Why the racist, sexist backlash against Cecile Kyenge is a good thing

In April, Cecile Kyenge was appointed minister of integration by Italy’s prime minister, Enrico Letta. She is the first black person to serve in Italy’s cabinet, and has lived in the country for the past 30 years after moving to Italy to study medicine at the age of 18. An ophthalmologist by trade, she has been active in integration issues since 2002. She founded DAWA, an organization to promote awareness and cooperation between Africa and Italy, and was elected to the Modena City Council in 2004.

Many people have been extremely vocal about their displeasure at Italy’s first black minister. Kyenge has been compared by Senator Roberto Calderoli to an orangutan, who also said she should be a minister “in her own country” (she’s an Italian citizen and has been in Italy most of her life), has had bananas thrown at her, and has even had a politician, Dolores Valandro of the Northern League, advocate for her rape.  In response to the victimization of an Italian woman,  Valandro posted on her Facebook page “Why doesn’t someone rape her so she can understand what victims of atrocious crimes feel?”  Because every time someone is a victim of rape, apparently the correct response is to go out and rape an Italian minister.

While Valandro was expelled from the party, Calderoli still holds office, and the public attacks haven’t stopped. And you know what? I think the backlash against Kyenge is a good thing.

I think the backlash against Kyenge is a good thing because it prompted representatives from 17 European Union countries to meet in Rome September to condemn the attacks. Joëlle Milquet, Belgium’s deputy prime minister, called the meeting, not just because of the remarks against Kyenge, but in support of all those who are victimized by racism in Europe: “What has happened to the Italian minister is unacceptable,” she said, “but we’re talking about a widespread phenomenon. It was necessary to mobilise in order to affirm the value of diversity and integration.”

I think the backlash against Kyenge is a good thing, because in the same way that racist whites resisted America’s civil rights movement, and racist whites in South Africa resisted the anti-apartheid movement, the Italian resistance against immigrant-friendly policies mean that members of society have noticed that Italy is become more inclusive. It’s a good thing that in response to Calderoni’s “orangutan” remark, journalist Daniele Passanante started a petition asking him to resign, and that nearly 200,000 people signed.

Of course, misogyny, xenophobia, and racism are not good.  However, the backlash against Kyenge’s appointment means that immigrants and racial and ethnic minorities are no longer an invisible underclass. African immigrants to Italy now comprise about 1,000,000 people, and there are hundreds of thousands of ethnic minorities, such as those who have immigrated from Asia and Latin America as well. These statistics cannot be ignored, and the vitriol hurled at Kyenge means that Italians are aware that their country is changing.

Italy has a history of public racism, most famously visible in football in through racist chants and the throwing of bananas at black players. Mario Balotelli has expressed unwillingness to tolerate it, and Ghanaian player Kevin Prince Boateng walked off the field during what should have been a friendly match between Milan and Pro Patria after racist chants were directed towards him.

While the number of immigrants has increased steadily in the last 30 years, Italy has had a centuries-long relationship with Africa. Italy set up shop in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia as far back as the 19th century, but Lucia Ghebreghiorges, an Italian of Ethiopian descent, says that Italy is still unprepared for immigration, seeing their former colonial subjects as enemies. Given the relationship that Italy has with Africa, however, it’s unrealistic to expect Africans’ presence in Italy to diminish.

Migration has existed as long as human beings have, and isn’t likely to stop any time soon, even with the best efforts of “conservative” politicians. Despite the racism that has been levelled at Kyenge and other non-whites, there have also been shows of inclusivity, such as the Italian beachgoers who made a human chain to save shipwrecked Syrians in August.  Italy has also shown concern for the hundreds of Eritrean and Somali dead and missing, as well as the survivors of the tragic October 3rd shipwreck in Lampedusa, calling for a national day of mourning.

A study by Mark Gradstein and Maurice Schiff shows that labour and residential discrimination, limits on political participation, and restricting access to public services often result in “extremely unequal distribution of resources across ethnic groups,” and that this inequality often leads to physical violence. If the discrimination faced by immigrant populations isn’t addressed, Italy could be facing riots like the ones in France, England, and Sweden. If a country like Sweden, which is known for acceptance and peace, can still have race- and class-based riots, then a country where racism is openly tolerated is at even risk for civil unrest.

While I don’t think Gradstein and Schiff are condoning physical violence, the correlation is impossible to ignore. Social change is always challenging. Immigration is a difficult process for all involved. While these difficulties do not justify racist and misogynist speech, these comments show just how crucial Kyenge’s appointment was. The comments make it clear that it is necessary for Italy to have a wider discussion about how best to accommodate Italy’s newcomers.  The obstacles that face immigrants in Italy today may indicate that the country is on its way to a more tolerant future.



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