Racism is a Boomerang….

The more than fifty-year-old Italian ARCI (Associazione Ricreativa e Culturale Italiana) is launching a new campaign against racism and homophobia in Italy. Their poster appears below:


The Rome-based ARCI was founded in Florence in 1957 with the purpose of encouraging the diffusion of democratic values and fighting “nazifascismo,” which is a single concept in country that was governed by both Nazis and Fascists during WWII.

The caption on the poster reads:

“You call us dirty nigger and stinking lesbian, but you’re offended if someone says Italian are gangsters. Racism is a boomerang. Sooner or later it’ll come back to hit you.”

The semiotic approach of the campaign is pretty intriguing. What’s useful to know by way of background is that “razzismo” is used in Italy to mean “discrimination” or “bigotry” of all kinds and not just race-based prejudice. Thus someone who degrades or disparages women or gay people (or Sicilians, for that matter) can be considered “racist.”

There’s both a certain efficiency and an immense danger of oversimplification in smooshing issues together in that way, and I have to admit I still wince when I hear an Italian use “racist” when a good old “homophobe” or “sexist” would do nicely (and both words exist in Italian).

The other thing the campaign takes for granted, which a non-Italian might or might not immediately grasp, is the degree to which Italians are offended by the assumption that Italian culture (as the popular saying would have it) can be summed up as “pizza, mandolins, and the mafia.”

The Italic Studies Institute of American (“Guardian of the Italian Heritage”), for example, issued a study in 2002 in which they analyzed 1,233 American films made since 1928 and concluded that 69% “portrayed Italians in a negative light.” Of the films analyzed, 40% depicted Italians as “mob characters,” with the remaining 60% of the negative portrayals divided among “boors, buffoons, bigots or bimbos.”

When The Sopranos arrived in Italy in 2001 (with record TV audience shares—about 10 million viewers—for the series’ premiere), Italians seemed to take it a bit less seriously than did Italo-Americans, but I suspect that’s largely because the series dealt with Americans first and foremost. Italians are well aware that Italian-Americans have almost nothing to do with Italians, and they’re not entirely unwilling to believe that America is a four-million-square-mile-wide crime zone (so much so, in fact, that the media are likely to refer to any incident involving a troubled neighborhood or a violent protest in Italy as the “Far West,” “the Bronx,” or “Fort Apache”).

In any case, there’s no question that the association rankles, and ARCI’s obvious attempt is to suggest that negative stereotyping comes from a similar place, regardless of the target.

Frankly, I’m enthusiastic about the attempt to educate the public that racial/ethnic prejudice and homophobia are related in their consequences (if not necessarily in their source). For decades, the LGBTQ movement in the U.S. (even back when it was just “the gay movement”) has tried hard to associate itself with the traditional civil-rights movement, and it has always been a hard sell.

Similarly, attempts to equate homophobia with racism have met with mixed success in the states, not least because of a few insulting, ham-handed attempts to draw parallels between Harvey Milk and Martin Luther King or to compare queer protesters under arrest with Rosa Parks. We’re seeing some of the results of that failure in the current same-sex marriage debate.

Meanwhile, the history of dealing with cultural prejudice and the “-isms” is so different in Italy (which has never had what one might reasonably call a “civil rights movement”), that I wonder if ARCI might not just be on to something.

I’m a little less convinced by ARCI’s claim that the new posters will “appear all over Italy,” since I’ve heard that song before (see my piece on the Tuscan Region’s “Sexual Orientation is Not A Choice campaign back in 2007—those posters were also supposed to go up “all over Tuscany,” but I never saw a single one in a public place.)

ARCI’s own distribution efforts aside, it’s hard to know how much attention the campaign is going to get in Italian schools or the media. Not much, would be my prediction, but I’d be happy to be wrong. On the other hand, over the last year the Italian government has whipped up so much racism (in the Italian sense of the word) that a national response by a respected organization would be more than welcome.

Personally, I can’t wait to see what Mara Carfagna, the ex-cover girl turned Minister for Equal Opportunity, will make of ARCI’s campaign. If she’s smart, she’ll ignore it, but the Italian right-wing is feeling more than usually testy lately, and she’s just likely, as Italians put it, to miss a perfect opportunity to keep her mouth shut.


Posted on 24 June 2009, in Berlusconistan, Queer ... Plus All Those Acronyms, You Can Always Count on a Little Homophobia and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. >I've seen it in Rome, Wendell, on one of those twirling columns at Termini station that usually have PdL propaganda (bad) or David Beckham's groin (photoshopped but intriguing, so, on the whole, good). Oddly enough, it hasn't yet hit the provinces of deepest Lazio. But I'm sure it will (ho ho).

  2. >Nice poster. At least some organization in Italy is making some attempts to fight "razzismo." (You don't see posters like that very much in the U.S.) And an interesting article, Wendell, but I don't understand why you say that it's "insulting" to draw parallels between MLK and Milk.

  3. >Lisa, welcome to the blogosphere; you made it. Good question. I could have put it better, I suppose: I don't think there's anything wrong with "drawing parallels." I do think there's a problem suggesting that Milk and King were parallel leaders in parallel movements. Milk was a fantastic and important figure, but he wasn't leading a national movement; in fact, we know about him and rightly claim him now as a leader more because of what his assassination meant and because of what the example of his life ushered in and less because of what he accomplished in his lifetime. No doubt, he'd have done more, had he lived. And it bugs me also because I continue to believe that racism is sine qua non, and that there's an essential distinction to be made between membership in a "minority" group that anyone can read on your skin and one in which many (probably most) of the group's members remain invisible, by choice or simply as a result of the heterosexual presumption. At least, that's how I'm thinking about it today….

  4. >Yes, I see your points. But, although Milk never gained the national notoriety that King did, he was still fighting for the rights of gay people on a national level in the sense that he tried to help out other states (Florida) who were in the throws of homophobic legislation. Also, I'm not convinced that it's worse to be discriminated against because of the color of your skin than it is because of your sexual orientation–at least not in the long run. The inability to hide from "razzismo" seems to lead (if you look at it historically) to a confrontation that usually results in its demise.

  5. >Oh and send me that poster so I can put it up in my classroom. My 9th graders are terribly homophobic.

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