Italy’s immigration debate turns racist, sexist and personal

September 6, 2013

Cecile Kyenge is a strong woman. She has to be. As Italy’s first black cabinet minister, she has had to endure a string of repeated racist, sexist and sexually violent insults, and she has answered them with a calm that has only made her critics bolder.

In the latest incident Wednesday, Italy’s far-right Forza Nuova party left three mannequins covered in fake blood at the front door of an administrative office in Rome. “Immigration is the genocide of peoples. Kyenge resign!” read fliers with the Forza Nuova symbol, scattered around the mannequins, according to a Reuters report. Forza Nuova posted pictures of the mannequins on Facebook, with comments explaining the gruesome stunt as a protest against Kyenge’s campaign to make it easier for immigrants to acquire Italian citizenship, the story said. It wasn’t the first time the party used the tactic.

Italian minister for integration Cecile Kyenge during a news conference in Rome in May 2013. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)
Italian minister for integration Cecile Kyenge during a news conference in Rome in May 2013. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)

Kyenge, 49, an eye doctor and Italian citizen married to an Italian, was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo; she moved to Italy when she was a teen to continue her studies. After being elected to office, she was named minister of integration by Prime Minister Enrico Letta this year. Kyenge, who can relate to the experience of those moving to Italy for opportunity, has favored legislation that would allow children born in Italy to immigrant parents to get automatic citizenship. That’s a change in a country where nationality is judged more on blood than birth.

Soon after her appointment, the insults started. Roberto Calderoli, a member of Italy’s Senate from the anti-immigration Northern League party, said 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.” According to media reports, he also said she should be a minister “in her own country.” Calderoli apologized only after criticism from the prime minister and other politicians, including some in his own party.

Mario Borghezio, a European parliament member, also from the Northern League, said Kyenge wanted to impose “tribal traditions” in Italy. Another Northern League politician, who said Kyenge should be raped so she could understand the victims of crimes committed by immigrants, received a suspended jail sentence and temporary ban from public office.

Kyenge, who has said she is proud to be black and Italian, said on Twitter that the attacks and threats are “not worthy of our Italy,” UPI.com reported. When someone threw bananas at her during a speech, she called it sad and a waste of food.

Italy’s speaker of the lower house Laura Boldrini has come to Kyenge’s defense and said she also receives insulting messages. “When a woman takes up public office, sexist aggression sets off against her, and whether simple gossip or violent … it always uses the same vocabulary of humiliation and submission,” Boldrini told La Repubblica newspaper.

Italy, whose beauty, history and art, as well as cuisine, are much admired, is also where former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi took a certain pride in the scandal surrounding his “bunga bunga” parties with young women. He was elected and reelected. The latest attacks on Kyenge are reminders of some old-fashioned aggression mixed with Old World traditions.

The immigration debate is common to other European countries as they struggle to accommodate immigrants who have settled and started families, and the legacy of their own histories of colonization.

In the New World across the Atlantic, the 14th Amendment of the Constitution confers citizenship on anyone born in the United States. Though some politicians have disagreed with that Constitutional interpretation, it hasn’t been effectively challenged.

It’s not that the benefit of an ethnically diverse America has always been a truth easily accepted by all Americans. Successive waves of immigrants, including those from Italy, have faced discrimination, and some of their descendants have in turn discriminated against newer arrivals, as well as the descendants of those brought to America against their will.

Today, immigration reform continues to be the subject of contentious debate in Congress and the country. But both Democrats and Republicans have expressed the need for action. Religious leaders, such as New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan in Friday’s New York Daily News, have called immigration reform a moral issue.

Immigrants and children of immigrants are represented in America’s companies, classrooms, factories and fields, taking care of homes and children — other people’s and their own.

Unlike in many European nations, where more citizens express a narrower definition of country and culture, America has been having a raucous debate on the effects of its global allure for a very long time.

Cecile Kyenge is paying the price that “firsts” often do. Still, if critics of her policies want others to listen, personal attacks and incitements to violent crime are certainly not how to go about it. Pride in a set definition of tradition is neither excuse nor explanation.

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.
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Michelle Bernard · September 6, 2013