In New Job, Italy’s First Black Minister Confronts Culture of Casual Racism

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TONY GENTILE / REUTERS

Italian Minister for Integration Cecile Kyenge during a news conference in Rome on May 3, 2013

Cecile Kyenge, Italy’s first black government minister, proposes a law that would give citizenship to the children of immigrants if they are born on Italian soil. Under the current legislation, Italian nationality is passed on most commonly by blood, meaning the grandchildren of an Italian who has never set foot in the country has more rights to citizenship than someone who was born in Rome to foreign parents.

But even if Kyenge, 48, is unable to push a single piece of legislation through Parliament, she will already have secured an important legacy. Her April 27 appointment as Minister for Integration in Italy’s newly formed government has kicked off a much-needed discussion on race and immigration in a country that still struggles to come to terms with its rapid transformation.

That discussion has taken some brutal turns. “Kyenge wants to impose her tribal traditions from the Congo,” said Mario Borghezio, a member of the European Parliament for Italy’s anti-immigration Northern League in an April 30 radio interview. “She seems like a great housekeeper,” he added. “But not a government minister.”

Even in Italy, a country all too often permeated by casual bigotry, Borghezio’s words were a step too far. An online petition calling for him to be sanctioned or evicted from his post has gathered more than 75,000 signatures, and the Northern League’s leader, Roberto Maroni, a former Interior Minister, has come under pressure to denounce him. Maroni himself reacted with hostility to Kyenge, voicing opposition to her proposal on citizenship.

(MORE: All the Old, Familiar Faces)

Meanwhile, the Italian government has launched an investigation into neo-fascist websites, on which Kyenge has been denigrated as a “Congolese monkey” and “the black anti-Italian.” In a press conference on May 3, Kyenge, an eye surgeon living in Modena, denounced the attacks as representative of a minority opinion and called for the public at large to respond. “I’m black and I’m proud of it,” she said. “It’s important to underline that.”

Born in the Congo, Kyenge moved to Italy in the 1980s to study medicine in Rome, before obtaining a position in a hospital in Modena. She met her husband, a native Italian with whom she has two children, after he underwent surgery in her department. Kyenge was at the forefront of a dramatic demographic shift in Italy. As recently as 1991, just 1 in 100 residents held a foreign passport. Today, it’s 1 out of every 12. For every five children delivered in the country, one is born to a foreign parent. Unlike Kyenge, most of Italy’s recent arrivals are poor and employed in jobs that Italians refuse: construction workers, maids, caregivers for the elderly. The foreign-born middle class has yet to establish itself, while the first generation of immigrant children born and educated in the country is just moving into the workforce.

While Italians don’t like to think of their country as racist, the experience of non-white Italians and resident immigrants illustrates a culture that has found it hard to welcome increasing diversity. “How many times have I been told, ‘You’re so beautiful, you don’t even seem truly black?'” says Medhin Paolos, 23, an Italian of Eritrean descent and a member of Rete G2, a group campaigning for a reform of Italy’s citizenship laws. “Where I come from, this is not a compliment.”

A study by the University of Messina and the anti-discrimination group ARCI found that a substantial majority of the children of immigrants reported being insulted on the streets, talked down to by teachers, watched with suspicion in shops, turned away from restaurants and treated rudely by immigration officials. In 2002, the Italian government passed a law requiring all non-Italian residents to have their fingerprints taken, as part of the process for applying for residency.

“There’s the idea that black people stink,” says Jean Zongo, 28, the son of African immigrants. There was a period when he was younger, Zongo was afraid to take the bus at night, for fear of encountering racial violence. More than once, he has climbed aboard to hear a group of young men grunting like monkeys. It’s a charmless display of racism that has migrated from Italy’s soccer stadiums — where Mario Balotelli, the Italian football star of Ghanaian heritage, has famously faced chants of “There’s no such thing as a black Italian” — to youth culture at large. Zongo has traveled to France, Spain and England. Only in his own country, he says, is he made to feel second class. “[Discrimination] is present in just about every aspect of life, in every circumstance,” he says.

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Kyenge’s appointment gives cause for hope that things will get better for Italy’s immigrant population. But according to Ferruccio Pastore, director of the Turin-based International and European Forum for Migration Research, Kyenge won’t have an easy ride as she tries to create legislation to speed that process. “The real proof will be whether she will be backed politically,” says Pastore. “Will she be able to do something? Or will she be kept there as a kind of token?”

Kyenge, who served as a spokesperson for a group calling for immigrant rights, is new to national politics; she was elected to Parliament in February. Her Ministry doesn’t have a budget, and she’s part of a government that’s divided and whose priority will be to fix Italy’s battered economy. “[Her appointment] is a positive symbol,” says Mohamed Tailmoun, the spokesperson for Rete G2. “But we’re not looking for symbolic acts, but concrete ones. What’s important is that she’s able to obtain a majority in Parliament. And this unfortunately doesn’t depend on the Minister, but on the courage of the whole Italian political class.” Appearing on an Italian talk show on May 5, Kyenge said her proposal will be ready “in the coming weeks.” She’ll soon get a chance to discover what her fellow parliamentarians are made of.

MORE: A Shock Upset in British Elections Signals Europe-Wide Confusion

71 comments
garcia55
garcia55

Egregio Signor Viscardus,

Cosa fa il suo comento per diminuire ciò appena detto? Prima di tutto, che centra l’America con ciò che dicono i vostri legislatori? Poi, il suo esempio prende delle nazionalità e dice che un americano – che tra l'altro negli stati uniti è capito a non fare riferimento a nessuna razza – rifiuta ad aiutare un Italiana. C'era bisogno di includere nel suo esempio delle razze (un americano bianco e un'italiana di origine Africane o vice versa) se voleva dire che questo "tempio della democrazia" -- gli Stati Uniti d'America -- è un ipocrita. 

Dopo che Lei chiarifichi questo, magari la capiremo. 

BarbatiusViscardus
BarbatiusViscardus

TEMPIO DELLA DEMOCRAZIA CHIAMATA AMERICA?

IL PRESIDENTE DELLA CAMERA LAURA BOLDRINI e Onorevole Ministra Cécile Kyenge
hanno qualificati gli ITALIANI Razzisti
Onorevoli, ci dite cosa ne pensate del TEMPIO DELLA DEMOCRAZIA CHIAMATA AMERICA?
Il Sociale Il donatore di midollo rifiuta di aiutarla, la bimba di 11 anni muore Giovedì, 8 agosto 2013 - 13:04:00

"Non è americana, il mio midollo non glielo do". Ha risposto così, un donatore statunitense alla richiesta di aiuto dei genitori della piccola Giada Lunardon, 11 anni di Vallonara (provincia di Vicenza). La bimba, malata di leucemia, cercava da tempo qualcuno che avesse midollo osseo compatibile. Quando sembrava avercela fatta e la storia sembrava andare verso il lieto fine ecco il rifiuto. Giada è morta.

Come spiega il Gazzettino, Giada è deceduta fa all'ospedale San Bassiano gettando nella disperazione i genitori Cinzia e Secondo con la sorellina Gioia. Ma anche la frazione di Vallonara si è stretta attorno alla provata famigliola che ha sperato sino all’ultimo nel miracolo.

Successivamente, grazie alla tenacia della famiglia Lunardon, fu trovato un donatore dalla Germania ma purtroppo fu troppo tardi. Dalla fine dell'anno scorso infatti si attendeva che Giada si riprendesse per effettuare il trapianto, in quanto troppo debilitata. Purtroppo, continua il quotidiano veneto, però Giada non si è più ripresa. I funerali, con la salma proveniente dal San Bassiano, si svolgeranno oggi giovedì 8 agosto alle 17 nella chiesa di Vallonara.

Paolo F.B.V.

ShaunaTate
ShaunaTate

The day you allow racists to dictate Domestic Policy is the day your country turns into Hitler ran Germany.

Maurizio
Maurizio

I am italian, born and raised here, and I have to say that this article is full of lies. In Italy, it's native italians who are scared to get on a bus late at night, because they will easily be harassed by dangerous immigrants. There is no such thing as "racial attacks" in this country, except some exceptional cases that happen just anywhere, and that are very rare, while everyday's news are filled of attacks that immigrants do onto natives. Every-single-day. Minister Kyenge has got a very low grade of appreciation in the country not because she is black, but because of two main reasons, one being that in a moment of deep crisis, when there is no jobs, high unemployment, activities shutting off and people committing suicide out of desperation, she is worrying only and uniquely about the alleged rights of the immigrants (never ever mentioning their duties, by the way), and the other being that she wants to introduce this "ius soli" that nobody really wants. We don't need more immigrants, we have already too many and no resources to help them, we don't even have resources for ourselves anymore!

lavendula
lavendula

As an Italian American, whose family faced discrimination from white people in the USA (a society with a well documented history of both systemic and incidental discrimination against Italian immigrants, often for being "dark" skinned) it is very upsetting to see Italians acting so stupidly and repeating the same horrors on immigrants in their country that were perpetuated on Italians who used to used to form a significant percent of the poor immigrant masses. I realize that immigration is relatively new to Italy (and I have witnessed it first hand over the past 20 years there), but that doesn't excuse unbridled ignorance. Che vergogna!  

PoliticallyIncorrect
PoliticallyIncorrect

What utter garbage!

When will Africa allow whites to be Prime Minister?

Rhodesia was paradise!  Italy will become Zimbabwe.

SuhailShafi
SuhailShafi

I hope Italians realize the crass bigotry the appointment of this minister has unleashed makes their country look bad in the world arena. I think Cecile Kyenge is a heroine and I hope in the future we will see many more people of immigrant background in high positions of power.

LeopoldoBenacchio
LeopoldoBenacchio

Dear Time, I'm quite disturbed by this article. Please consider that in Italy, a country with well known shortcomings and vertues, can live from years and years 14 (fourteen please repeat with me fourteen) minorities , from croatian to french to albanian, to greeks to etc. frequently protected with special law. Moreover consider that we have special laws also for illegal immigrant. FOr example thay can have hospital free of charge without problems with the immigration offices, free of charge drugs and other.

Please consider that before to write "politically" correct articles one could also study the matter on discussion. Time is a too much important magazine to leave Stephen Faris to write so inaccurate stuff 

sssksadk
sssksadk

I do not understand why US media are so sensitive on racism in Europe. It is true that most Europeans want a "European" Europe. But this is not racism. If Americans are so sensitive then why do you build fences at the mexican border?

JackHamm
JackHamm

Truly disgusting to read of this sordid mess.  Imagine a country with as great a cultural heritage as Italy being composed of such vulgar attitudes as this garden patch racism?   It is particularly galling for me, as an American citizen, when one remembers the mobs of Italian immigrants  which flooded our shores in the past hundred and fifty years or so. Wow.  Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.  Madame Kyenge, I wish you unparalleled success and go and prove that you are capable of representing the citizens of Italy.  And yes, stay proud of who you are, everyone else is already taken, and as a famous wit phrased it, "to love ones self is the beginning of a life-long romance.

MBumbel
MBumbel

Why put a NON italian person in such a position of power in the gorvernment? A person that is alien in terms of Italian culture, heritage and blood? Out with her!

AkuaFrancy
AkuaFrancy

My God how much inaccuracy once again... 1st gen immigrants came here at the end of the 80's with diplomas and study titles not compatible with the Italian  education system and the main purpose of most of them was to work hard, make money and go back home in some few years. It is quite common to find 1st gen immigrants who STILL can barely speak the language (because they refused to learn it,being spoken only here) howevwe some are business owners, some are doctors, nurses ( don't you call them middle class??) home owners AND italian citizens. Some of 2nd gen children are already succesfully working or are completing their education. We have 2nd gen nurses, social workers, teachers (still few), nurses, IT technicians, security guards,graphic designers, photographers. Why keep on pointing fingers at Italy and at its "slow process of integration" comparing it to countries whose immigration history is of decades if not centuries?

Ronnie_Matrix
Ronnie_Matrix

@TIME @TIMEWorld She faces an uphill battle in a racist country,neo fascists dominant Italian societies. She needs alot of support.Good luck

alphaboude1980
alphaboude1980

@maggsnaidu soyez un peu réaliste vous ne voyer pas le reste du monde?restez la à dormir sa vient tout doucement

alphaboude1980
alphaboude1980

@maggsnaidu il iront jusqu'à être maire dans ta commune espèce d'ignorant voilà vous n'avancez plus a cause de ce comportement d'animal la

BryanCorts
BryanCorts

O god here we go again with some foreigner trying to ruin a happy culture for the rest of us. Go back where you came from maggots!

will_tmsx
will_tmsx

Racism does exist in Italy greatly however many of the Italians share African roots. Surprisingly many of those are now racist toward Africans which does correlate to my earlier post about the subject and the Medici family.

Kondi_Mphigs
Kondi_Mphigs

@S_Maps The article is quite insightful, the world still has a long way to go regarding racism. She's a brave & inspirational women as well

AkuaFrancy
AkuaFrancy

Il bue che dice cornuto all'asino.... smh! Italian Americans are actually among the most racist people I have ever met in my life and made me ashamed of being Italian!  I will NEVER EVER forget the comments received  from them, both in english AND some Italian dialects  ( guess what, I am Italian born, raised and currently living there....) while walking in Brooklyn with my black& Puerto Rican boyfriend......ignorance and hatred at its peak.

mittengirl
mittengirl

@@haploguy Europe is a nation built on immigration and multiculturalism.So 'Europe for Europeans 'does actually not make any sense. Sorry your comment is not actually valid.

sssksadk
sssksadk

Are there many Mexicans or native Americans in the US cabinet?

ShaunaTate
ShaunaTate

" A European Europe" is not rasict? You have got to be kidding, aren't you?

In the end, none of this race bull matters. We're all humans first. I'm sure if everyone was White, then youll be advocating hair, or eye color next. When will it ever end?

Life is too short to focus on skin color.

JepJep92
JepJep92

@MBumbel She is an Italian citizen. She has lived in Italy for 30 years. That qualifies as being Italian. There are heaps of people who claim to be Italian and have never lived there. 

PoliticallyIncorrect
PoliticallyIncorrect

So much baseless, meaningless, brain-dead, indoctrination and propaganda in one post.

will_tmsx
will_tmsx

@Kondi_Mphigs @S_Maps The world does not have a long way to go. If you are follow the lines of heredity and history you will see that unfortunately racism wins out in the long run. The fragile mind of the racist does not get better, it wins the so called war on race by killing off, or breeding out which is what my earlier post spoke of. There is not long way to go unless a faction wants to live completely separate from White society.

lavendula
lavendula

@AkuaFrancy

Among the most racist people? Wow, you sound like a very thoughtful person. And you have proven my point: people who don't know their history are bound to repeat it. I don't doubt for a minute that there are racist Italian Americans. I've certainly met my share. But their existence doesn't disprove what is basic fact: Italians were immigrants in the USA and on that basis alone we have a common experience with those who are immigrants in Italy. Secondly, Italian immigrants (and I am mainly talking about those who came in the 1890-1924 period of mass immigration, not those who came in the 1960s and '70s) were the victims of incredible amounts of discrimination at the hands of WHITE Americans. Both casual discrimination and systemic discrimination. This is basic fact and once again something where we share a common experience with immigrants in Italy. So, at the end of the day, my point is basically this: Italians (as well as Italian Americans) should learn their history as emigrants (and immigrants) so as not to do unto others as was done to them. Educate yourself.  


sssksadk
sssksadk

Europe is NOT a nation AND was NOT built on immigration OR multiculturalism. Europe consists of defferent nations/countries that have different cultures with some common points.

In fact the only common points of European culture are:

1. CHRISTIAN RELIGION

2. ROMAN LAWS

3. GREEK PHILOSOPHY

And now the "globalization culture" attacks all these unifying factors in the name of "multiculturalism"

 

WhiteDawn1488
WhiteDawn1488

@mittengirl @haploguy Oh silly us, of course Europe was built by anyone besides Europeans - Heck! Even this computer was not invented by Europeans!

Sarcasm aside, you're full of s***.

AkuaFrancy
AkuaFrancy

@mittengirl  Last time I checked Europe was a CONTINENT not a nation.. And most of the populations of each single country are LOCAL, not immigrated from anywhere, at least not in the past few decades nor even centuries. Get your fact straight, maybe you are talking about USA when you say "built on immigration and multicultiralism"? Just asking.......

PoliticallyIncorrect
PoliticallyIncorrect

@ShaunaTate - When will blacks allow whites to run Africa?

Blacks run a nation it becomes Zimbabwe.

Whites run a nation it becomes Rhodesia.

sssksadk
sssksadk

It is not racist because the skin colour has nothing to do.

It is a matter of culture, it is a matter of common history, customs and traditions. It is a matter of way of life. And Italy like any European country has the right to defend its own way of life.

USA is pressing hard the European countries to accept foreigners as members of the cabinet, or muslim immigrants just because they want to destroy Europe in the name of globalization.

In the same agenda the supporters of globalization are attacking the European societies supporting "Gay parades" and imprison the young French who protest against "homosexual marriage". 

AkuaFrancy
AkuaFrancy

She is Italian BY MARRYING AN ITALIAN, not because of the lenght of her stay here...

PoliticallyIncorrect
PoliticallyIncorrect

Blacks run a nation it becomes Zimbabwe.

Whites run a nation it becomes Rhodesia
.

lavendula
lavendula

@sssksadk 

I'm reflecting on the contents of this article -- a minister of African descent, citizenship to the Italian-born children of immigrants in Italy, etc. -- whereas you seem to be unloading your own fears and anxieties. This article is about an immigrant who is a doctor and who now has a government position and yet some people can't accept her. Are you suggesting she is a terrorist? Actually, she sounds like precisely the immigrant you want: a highly educated person.


Look, if I had the time and inclination, I could take every one of your fears here in 2013 and match them word-for-word with the fears of white Americans in 1913 when it came to Italian immigrants. You do NOT seem to understand how those immigrants were perceived at that time nor what they experienced. Do you know that prior to 9/11, the deadliest terrorist incident in New York City was carried out by Italian immigrants? It happened on 9/16/20, a bombing on Wall Street that killed 38 people and injured 143 and the damage is still visible on the JP Morgan Chase building. There were numerous terrorist bombings by Italian immigrants over the first two decades of the 20th century in NYC. Back then, the average American (much like you, the average European?) would have said, these are what Italians do, they are dangerous, they don't respect our laws, they are unfit for citizenship, this are why we need to stop them from coming here, etc. 

But, now, from the vantage point of history, we know that these incidents were not representative of the overwhelming majority of otherwise hard-working people. Likewise, a few rotten apples are not the reflection of the overwhelming majority of immigrants in Italy who are simply seeking a better life.

As far as economic conditions in the south, well, yes, they aren't good which is why one finds fewer immigrants there. Nevertheless, all over Italy, over the past 20 years, I have seen an increase in the number of immigrants filling service positions -- cooks, waiters, home aids, hotel workers, etc. and also trades -- plumbers, nurserymen, electricians, etc. In many ways, they are filling the backbone of an economy that is driven by small manufacturing and tourism. Where are the Italians to do these jobs?       

I don't know where you are writing from, but I've lived a good deal of my life in Italy and in New York City (where 40% of the population is foreign-born and when you take the children of immigrants, then 75% of the population is "new" American). I don't share your point of view, because I don't think it's based in reality. And, as far as the barbaric invasions after the collapse of the Roman Empire, well, last time I checked those barbarians were from present day Germany.  So, watch carefully for the barbarians from the north...

And it should be pointed out that not surprisingly much of this fear of immigrants comes from the north and the Lega Nord, which also hates its country's south.

 

sssksadk
sssksadk

I don't disagree with the facts you mention about non WHITE-ANGLO-SAXON-PROTESTANT immigrants in USA during past centuries. Please read my comment  again.

What you cannot understand is that immigrants are NOT useful to Europe because there are there are NOT positions for them. A modern society needs highly educated people not Muslim jihadists. The idea of Italians having more children is out of date. Look at the high rates of unemployment in Southern Europe. More people are a danger to economy and will lead the infrastructures to collapse.

Muslim immigrants are a danger to Europe. Look at the terrorist acts to London or Spain or the riots in France and Scandinavia. Even Britain doesn't want them any more. The reason is simple. Muslim immigrants do NOT want to integrate and they use democratic institutions in order to impose their (islamic) laws and way of life.

From the European POV this lind of immigration is similar only to the barbaric invasions of the 3rd and 4th century that lead to the collapse of the Roman Empire and the civilization. Muslim immigrants in Europe will create a new period of dark ages.

lavendula
lavendula

@sssksadk I think it is you who don't want to see the similarities, which far outnumber the differences. You are looking at early 20th century Italian immigration to the US from the point of someone 100 years removed. You need to look at it in context. To me, all of this is about how different groups are perceived, and  Italian immigrants to the USA and the many other places they went were NOT considered at the time they immigrated to be even remotely similar to white Americans or doing any of the great things you think they were doing. (Read any early 20th century newspaper or magazine and you will learn what white people thought of this "invasion" of "backward" "undesirable" "smelly" "inherently criminal" people who failed to assimilate...). This is not a matter of my opinion; it is basic fact culled from the historic record. Actually, if you knew the history, you would see how absolutely ludicrous your entire comment is.  

So, back to my basic point: Italians, more than any national group in Europe, should be more inclined to understand and welcome immigrants by virtue of the fact that over 26 million people emigrated from Italy between 1870 and 1970 (and tens of thousands since 1970). Given that they were generally ill-received in many of the places they went should give them a level of empathy in regards to immigrants that I would not expect from other Europeans. But, of course, all of this demands that people know their history, and that takes effort and courage. 

And, if at the end of the day Italians can't find it in themselves to accept foreigners (not even, because we're talking about in many cases people born on their own soil), then maybe they should start having 5 or 6 children per family as they used to and filling all the jobs necessary to keep a modern society afloat... but I guess it's better to blame those we can label outsiders as opposed to ourselves, right?!

sssksadk
sssksadk

You don't want to see the important differences between

A) the Italian (or Greek or Spanish etc.) immigration in USA and

B)The immigration of African or Asian muslims in Europe.

Europeans who were immigrating in America had an almost common religion, were familiar with the law system and wanted to start a new life adopting the Amerina way of life. Also USA needed them as cheap labor force and had the right to deport anyone who didn't meet certain criteria.

African and Asian muslims immigrating in Europe follow a religion that is also a way fo life entirely different from the European way (human rights, laws, female staus etc). They (muslims) do not want to integrate, and are not needed as labor force. Also the European countries are acussed as "racist" if they deport those who illegally enter the country.

The immigration flows of African and Asian muslims resemble more to an invasion and not immigration

Big_Bear
Big_Bear

@sssksadk:  Multi-cult is part and parcel of dopey Utopianism spawned by a Lazy Age in which resources are plentiful.

Europe has always been tribal.  When the resources begin to run out, and the realization that these debts will never be paid back becomes too obvious to hide, Europe will revert back to tribalism.  Throwing in more tribes will only exacerbate the problem.

Maurizio
Maurizio

@WhiteDawn1488 @mittengirl @haploguy What the hell are you talking about? Haploguy is just right, and Europe was built by Europeans of course, but "europeans" as such only exist in the ignorant mind of the average US citizen. Europeans as a nation don't exist, they are italians, brits, spaniards, swedes, russians and so on. And every one of this countriesd was built by its respective population.

PoliticallyIncorrect
PoliticallyIncorrect

I'm glad they passed HB56.

Now they need to start reporting, deported, and confiscating property.