I was called a Guinea this week. I never had that happen before. I was also told that when the Nazis marched into Italy Hitler told them to not defecate (that was not the word he used) in the streets because he wanted to starve the Italians. That one was a real head-scratcher for me. Were Germans in the habit of doing something like that in the streets? I also wondered if the Germans ever really marched into Italy as they did in France or Poland. I thought the two countries were allies. I guess you shouldn’t expect a bigot’s comments to make any sense.
There, I got that out of my system.
I would, however, like to go beyond this one incident to discuss anti-Italianism as well as bigotry in general. In my post of January 14, 2021, Italian-Americans & the Confederacy, I reminded Italian-Americans how we, like many minorities today, were the victims of discrimination. I regret writing that. I regret creating the impression that we had made it, that we were now accepted. We have climbed the ladder that all groups in the United States must climb to find acceptance in the rest of society, as the adage goes.
Yet, the old images persist, like a bad after taste in our collective mouths. Why is it that The Simpsons can portray Italians as Mafioso when less than 1% of Italians have been involved in organized crime? Why is it that The Family Guy can portray us with stereotypes that are over a hundred years old? Why are we portrayed as inarticulate when it is our culture that gave the world Dante and Boccaccio? Aren’t the Italians credited with perfecting the sonnet as a form of poetry?
Hate speech is defined as abusive or threatening language or writing that expresses prejudice against a particular group, especially on the basis of race, religion, or sexual orientation. Note that the definition says especially on the basis of race, religion, or sexual orientation. It does not say exclusively so. Isn’t Dago, Ginzo, Eye-talian, Garlic Eater, Goombah, Greaseball, Guido, Guinea, and WOP hate speech? Yet, the Ministry of Truth has not stricken these words from the language as other slurs have been stricken from acceptable vocabularies.
I recently worked with a woman who thought it hilarious to refer to me as Eye-talian. The first time I corrected her, she admitted she knew the correct pronunciation, but used the term to needle me. I smiled when she did it after that, thinking “Lady, you’re a real asshole.” She wasn’t a bigot, just ignorant. I guess if it bothered me, I could have gone to management or HR, but we all know the result of such an exercise. They would smile, patting her on the shoulder, gently telling her with a wink that I was sensitive. They would both think, it really wasn’t that bad. So, I just accepted it.
I guess that is part of the problem, isn’t it? I just accepted it. What is the old expression? We have met the enemy and he is us. Italian-Americans are in part responsible for the continuation of Italian-American stereotypes, at times we even revel in them. A major part of Italian-American culture is strength, projecting an image of being impervious to hurt or insult. We would not dignify such comments by being insulted. You want to be an ignoramus, go for it; you don’t bother me. You’re not important enough to hurt me.
What is more important than how other people see us is how we see ourselves. At times we revel in these stereotypes. How many Italian-Americans defend the Mafia? How many see Tony Soprano as a hero, as a role model? If you watch the series with an unbiased eye, you would see that he is a terrible person, but he is not seen that way by many Italian-Americans. Unfortunately, this transfers over into real life with Italian-Americans praising John Gotti, making excuses why it is morally acceptable to enter into a life of crime. All of this contributes to the Italian-American being seen as criminal.
If we wish to end anti-Italian bigotry, we must first change our behavior. We must first stop propagating the myths. Italians and Italian-Americans are a great people who have contributed greatly to the advancement of civilization. Let’s emulate truly great Italians while shunning those who would drag us down. We must also cease to tolerate the funny comments, the insults that are justified as being nothing more than jokes. They aren’t jokes. They are insults that dimmish our culture and relegate Italians and Italian-Americans as something other.
I understand that many of my Italian-American friends and family will say that I am making a big deal out of nothing. So, some jerk mouthed off to you. What’s wrong Billy Boy, you get your feeling hurt? Unfortunately, it is more than that. The little jokes, comments, and digs are just a veneer for a deeper prejudice, a hatred that putrefies and rots, poisoning the society in which we live. This leads to my final point.
If we wish to end anti-Italian bigotry, we must check our behavior and attitude towards others. We cannot expect our differences to be accepted if we do not accept the differences in others. As Italian-Americans – a group that was and, in some places, still is a target of bigotry – we cannot afford or accept such blindness. Our world is needlessly divided by race, religion, ethnicity, and sexuality in a time when we need to work together more than ever before. If we are to overcome the challenges the future holds, we must do so together, united.