.why are most italians not sitting or going close to black people in busses,trains,trams or other public transport systems?
        2.how many educated blacks have you seen as doctors,lawyers,bankers,engineers etc,and yet these blacks are more educated than all italians..
        3.How many interracial marriages have you witnessed between blacks and italians?
        4.why are mosy italians allways looking at black people that are well dressed,in cars and looking good etc….(is just Because they hate to see blacks living a good life in italy).
        Read carefully,,,all the afor asked questions are the opposite in other europen countries,hence,ITALY is the worst place on earth and a danger zone for black people….Take it or leave it
        UN EXPOSE COWARDS………..!!!!!!!!

  • David Lindsay

    It is hardly about Cécile Kyenge, a Francophone immigrant, at all.

    To affluent Northern Italians, “Garibaldi did not unite Italy, he partitioned Africa”, and “Naples is the only Arab city without a European quarter”.

    Sicilians, by contrast, talk about “the Continent” just as we do, and do so in what for some reason has to be referred to as a particularly impenetrable dialect rather than as a distinct language.

    In fact, that language is, like so much else on their island, a living monument to their identity as basically Latins, but Latins who are also in large part Greeks, Turks, Arabs, Jews, all sorts.

    Meanwhile, have you ever seen any people from those areas only incorporated into Spain in 1492 or not much earlier? How Roman or how Gothic did they look
    to you?

    The Moors and the Jews were there for a very long time, and what goes on went on, Islam or no Islam, Judaism or no Judaism, and Catholicism or no Catholicism.

    Paella is a variant on a dish found all the way to once-Mughal India and thence around the world, even to my native Saint Helena, where a rice-based, yellowed staple is called “plow”, to rhyme with “snow”.

    Numerous fiesta practices are clearly North African. All those very common “ez” names (Gomez, Fernandez, Gonzalez, Martinez, etc.) are really Jewish.

    And so on, and on, and on.

    • Simone Radice

      First, Ancient Romans were an admixture between Sabines,Sannites, Latins and Etruscans, and all of them were ITALICS, I.E, belonging to Italic Tribes, natives…Turks? There were NO Turkey ad we intend it today back at the times…Anatolians, Licians, Lydians, Troyans were more or less Greeks, I.E, indoeuropeans….Jews? Roman Jews (and then Venetians, Milanese or whatever) were, are and still be Jews, I.E people that mix together and a part from living in another country don’t melt with natives…It has always been like that….Moors stayed in sicily for less than 200 years! Vikings of all sorts, Langobards, Franks, Vandals, Goths stayed (and remained) in Italy for much much more! And then came the modern Germans, French, Spanish…
      For instance do you know than almost 40/50% of italian names and family names are of GERMAN Descent (of all sorts…)…..One of the most common southern italian Surnames is GIUFFRE’, with its variants (Gioffrè, Giuffrida, Giuffridi,and many others)….It was probably brought by spaniards, but its meaning is the same as GEODEFRIED, Geoffrey, Jeffrey!!! And then there is another one MANFREDI, which comes form MANFRIDUS. I.E. MANFRED, I.E FREE MAN in old German!


      • David Lindsay

        Hopelessly confused.

    • Linguist

      Actually, the -ez ending in Spanish names, and similarly Portuguese names ending with -es, are from older versions of that language meaning “son of” an older version of “hijo” son. Similarly you have in Swedish: Anderson (son of Anders): Peterson (son of Peter). It has nothing to do with being Jewish.

  • camjan2

    She is a shop assistant.
    The Oprah lady earns in a day in excess of what the shop assistant earns in a year.
    Fame and money cannot buy civility and manners.

    • samuelfoto

      Oprah has been a billionare for more than 20 years. She earned 770 million last year. Oprah earns about $1,400 a second, so you can be sure that it takes Oprah 2 seconds to earn what the ignorant Italian girl earns in a month. Cecile Kyenge, Balotelli, these are the high profile Black people in Italy. Imagine what it is like for low profile Black people in Italy.

      • Chloe A. Carl

        Italian mentality? And what is that?

    • samuelfoto

      So are you suggesting that it is Oprah’s fault and that she did not have manners or was not civil? It takes very little of either of those characteristics to ask to see an item on display in a store.

  • noticeyourlife

    . . perhaps the shop assistant ment that she as an Italian in an other country was an ‘immigrant’ and therefor in no position to point at another .

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    “Cecile Kyenge, Italy’s Integration Minister, has been pelted with bananas and subjected to death threats”
    Does she play football?

    • samuelfoto

      No she does not play football in public. She wears Black skin in public and she is promoting the concept that children born on Italian soil should automatically have Italian citizenship. What a novel concept. Alternatively, these children are foreigners in the country of their parents origin and foreigners in the country of their birth.

      Cecile Kyenge’s crime is that of asking for equal rights. In Italy you are expected to suffer in silence. This goes also for Italians. You must not rock the boat. It is ok to complain softly as doing so is the national pastime.

  • samuelfoto

    Italy is a racist country.

    The racism is very unsophisticated and in your face. It is a very foolish form
    of racism and Italians do not even realize that they are racists. Frequently I tell people in Italy occupying roles that in other countries require a minimal amount of
    sophistication, that their comment or their behavior in another country, would
    be considered racism. Here Italians feel they have a license to say and do
    anything to you, and you better not react and please do not talk about your

    Italians fail to realize that the people they are abusing live all over the world and it is only a question of time before Italians outside Italy start suffering the backlash for their behavior in Italy with foreigners.

    Italians travel the world. They are everywhere and when they are outside Italy, they are the minority. They are the weak party. Let’s see if they figure this out before,
    the brothers and cousins of the people the mal-treat in Italy does.

    • Chloe A. Carl

      Are you including Sicily in your little rabble rousing?

      • samuelfoto

        Dear Chloe: It is not rabble rousing – it is just stating an observation based on my several personal first hand experience(s). My first hand experience with ALL the Sicilians I know is VERY VERY VERY positive. Sicilians, though looked down on by MANY Italians in the north, are very very kind people. They are very generous and in all my dealing I have had with people from Sicily, they remind me of people from the Caribbean and many parts of Africa, very open and extremely hospitable. Remember i am only talking based on my personal experiences. In America, Martin Luther King was considered a rabble rouser and so was Mandella in SOuth Africa, just because they demanded their Human Rights. I demand my Human Rights because I have children. If I accept that Human Rights are not respected for all people, then there is a risk that my Children’s and your children’s Rights will not be respected. Martin Luther King Jr said, “Injustice for one is injustice for all”.


  • samuelfoto

    It is very typical behavior that once a person is confronted for Racism, that they change he story to improve their position. Racism likes dark places away from the light of day. I am not taking a position either for Oprah or for the shop assistant but just pointing out a very subtle reaction of the ‘correspondent in Rome.’

    ‘I was showing her these Jennifer Aniston bags,’ she said, ‘and I was explaining to her that they came in various sizes and materials. She looked at a shelf behind me. Very high up there was a handbag in crocodile skin costing 28,400 euros. I told her that it was exactly the same model as the one I was holding, only much more expensive. And I said I was very happy to show her other kinds of bag.’ If someone works in a LUXURY ENVIRONMENT, it quickly becomes obvious that just because a potential buyer test drove the blue Rolls but then decides to test drive the white Rolls, it is not acceptable to say ‘it is just like the blue one but just a different color’

    “Oprah’s sounds as if it’s from someone whose real grievance is not about racial discrimination but about not being recognised for her fame and wealth.” I’m glad to say that the assistant, after three years’ successfully selling overpriced handbags to the international jet set, has been confirmed in her job. But she is wounded. ‘She is so powerful; I am only a shop girl,’ she said. ‘I don’t understand why she made such a thing of it on television.’ Who, one wonders, is the victim here?

    CORRESPONDENT IN ROME: I have done celebrity photography for years and it is my experience that the only celebrities who are upset that they were not recognized are the very MARGINAL CELEBRITIES. In fact, Pantelleria attracts many celebrity vacationers like Sting, Madonna and Giorgio Armani, who has a home there, because the people from Pantelleria ignore them and treat them like NORMAL PEOPLE. But you should consider why you find it so easy to disbelieve Oprah’s version of the story, a famous journalist and talk show host who earns BILLIONS, partially because of her ‘CREDIBILITY’ and believe the version of the SHOP GIRL, where you evidence of her credibility is ‘her success selling over priced handbags’? You do not need credibility to sell luxury items. You need credibility to be a Talk Show Host dealing with REAL ISSUES.

  • Claudio Frollo

    I have met some truly smart and intelligent Italians, unfortunately plenty of them also seemed to be really racist and self centered.
    There was this guy from southern Italy that did looks like a middle eastern which I did not mind at all since I’m not a racist myself.
    He though, displayed an air of superiority all over us non Italian.
    He did on two occasions make comments about my skin color(I’m also European) and my likely ancestry which rather than offensive I found pitiful.
    There was this French girl living there too, very lovely but she was originally from Algeria, this guy, on occasions would make some subtle remarks such as not quite a French French…
    Well, met others who were also very devious as well as racist, like taking sides quickly if they were insecure of themselves at that moment.
    The fact that they come from the Romans, and they participated in the 2nd World War might have inflated their egos, in reality in my humble opinion very few of them descend from the Romans, and it’s easy to see them as they are much more open minded and smarter.
    I dislike generalizing but this is my view in this subject.
    I like Italian language and can speak it well.