I’ve been mulling over whether I should write this blog post for a while now. What has prevented me from writing this post up to date has been down to my own love for Italy and Italian culture, coupled with the warm reception I’ve received. I found it hard to accept that a country so splendid and rich in its history and culture could sometimes be culturally ignorant towards others, and so for a long time I tried to ignore this, in order to leave my idealised perception untarnished.
The more conversation and interactions I have with people however, the more I realise how sheltered and underexposed Italians are to different cultures. Certainly coming from two very diverse heritages and being raised in London were practically all of my friends throughout primary and secondary school were of different ethnic backgrounds, I understand how I may take for granted, the diversity which has essentially been delivered on my doorstep. Italy has remained a very homogenous race for a large part of its existence and the solidified notions of ‘casa mia‘ and ‘straniero‘ have definitely congealed. So approaching the topic from this standpoint, armed with the force of my personal experiences, let me just get this out there now: No, I don’t think Italians are racist. Culturally prejudice? Well, that’s a whole other question.
Italians have a fixation with cultural background and so much so that I feel sometimes, as a stranger looking in, one might mistake Italians for being very patriotic. True it is that Italians are very aware and proud of their rich cultural heritage, but wrong it would be to mistake this pride for their culture, beautiful cities and landscapes, delectable dishes and refined arts as nationalism, or a reflection of their love for the state. This dichotomy is one which I think lays heavy on many Italians’ hearts. From my experience of speaking to ex-pat Italians in the UK, I cannot shake a pervading sense of lost hope for Italy, an Italy, which due to its multifaceted issues, has let down the young generation, has failed to provide them with a secure future. Living in Sicily for the last 4 months however, I have found that there still remains in the breast of Italians a strong bitter-sweet sense of ‘duty’ towards their homeland, especially amongst the older generation. It is both this bouncing self-identity and flushed disenchantment that plays a part in shaping the Italians’ conception of race and culture .
A story was once recounted to me of a Romanian woman who used to work as a cleaner. This particular individual was described as being dishonest, uncivilised and duplicitous. What particularly bothers me about these types of stories is the fact that the race of the (non-Italian) individuals involved is always outlined, why is that? If I am telling a story of a person who is to be deemed ‘bad’, I assume that the same effect of out-rage could be evoked, irrespective of where they come from. Consequently, I can only assume then that by consciously choosing to delineate the race of the individual that it adds something more to the story.
In Italy, it seem that the fairly rooted associations with race and culture precedes the expectations of the individual. Even within Italy, the cultural discrepancies between the North and the South can inspire prejudice. It seems only natural given that the Italians’ strong cultural heritage plays a big role in their own self-image, that Italians are then very preoccupied by the idea of cultural heritage and how it may be a reflection of an individual’s self worth. Unfortunately however, this has the possibility of resulting in the spiralling cycle of prejudice. If you only have that one story of the Romanian woman who stole, it becomes easy to project that single narrative unjustly onto every other Romanian person you meet.
Anytime I am introduced by one of my Italian friends, I am first introduced as ‘English’, although I would consider myself to be British. I’ve found that the idea of being ‘British’ is difficult to grabble with because it doesn’t seem to pertain to a specific individual race or culture (that said, many Italians I have met, especially in the South, seem to conceptualise the UK as being just England), but even when I am introduced as English, of course my complexion betrays me. So going into my racial profile, telling them that my mum is from Gambia (or whatever West African country pops into their mind if they’re having a hard time remembering it that day) and my dad is of Italian descent, we eventually arrive at full disclosure: I have Italian citizenship. Bam. It’s okay guys, no need to worry she’s one of us.
I often wonder how I would be treated if I had come to live in Italy directly from Africa. Would my Italian side still be valid? Would being an English mother-tongue still be appreciated? Without the association of being from England, would my societal worth be more or less?
After explaining to people where Gambia is, I am often followed up with the question, ‘are there any cities there?’ This image of Western Africa (in particular) as a ‘bush’, is still one which is quite prevalent, mainly because the principle, if not the only source of contact that Italians have with African and Asian countries seems to be through immigration– not first hand, but through the media. This distorted and often exploited image of immigrants as parasites coming to ‘steal jobs’ and ‘feed of the social welfare system’ is not limited to the Lega Nord political party supporters– much of the same dribble is diffused in the UK as well. Likewise, the fear of the ‘unknown’ or ‘different’ can be found everywhere– this is not just limited to Italy. The biggest difference, and therefore the biggest struggle that Italy faces, is lack of common-knowledge about other cultures (on a big scale). If communities continue to segregate themselves then these pigeonholes and ‘single narratives’ will also remain fixed.
As I mentioned earlier, Italy has been a very homogenous country for most of it’s existence, even during its time as both a colonial power and a colony. What makes Italy incredibly different to other colonial powers however, is that besides the exception of small parts of Switzerland and Somalia, no other country speaks Italian as a principal language. When an individual moves to a host country, they do not dismiss their cultural heritage, religion, traditions, language or customs, all that is bought along with them. This need therefore to ‘preserve’ this insular, monocultural country and language is what I think sometimes propels its xenophobia, and it is through this fear of running the risk of losing such an essential part of their identity that Italians often become sceptical and sometimes, wilfully ignorant towards other cultures.
Italy is a country of many of contradictions. Whilst it is a lawless one in many ways, the lack of attention paid to regulations, and the blind eyes turned in the bureaucratic system, the core societal values of Italian culture seem to strangely oblige Italians to be conformists in other aspects: wearing the same (local) fashion trends, eating the same Italian cuisine, celebrating the same festivals in the same mode, and generally sticking to people of the same social class. By nature, Italy traditionally isn’t a country where experiments, deviations and differences are easily embraced.
In Italy, I am ‘different’ for a number of reasons. I am of mixed-heritage, a muslim, a straniera, and I really couldn’t care less about the latest fashion trend. I have undoubtedly bought along with me my own values, traditions and beliefs in the same way as an immigrant does. I only have the privilege of being born in a country whose culture is one that is studied and accepted in doing so.
I am no way trying to squeeze all Italians into one box. I have been fortunate to meet individuals who are open-minded and intrigued to learn about my own cultural heritage. I have also been presented with the opportunities to pass on what knowledge I have of others’ cultures, be it through sharing my own values and beliefs, cooking a curry, wearing a head wrap, telling a story, or sharing a tradition. So no, Italy is not inherently sceptical of foreign cultures, and certainly what is learnt can be unlearnt.
Living in the globally connected world that we do, apathy and detachment is no longer a valid excuse for ignorance, living in casa mia is not a valid excuse for ignorance. It is our duty more now than anything to enlighten ourselves about other people’s cultures and beliefs– wherever we live. Everyone’s history and culture are worth knowing. Different doesn’t mean bad, different doesn’t mean dangerous, and poor doesn’t mean thief.
Ignorance is no longer an excuse.