This week in Italian racism, senator and anti-immigration campaigner Roberto Calderoli has said that Italy’s first black minister, Cécile Kyenge, resembles an orangutan. Speaking at a rally, Calderoli painted Ms. Kyenge’s success as bad news for Italy, claiming her prominence will only encourage “illegal immigrants.” Unfortunately he didn’t stop there. According to the BBC he went on to say: ”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.”
The upset does nothing for Italy’s fast growing notoriety for virulent racism — remember this picture of Mario Balotelli, or the racist chants that prompted Kevin Prince Boateng‘s walkout? And it is only the latest in a string of attacks on Kyenge which were, much like this one, a toxic cocktail of racism and sexism. When Kyenge was appointed to head Italy’s Integration Ministry in April 2013, Dolores Valandro a member of the anti-immigrant Northern League, wrote that Kyenge should be raped, while another party member warned that Kyenge would impose ”tribal traditions” on the nation.
It must be hard for haters to see such a shining example of exactly the kind of people they want to legislate against — non-white migrants. At 19 years-old Kyenge moved to Italy from DRC to study medicine: she paid her own way through medical school, worked at home as a caregiver, built a career as an ophthalmologist, established a family, and cemented a reputation in center-left politics as a tireless advocate for migrant rights that led to her inclusion in Italy’s cabinet. Her success plus her position make it difficult to ignore the reality of multicultural Italy.
Before we lay this to rest with some sage words from Kyenge herself, it’s worth exposing the colonial roots of the comparison that Calderoli reached for. The science that justified the maltreatment of Africans on which colonialism and the slave trade were established claimed that black Africans were just a step up from primates in the “Great Chain of Being.” The various versions of this hierarchy, in which Caucasian Europeans are always right at the top, has left a long bibliography. In 1677 Dr. William Petty, one of the founders of the The Royal Society, claimed that Africans were the “missing link” between Caucasian men and other organisms — notably the ape. Like Petty, European scientists of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries conveniently decided that “savages” had been brought into the world to serve and follow the will of superior beings. When Calderoli works himself into a froth over Italy’s first black minister, it’s with the assumption that this particular “savage” has forgotten her place in the hierarchy. In Europe, racist thinking dies hard.
The best response to all this comes from Cécile Kyenge herself speaking on contemporary identity: “no one should be ashamed of who they are. I have never been ashamed of my economic situation or my position, my skin colour or my curly hair. I am Italian, and I am Congolese.”
Postscript: Unlike a number of a news publications (BBC, Huffington Post, The Independent), we’re leading with a picture of Roberto Calderoli because it’s his racism and wrongdoing which is the topic of discussion here, not Ms. Cécile Kyenge’s face.