By Alexis Herr
Integration Minister Cecile Kyegne has endured racism, xenophobia, and sexism since becoming Italy’s first black cabinet member in April and in so doing has illuminated a negative current within Italian society often overlooked by the international press who more commonly focus on tourism and bunga-bunga parties. No society is free of racism, xenophobia, and sexism. Italy is no exception.
Kyegne’s assailants often compare the Integration Minister to a primate as a way of undermining her intelligence and worth. Roberto Calderoli, vice president of Italy’s Senate, made headlines when he spoke at a rally and stated, “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, while speaking at a rally in Cervia, an audience member threw bananas at Kyenge, narrowly missing the Integration Minister. To her credit, Kyegne pretended not to notice and later tweeted, “With so many people dying of hunger, wasting food like this is so sad.” The Integration Minister’s gender, as well as her ethnicity, has also been a target of negative remarks. A local League councilor, for example, was jailed and banned from holding public office after suggesting Kyenge should be raped to gain a better appreciation for crimes committed by immigrants.
Despite these examples and others, some Italians view these instances as isolated events and refuse to admit Italy has a problem. The Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, for example, published an article earlier this month entitled “Non siamo razzisti. Dimostriamolo” (“We are not Racists. We’ll Prove it”). The article points out examples of successful service provided to immigrants and claims that Italy’s multi-ethnic school system is an example of peaceful coexist. Personally, I do not consider either of these examples proof that Italy does not have a problem with xenophobia and in fact, if Italy didn’t it would be unique. I do support, however, the article’s call for a no tolerance policy for leaders such as Calderoli who nourish racist epithets and influence the public to do so too.